How Blue Apron Drove Product Success in a Changing Market

Linda Kozlowski is comfortable with unpredictability. She started her career in communications and consulting with a focus on crisis and issues management. In that role, she had to take something difficult and/or traumatic and explain it to people in an easy-to-understand manner, anticipating uncomfortable questions along the way. 

Even after she pivoted to marketing, she still found herself thriving in chaotic environments. In fact, she says she’s most comfortable when she’s uncomfortable. For her, the best products take a complex process and make it intuitive and easy for the user to complete. During her time at companies like Alibaba, Evernote, Etsy, and now as the CEO of Blue Apron, she realized that all of these companies did one thing successfully, which made them able to thrive even in unpredictable markets. And that common thread was a holistic mindset about the customer journey, with multiple customer touchpoints built into each stage.

At the Pendomonium Virtual conference, Linda shared how Blue Apron was able to thrive in spite of the many challenges of COVID-19 by relying on its customer-centric strategy.

Physical + digital products = a winning recipe

Before joining the Blue Apron team, Linda had tried out all of their competitors. In her opinion, the Blue Apron meal kit offered the best physical product, with the freshest and healthiest ingredients, tastiest recipes, and superior delivery to the customer. That was where their competitive advantage lies. However, she quickly realized that the physical product — their differentiator — could not exist independently of the digital one. In fact, customers could only receive their physical products (the meal kits) via interacting with their online product (the Blue Apron site). A holistic view of the customer journey would require a strong understanding of how users were interacting with both sides of product coin.

So, she turned to Blue Apron’s customer insights team to understand more about the challenges they faced and how to move the customer experience forward. Luckily, they had plenty of data on their hands. Since its launch in 2012 as the first meal kit delivery company in the US, they’d been tracking both digital data and customer feedback on the physical product. Also, their Voice of the Customer program was incredibly robust and looked at all touchpoints across the business. As a result, the team was able to build out in-depth customer personas and a detailed segmentation framework that would become the basis of their product strategy.

A user framework

Why do people sign up for Blue Apron meal kits? Is it convenience? A love of cooking? A need for greater meal variety? The answers to this question served as the foundation for their psychographic user profiles. The two groups the team initially focused on were Enthusiasts and Aspirers. To meet the needs of these cooking fans, their meals took 45 minutes to an hour to prepare and involved complex techniques.

At first, they believed this was their “sweet spot.” However, they soon discovered that many Blue Apron customers were Avoiders, or people who wanted to cook but thought it took too much time/effort. They were optimizing for cooks, not for individuals who wanted great food but a lower burden. And this turned out to be a huge opportunity for them. As a result, they began to evolve the product, reducing prep times and assuming less knowledge of advanced cooking techniques. 

In combination with these psychographic profiles, the Blue Apron team dug into data with regard to cooking occasions. When are users making these recipes? They came up with a few different recipe types: Pinch Hitter, Give Me Something Different, Teach Me Something New, and Support Lifestyle. By combining psychographic segments with occasion data, they’re able to put the ideal menus together and design the digital experience accordingly.

From segmentation to strategy

For evolving their business, they built a three-part strategy: who, what, and how:

  • Who: key psychographic segments, health-conscious individuals, empty nesters and singles living alone, individuals with significant income who like to cook
  • What: occasions, variety, health, and flexibility
  • How: marketing and partnerships, the digital arm of the product

Their main strategic lever is the product itself. By adjusting their product, they make marketing more effective and increase their conversion rate. The team is constantly comparing their meal kits to those of competitors and looking for differentiators. They even accelerated their product roadmap in Q1 of 2020, combining clarity of purpose with very specific criteria around health, variety, and flexibility.

How COVID impacted the menu

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, the product team’s accelerated roadmap put them in the best possible position to manage change about to come. However, they still faced a number of challenges. When the first shutdowns happened, the team saw a 29% increase in demand within 48 hours. This was completely unprecedented and they had to close shipping cycles to let the product catch up.

For their digital product, they quickly acquired additional server space to maintain service and scale as needed. Adjusting the physical product to meet the “new normal” was far more difficult. After all, they couldn’t just make more food out of thin air. Also, they had to keep employees safe and make sure boxes were packed in a sanitary environment.

The first thing the team did was simplify their operations. They reduced the number of recipes in order to pack more boxes in less time. And most importantly, they didn’t forget about their segmentation. Right away, they went directly to customers and asked what they needed during this time. Utilizing their customer learnings, they optimized for more food, shorter prep time, and more sends per week.

Looking to the future, the Blue Apron team sees opportunities to double-down on things that are important to customers and to them as a business. Things like sanitation and animal welfare are now at the forefront of customers’ minds. Currently, they have the highest standards in the industry. Now, they are working to elevate those messages in both their digital and physical products.