Brand Building Via A Category Portfolio
By John Henry

Photo by Steph Goralnick, Courtesy of PDT

The elusive “brand building process.” What does it take to succeed? Cash? Russian oil money? Scandinavian potatoes? Clawing solo up the greased mountain to distinguish one brand’s diamond dust filtration or crystal skull from the rest? How did the 2oth Century American Master Sidney Frank (rest his soul and his dozen Dunkin’ Donuts a day habit) do it with long shot Jaegermeister, and then do it again with the lightning in a bottle Grey Goose in a mere seven years…then finally rest a year or so after sharing all that wealth? (Theory: Perhaps it had something to do with years of suffering and excommunication from his in-laws, ruling liquor scions, The Schenley Family).

To paraphrase Lennon and McCartney: What does it take to do it on the street?

I had the fortune of working on Maker’s Mark from the late nineties to the mid ‘00’s.
Now that was a brand who truly believed that if the waters of the whole Bourbon category tide would rise so too would Maker’s. Plus it was a brand built on the pillar of active listening. It charted its own steady course of “blue flame growth”, plus throughout ownership changes it kept a stellar team which firmly buoyed it on the dock and stayed the course. Still does. Nothing mythical here fellow ferrymen. Maker’s will hit a million cases this year. And are even finally introducing a limited release expression, the elegant and wry Maker’s 46.

We worked hard to teach Bourbon 101 seminars and preach the faith of the whole category from Day 1 back in our day. Never talked any brands down. Even trusted Old Granddad and the Wild Turkey. Today Bourbon remains a solid –even surging –worldwide category in the most difficult of economic tides, post Prohibition Depression. Maybe it worked?

Having attended the stellar WhiskeyLive event hosted by Whiskey Magazine this past April at Chelsea Piers, I thought back to some of those enlightened and fresh early days of true brand discovery. This event had just the right crowd, old and new, and just the right space to really enjoy a wee dram and the company. Plus a few years behind it to work out the kinks. Anyone remember the first at Tavern on the Green? Each brand now was now assuming its rightful place and with ample space showing its unique offerings. Bourbons, Scotches, malts and more. As the sun set over the river out there in the swamps of Jersey. May the tides now rise over the Hudson Valley artisans.

It truly reminded me of my own earlier days working with the Classic Malt portfolio from Diageo. We early Brand Ambassadors trained consumers and key bar and wait staff on the merits of the category and the star brands like Oban, Talisker and Lagavulin rose. As did competitors Macallan and Balvenie, Glenrothes and the rest. As it should be.

It remains a knock out, drop dead, slugging over the head game in the world of Vodka and Tequila today and it’s sad. Crystal heads will be broken. There are truly merits and delightful idiosyncrasies in each brand. Too bad that it’s the marketing folks hurling the missiles, agave and glass at each other. Lord knows, we all miss the true marketing genius of Sidney Frank. I try to raise a glass to him every day riding a Grey Goose in heaven.

Gin is such a more enlightened spirit in their approach to market. Look at the great work that legendary bar educator Simon Ford has done with Plymouth, and now with Beefeater and fellow brands for Pernod Ricard. He minces no words, only sloe gin berries. He leads the best excursions in the business –and in luxury buses, no less, with fully stocked bars worthy of a backstage diva. Who wraps up Tales better? Frankly, he is the guru of the modern brand builders as he sees it’s all in the Canterbury Tale-like a magical mystery excursion. Plus he has bartender chops, sensibilities and attention to detail. Loyalty to his brands is never in question. His cocktails list placements remain as permanent as a cherry in the Manhattan. This patient reader is brand-building.

The collaborative, enlightened and educational approach to building a brand category does indeed do the best long term, rooted and organic individual brand-building.

There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us. Somewhere, somehow, we’ll find a new way of working together…May the spring tide rise. And forever sun rise on great brand smiths like Simon.

More on this from the street in future dispatches.

To the street, let it flow.