Seagram’s 7 Crown: Then and Now

An iconic brand still alive and kicking

Seagram’s 7 Crown launched an interesting event last week — the first official National Dive Bar Day. No surprise that the launch date was 7/7. So, there’s lots to tell about the brand and this event. Let’s start with the event.

Dive Bars

Here’s how the folks at Diageo described this brand promotion:

“The Dive Bar is an American institution: where long-lasting memories are created, where people-watching is imperative, and where the greatest stories and a come-as-you-are attitude, live. Seagram’s 7 Crown will raise a glass to these historic hidden gems found across America, marking the first official National Dive Bar Day, fittingly taking place on July 7th, 2018 – in celebration of the quintessential Dive Bar drink, the 7&7.”

There are lots of definitions of a Dive Bar, some negative like this one in the Urban Dictionary: “A well-worn, unglamorous bar, often serving a cheap, simple selection of drinks to a regular clientele.” Whew, that’s mean.

The one that comes closest to what I think, is from my friend, Gaz Regan:

“Dive bars …. are bare bones joints where guests are treated equally whether they arrived wearing greasy overalls, or tuxedos … when the guest wants a quick shot and a beer before heading out to some swank affair. These places are great equalizers. The filing clerk can tell the CEO how to run the company better in a dive bar.  And in a real dive, the CEO will actually listen.”

Linking Seagram’s 7 and Dive Bars makes sense on many levels. First, the brand is an icon and an important part of America’s drinking history. It’s a natural link and since the purpose of Dive Bar Day is to support these places through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it makes sense.

In addition, Dive Bars suggest fun, camaraderie, and good times. According to Jason Sorley, Diageo Brand Director for Seagram’s 7, both the brand and Dive Bars have a storied past and have been an important part of the American drinking culture. (Here’s a list of the best dive bars in every state from Thrillist.)

Seagram’s 7 Crown

As I was doing my homework for this article, I walked into my favorite neighborhood package store and asked for a bottle. (Yeah, it’s been a long time since I bought one.) The owner, who’s a friend, looked at me as though I had lost my mind. “Seriously?” he said, “You come in for all kinds of fancy shmantzy whiskies and gins and now you want Seagram’s 7? I don’t carry that. I remember it but who drinks that these days?”

I grumbled something about how any store can fail to stock an American liquor icon and one that millions of folks remember as their drinking “training wheels.” In fact, for decades, the 7&7 (Seagram’s 7 and 7 Up) was the drink of choice for entry level drinkers. It tastes great and is easy to drink. But, alas, many other booze products have usurped that esteemed rite of drinking passage.

So, I for one am delighted that Diageo is working to bring that brand back.

Let’s Look at Some Numbers

One of the things that I’ve learned about the booze business is that it’s hard, if not impossible, to kill a brand based on its sales. Sure, a manufacturer can end the life of a brand, but, the marketplace itself will rarely if ever kill a brand.

According to the ex-Seagram people I spoke with who worked on the brand, at its peak, Seagram 7 Crown reached well over 8 million (9-litre) cases in the late 1970s. Even by 1990, when whiskies were losing dramatically to vodka, the brand sold close to 4 million cases. As to my retailer friend’s view that the brand is dead, guess what? Today Seagram’s 7 still sells in the 2 million case range. In fact, according to Shanken’s Impact, the brand is in the top 30 leading spirit brands in the US. So there, Mr. Retailer!

The Brand’s History

To stay with the numbers for a moment…

Seagram’s 7 was the 1st brand ever to reach 1 million cases. The 1st to sell 100 million cases. And, over the years sold over 300 million cases in 1983. (See close up photo below.) We’re talking a multi-billion-dollar brand, boys and girls.

The back label of the commemorative bottle from the 300 million case celebration

As the story goes, after prohibition and before WWII, Seagram introduced two blended American Whiskies — Seagram 5 Crown and 7 Crown. Why the name Seagram 7? The apocryphal story is that Sam Bronfman (the Seagram patriarch, known as Mr. Sam) was presented with a range of candidate products for a blended whiskey and ended up choosing the one he liked — the 7th one presented to him.

Whatever happened to Seagram’s 5? During the Second World War the government asked distillers to cut back on alcohol production to aid the war effort. Seagram’s 5 was not doing as well as 7, so it was discontinued. Also, Seagram’s 5 was higher in alcohol at 86.8 proof.

How did the 7&7 come to be? (Another apocryphal story.) Well, those were the days when distributor sales reps tried to build brands rather than just fill orders. So, an aggressive sales rep thought it would be clever to link the 7 in 7up with Seagram’s 7. Much to his surprise it was great and the 7&7 was born.

Here’s What Else I Can Tell You

  1. At Seagram and since then, I’ve heard it referred to differently. Internally, we referred to the brand as 7 Crown. Among consumers and generally outside of Seagram it was called Seagram 7 or just plain ‘7.’
  2. The event linking the brand to Dive Bar Day was organized and run by Greg Leonard and his company Proof Media Mix. Greg is a former Seagram and Diageo PR and activation executive and, for my money, the best in the business at making ideas and events come alive,
  3. Did you know that Seagram’s 7 — a blended American Whiskey contains a large percentage of grain neutral spirits? Check the packaging, right on the front label it says “75 per cent Grain Neutral Spirits.” Even back in the day, GNS was a significant proportion of Seagram’s 7. In fact, the US regulations for blended whiskey allows a blend of straight whiskies and up to 80 percent neutral spirits.
  4. I’ve often heard it said that brands have a life cycle — from creation to maturity to decline, and ultimately gone. Maybe. Here’s a brand that had its heyday in the 1960s and 70s and is still alive and kicking. Like I said, manufacturers kill brands, consumers don’t.

*          *          *

I wish to thank the following people whose thoughts and experiences helped shape this article… Rob Warren, Greg Leonard, and John Hartrey. Special thanks to John for sharing his collection of Seagram memorabilia and photos. In fact, John has the dubious distinction of being the last Seagram’s 7 brand director at Seagram.

Diageo activation at the 2018 Firefly Music Festival  (Photo by Jack Dempsey)
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Amazon, Malfy Gin, and Building a Brand

First, an Update:

Last Friday, Wine and Spirits Daily reported that Mark Teasdale, CEO of Proximo Spirits is leaving to join Biggar & Leith, the company Founded by Elwyn Gladstone that markets Malfy Gin and Spytail Rum. Mark and Elwyn have previously worked together at Proximo and William Grant and collaborated on such new brands as Kraken Rum and Hendrick’s Gin, among many others.

I learned of this development after I wrote this article and it adds immensely to the story. Both these folks are top of the game spirits industry players. And, as you will see, Elwyn has already been doing amazing things with Malfy. So, this change builds on success and gives the company an even more important presence in the industry.

Leveraging the Power of Amazon and Direct-to-Consumer Sales

Malfy Con Limone Gin (the original product) is made in Italy from the luscious lemons of the Amalfi coast under the marketing and sales guidance of Elwyn, whose background includes senior positions at large spirits companies. (The original story on Elwyn and Malfy can be found here.)

I was wondering how Elwyn, with his large company experience, was making out with his fledging startup brand. So, last month, I checked in with him. He is, after all, one of the most creative and smart marketers I know. Could he transfer his skills honed at large spirits companies to a startup? In particular, I wanted to know how the brand was received by distributors. Would he get the same attention with Malfy as he got with Hendrick’s?

Little did I know when I reached out to Elwyn, that this journey is most unusual and a case study on how to beat the system and build a brand despite obstacles.

How is Malfy Doing?

After only just a few years in the market, the brand is on track to do over 185,000 6-pack cases in the US and around the world — the UK, other European markets, South and Central America, South Africa and elsewhere. He has lots of room to grow geographically and his re-order rates are impressive.

In the US, the brand is among the top 10 Super-Premium Gin in Nielsen (brands that cost more than $25 per bottle) growing at over 300% and on track to hit a top 5 position. The brand is distributed by Infinium Spirits in the US, and based on the aforementioned, I’d say they are paying attention to the brand.

He has also introduced a range of gin products. The US has the first launched Con Limone, and recently introduced Originale, a traditional gin. Outside the US, the Malfy Gin line also includes Gin Rosa, a Sicilian pink grapefruit gin, and Con Arancia, gin made with Sicilian blood oranges. He and Infinium Spirits will introduce these other gin line extensions in July.

That’s only part of the story—enter Amazon

It is fairly common for a new brand to look to the rest of the world (especially Europe) as a way to build a brand and generate sales, while waiting for the US market to wake up. What happens is that an importer is contacted, who probably has a stable of brands, and the wait for growth traction overseas becomes another frustration.

But not for Elwyn and Malfy Gin. I asked him, “How come you’re doing so well in the UK?”

The answer? Amazon and direct-to-consumer sales.

According to Elwyn, “The absence of a mandatory 3-tier system coupled with a robust purchase and delivery system creates a strong platform for direct to drinker sales. But, more important, Amazon provides the opportunity for the brand owner to use all sorts of marketing efforts and truly remain the guardian of their brand.”

In the UK and Germany, he is selling over 1,000 bottles per month and growing.

Let’s take a closer look at Amazon and liquor sales.

But, first, let’s cover a few noteworthy things about Amazon and spirits:

  • As I’m sure you known (but for those who don’t) Amazon does not sell direct to consumers in the US. They tried to with wine but that ended when they acquired Whole Foods.
  • Outside the US, it is the importer who sells to Amazon, but in Elwyn’s case, he has been the driving force influencing importers to use Amazon.
  • The markets where Amazon is currently selling booze are limited to the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy. But they are rapidly opening other markets.

 

Amazon — distributor and retailer

If you talk to US distributors about Amazon, you’ll hear two views, a public and private one.

The expected and public view is, “Nobody ever built a brand on Amazon.” That’s currently true but, certainly, brand building overall in the US has changed and, for fledgling brands, the growth comes from the consumer themselves, more than the trade. That’s why privately, many distributors express concern about direct sales in general and Amazon in particular.

Recommendations from bartenders and store people are important but so is word-of-mouth among drinkers themselves. As to Amazon’s role here, Elwyn suggests,

“Think of Amazon’s product page as the world’s most efficient shelf-talker and neck-tag information booklet… including reviews from hundreds of consumers, press and PR, recipes, photos, and more. And, let’s not forget the simple star ratings based on thousands of people.”

Clearly, Elwyn has spent quite a bit of time trying to understand Amazon and its power to build and sell spirits brands so I asked him to further share his marketing and sales thoughts. After all, Malfy has become a top 10 best-selling gin, surpassing many household name brands including Hendrick’s.

Here is what he has learned about the power of Amazon and the role of the internet in general:

  1. The brand owner is in control. Once establishing your ownership with Amazon, you can appoint people who can manage the site/sales, but the brand is firmly in your hands.
  2. Brand sales drivers. Of course, product credentials (brand name, packaging, etc.) are important but Amazon also allows an owner to:
  • Put up consumer reviews, so that the more frequent and better the review, the higher the brand appears in searches.
  • Use key words, that also drive how well a brand does in searches on Amazon.
  • Advertise via sponsored ads.
  • The use of brand photos, which is a huge driver and there are ways to test which photographs work best.
  1. Sales data. Amazon in the UK provides easily accessible data on brand sales ranking for all brands within a given category.
  2. A level playing field. This is ideal for smaller brands inasmuch as the big boys cannot muscle them out as they can in stores with multiple facings, optimum shelf space and, well, plain old clout.
  3. More effective promotions. Amazon provides quicker and easier ways to manage and measure the impact of promotional activities.
  4. Tastings are more cost effective. The current approach at retail can easily cost $200 per session and the reach is limited. Amazon offers the opportunity to purchase sample boxes so consumers can buy a bunch of miniatures. It’s also a better use of the brand owner’s time than standing around a retail store doing tastings.
  5. Enhanced recommendations and word of mouth. According to Elwyn, the Amazon approach may just surpass a recommendation from a bartender or store-keeper. (See the earlier comment about the Amazon page strengths.)
  6. Making it easier to reach the on-premise trade. Those of you involved in the bar trade can relate what a nuisance it is to order a new brand from a startup. Amazon provides the ability to order any brand listed, including a single bottle

*          *          *

In sum, the Amazon — non-USA — platform is a powerful brand building and sales device. The brand owner stays in complete control, the tools available can provide an effective means for reaching a very wide audience, all efforts and expenditures are easily tracked and effectiveness measured, and, it is amazingly cost effective.

It is, of course, interesting to speculate whether the US will eventually go this way and create the same opportunities for the small producer as in Europe. My answer is NO, we have a 3-tier system, which is unlikely to go away, and direct-to-consumer transactions remain difficult if not impossible.

Elwyn Gladstone’s approach to building his overall and global brand business is incredibly sound both strategically and tactically. While he overcomes obstacles and patiently waits for the US business to take hold, he is leveraging the available resources outside the US to provide the wherewithal to help and to build his brand in the rest of the world.

I told you he was smart.

*          *          *

Elwyn Gladstone

My thanks to Elwyn Gladstone for taking the time to share his efforts and thinking with me for this article.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section at the very end of this article or in an email to arthur@boozebusiness.com

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Black Fig Vodka: A Star is Born

The World’s Only Fig-Infused Premium Spirit

Black Fig is a vodka infused with figs, but far from a flavored vodka. Actually, it’s a Distilled Spirit Specialty whereby actual California figs (roughly a pound per bottle) are naturally infused in a neutral grain spirit (NGS) without added sugar or additives.

From what I can tell, this is a home run and has everything going for it right out of the gate—a great tasting product, a unique concept, an incredible cocktail addition, and a passionate owner who knows what he’s doing.

Consider this:

Michael Davidson, the owner and CEO of Black Infusions, walks into a top restaurant and approaches the F&B manager, who promptly tells him he has no time to speak to him. Michael’s combined chutzpah and Boston charm convinces the manager to give him 10 seconds and “just taste this.” He does and the next thing you know they’re talking for half an hour about cocktails, using Black Fig in food recipes, and a large order for the product is placed.

He gets into one of the Total Wine & More stores and conducts a tasting and quickly sells out the three cases he brought—18 bottles in 45 minutes.

At ABC Kitchen in NYC, a distributor sales rep (MS Walker) pitches the brand, does a tasting, and the Food & Beverage Manager falls in love with it. The next thing Michael knows, Black Fig Martini is on the cocktail menu. They sell 25 to 30 (6-pack) cases a month.

I can go on but I think you get the picture. One sip of this product and you’re hooked. So, let’s take a closer look. (By the way, the brand won Double Gold at the 2017 San Francisco Spirits Competition.)

About the owner

Michael Davidson is a born and bred Bostonian who left his successful family business to follow his dream to launch a spirit brand he came across. He was at a Mediterranean restaurant owned by a friend who served a homemade drink consisting of dried figs soaked in vodka. “That’s vodka? This tastes like liquid fig,” said Michael.

A light bulb went on and, after more than two years in development, the product was ready for market. Over the course of that time, a formula/recipe was developed, a contract bottler was engaged, legal issues were addressed, distributors were found, drink recipes created—and, a brand was born.

Michael is a unique kind of guy. I’ve met scores of startup entrepreneurs but he has most of them beat with his thirst for knowledge and information about the booze business; his willingness to make a difficult decision and still change gears when necessary; and, his understanding that without marketing and sales, a product cannot succeed. Above all, I’m very impressed with his passion for the brand and the business.

I’ve met with Michael a number of times in restaurants and he’s fun to watch as he gently but effectively pitches Black Fig. He listens, a trait many wannabe spirit entrepreneurs need to learn.

He’s gotten the brand into 12 markets with a number of distributors, most notably M.S. Walker, and some top on-premise accounts (ABC Kitchen, Bobby Van’s, Mistral, and more) and off-premise accounts, (Wegman’s, Total Wine & More, Whole Foods to name a few). The brand is currently available in the northeast, mainly New England and parts of the mid-Atlantic.

The product

In a word—amazing. As soon as you open the bottle, the aroma of the figs comes pleasantly through. It’s great straight and on the rocks, and you won’t believe what it does to a cocktail. But let’s start with the basics.

Black Fig is an artisanal product distilled with neutral grain spirit and naturally infused with California figs (about a pound per bottle) in small batches. It is 60 proof (30 AbV) and made without artificial sugars, flavors or colors. And, since the NGS (vodka) is made from corn, it is gluten-free and Kosher if that interests you. The product sells for around $30 per 750ml, depending on where you live.

Ah, but the real joy of this product is it’s mixability and versatility—it plays nicely with other ingredients and enhances your favorite cocktail like a Black Fig Martini, a Fig Mojito, Mediterranean Mule, or a Black Fig Old Fashioned. Michael also has quite a number of drinks that he invented like the Fig Flower, the Black Dragon and many more that you’ll find on his recipe page.

Black Fig martini

The Future and Challenges

Michael “gets it,” and knows that as a small startup he has to work night and day to increase traction and break through the clutter. One of his favorite expressions is, “Sometimes I feel like I’m screaming from the bottom of the Grand Canyon and trying to get heard.”

But by far, his greatest challenge is being a one-man show. To succeed and grow, he will need to get some sales help, focus his time and energy on things that have the greatest return on the investment of his time, and probably both.

He literally does everything but has some marketing help (conventional and digital) from a very sharp woman named Kalen Junda. Kalen is an entrepreneur in her own right and runs a small marketing company called the Tobe Agency. In my view she is also a rising star.

Among the things I admire about Michael is that he’s not falling into the “startup trap” of expanding markets before he’s ready and thereby spreading his financial and other resources very thin. But that doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about the future.

Down the road, he would like to move into southern and western markets. Hey, come on, a Black Fig product made with California figs? He’s got to be in the Golden State.

He is also thinking about what comes next and has decided on a line extension that he’s not yet ready to reveal publicly. He’s told me about it, sworn me to secrecy, and I know it will also be a home run. I guess I’ll just have to keep following and writing about him and see where this journey takes him.

I’ll just sum it up by quoting another favorite expression from Michael, which he got from VinoTapa restaurant’s drink menu— “Go fig or go home.”

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