“It will never sell” vs. “You never know”

I was chatting with James Espey the other day and the subject of Baileys Irish Cream came up. For those of you who don’t know him or of him, suffice to say that James is a legend in the spirits industry as a very senior manager that has successfully run companies, categories and brands. In addition to creating the Keepers of the Quaich (see Sept. 28, 2010 posting) James’ innovation history includes the invention of Malibu, significant involvement in Baileys and much more.

He is still at it with a range of new and unique ventures including Last Drop Distillers among other ventures.

Anyway, the subject turned to what it takes for a brand to withstand the naysayers (generally corporate types who are risk adverse and would rather buy than create) and the prognosticators (the self proclaimed experts at prediction of success and failure). James told me the story of a well known industry observer who took one look at the Baileys idea and proclaimed, “that s**t will never sell.” Well, the forecast was wrong but never mind, that gent went on to make millions in the industry anyhow.

The Baileys story I had heard came from the late Jerry Mann (former Seagram CEO) right after I took over new products. His advice began with a typical Jerry Mann comment. “Listen pal,” he said between puffs, “in this business, you just never know what will sell and what won’t.”

It seems that when Jerry was running a distributor operation in California a friend called and asked for a favor, which was to buy some 5,000 cases of this new cream liqueur. He thought it was doomed for failure but a friend asked a favor and Jerry complied. As he put it, “we stuck the crap in the back of the warehouse and forgot all about it.” Then one day out of the blue, a sales manager called and informed him that retailers were clamoring for “that crap at the back of the warehouse.”

7 million cases per year later, despite ups and downs, lower priced knock-offs and diet and weight concerns, Baileys is still going strong and a true global brand.

According to James, it was launched using a well thought out new product approach, a strong dedicated team, management commitment and an understanding of consumer needs and wants. Which I believe gave the brand its momentum. Once you get momentum, boys and girls, even a large bureaucratic behemoth can’t slow you down.

Just ask Seagram’s 7 Crown.

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