Word of Mouth Marketing

The Key to Brand Building in the Booze Business

If you’ve been following this blog (or read my book) you know that, with some exceptions, I’m not a big fan of paid or mass advertising to build brands. In my view, it’s all about point of sale communications, the role of the ‘gatekeeper’ (bar, server, or store people) and consumer conversations.

Call it face-to-face marketing

In fact, there’s a terrific book on the subject called The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace. It was written by a longtime friend of mine, Ed Keller and his partner, Brad Fay when they ran the Keller Fay Group. The company is now part of Engagement Labs and Ed Keller is the CEO.

Ed Keller CEO Engagement Labs

The Keller Fay Group’s mission was to provide market research and consulting services based on consumer conversations. In 2015, the company merged with Engagement Labs and now offers a “total social”​ measurement solutions that integrates offline conversation with social media analytics. They bill themselves as “the world’s first TotalSocial® company.” They track, measure, and advise brands on how to understand and apply the insights they gain from consumer conversations.

Here’s a short YouTube video that will explain more.

Word of mouth and alcohol marketing

I’ve long felt that in this marketing environment, the key to a successful brand can be described as follows:

Discovery→ DISCUSSION→ Discernment→ Dissemination

Actually, before talking about this with Ed Keller, I hadn’t paid as much attention to the discussion aspect, when, in fact, consumer conversations can predict sales and marketers need to understand the dynamics. As Ed put it in a recent article on LinkedIn,

“Every brand needs to learn its unique social architecture to realize its full potential, and measuring and modeling is the best way to identify the drivers that will have the most significant impact on sales and other KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).”

Speaking of drivers, Engagement Labs focuses on four key drivers to create a single brand performance score that combine online social media data and offline conversations into their TotalSocial®.

  1. Volume—How much conversation a brand is building both on and offline.
  2. Sentiment—The extent to which that conversation is positive.
  3. Brand Sharing—How much content is being shared.
  4. Influence—In what way are consumer influencers engaged with the brand

In applying this, Engagement Labs ranked leading alcohol brands and learned, as a whole, the alcohol category is made up of so-called whisper brands, which are performing below average both on and offline. When comparing online to offline, these brands perform slightly better offline, in face-to-face conversations.

According to Keller:

“The alcohol beverage industry as a whole is built around a culture of sharing and encourages its customers to engage with others in a social environment—which presents a clear opportunity for brands to engage with its fans and facilitate more meaningful conversations that result in improved sales and brand recognition.”

Think about the winning spirits brands over the years and the role of influencers and consumer conversations in contributing to their success. Brands like Tito’s, Fireball, Rumchata and others. In his Face-to-Face book, Keller tells the story of Blue Moon Beer, served in a branded glass and garnished with an orange, which is in the product ingredients. The question that followed (“Hey, what is that?”) grabbed attention and sparked conversations. And, by the way, rituals related to a brand have always played an important role in their consumer acceptance.

As I write this I’m reminded of Gaz (Gary) Regan’s story of a consumer “expert” and the pains he took to alert his colleagues to his “discoveries” of single malt whiskies. You’ll find the story here, but I’ll save you the trouble:

It seems that when he was bartending in the 1980s on South Street in NYC, a particular Scottish gentleman would come in for lunch every day, order a hamburger and ask for the “book.” It was a guide to single malt scotches and differences in brands, regions, water, grain and distillation styles. After work, the gentleman would meet with friends and colleagues and hold forth on the verities of various malts. While he sounded like an authority on the subject, the information he provided was less than 5 hours old.

Don’t laugh, it helped to build some brands, The Glenlivet included.

About Ed Keller

I have known and worked with Ed when I was in the market research and consulting business at Yankelovich, Roper, and we were partners in our own venture called ASK Associates—all back in the day. So, I can unequivocally say he is among the top marketing research and communications people I know. He’s been a pioneer in word of mouth; a member of the Word of Mouth Marketing Hall of Fame; a past president of the association; and, a prolific writer on the subject. The Engagement Labs company has recently won two awards from the industry.

Whether you’re working on launching a new brand or looking for increased traction for a current brand, you ought to look into the Engagement Labs and their work. In fact, go to their website and download their material.

Tell Ed I sent you.

“Nothing influences people more than a recommendation from a trusted friend,” Mark Zuckerberg once famously said. “A trusted referral is the Holy Grail of advertising.”  

          
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Liberating the Alcohol Distribution System

LibDib—The Web-Based Distribution Platform

The actual name of the company setting out to address the booze business wholesaler problems is Liberation Distribution (known as LibDib). The Founder/CEO is Cheryl Durzy and I spoke to her at length recently and, let me tell you, her business model could very well be a game changer in how beer, wine, and spirits come to market.

Cheryl has close to 20 years’ experience in the wine industry, managing wholesalers of all sizes, and learned firsthand what a nightmare it is for a small company to get to the shelves of restaurants, bars, and stores. She set out to fix the problem.

I’m very impressed with her web-based platform and think it’s a major positive development for producers (she calls them Makers) and restaurants, bars, and retail shops (RB&R). As Cheryl puts it, “Our goal is to make it easier for small businesses (Makers) to do business with other small businesses (RB&R).

But, as you’re about to learn, it’s much more than that. It’s a boon to the producers, the retailers, the consumer, and, even the current wholesalers.

The Problem

First, the background, as I’m sure nearly all of you know.

The three-tier system of alcohol distribution was set up after Prohibition and consists of producers, distributors, and retailers. Producers can only sell to wholesale distributors who, in turn, can only sell to retailers who sell to consumers.

The system favors wholesalers, especially in view of the consolidation of this tier—which has reduced the number significantly and increased their size. At the same time, it favors the large producers, who have the clout to get attention. Both work closely together for obvious mutual benefit. As I’ve written many times before, “follow the money.” The produce-wholesaler business model is based on volume; the distributor sales rep compensation is based on volume as well. If you were a sales person for a large distributor, which would you focus on—a 3 bottle placement of a craft product or a hand truck of a leading selling brand? Let’s be fair; they are in business to make money,

As a result, small and mid-sized wine, beer, and spirits producers have limited distribution and face many obstacles. Often the large distributors will turn them down or worse, take them on and not pay attention.

Oh, and don’t forget the small RB&R operator who also suffers from the focus on bigness. I follow many bartenders and managers on Facebook and Twitter and there are complaints aplenty about delayed shipments around holidays and long weekends when they can’t get their craft products their customers want. As one prominent Food and Beverage manager told me, “my customers come here for boutique brands that are not mainstream … and getting a timely delivery around the holidays is a nightmare.”

According to Cheryl:

Efforts to change distribution laws have been ineffective, however the market is ripe for disruption. Just as the hotel and transportation industries were disrupted by technology, the alcohol distribution market now has a technology platform that is shaking things up with a new option for small to mid-sized Makers.

The LibDib Solution

If you look at what the platform offers both producers and accounts, I think it’s very impressive. So much so that I have suggested to a number of startup clients of mine that they give this serious consideration.

Currently, LibDib is operating in CA and NY (with more markets on the way) and here’s how it works for producers:

  • A producer enters their information and license online.
  • Product is stored at a producer’s location including their production facility, personal warehouse or third party warehouse, depending on the producer’s choice.
  • It’s delivered by a common carrier, also based on producer’s choice.
  • The charge/fee from LibDib is 15% – 20%, less than what other distributors and wholesalers currently charge.
  • There are no bill backs, no aging inventory, and no buying back product.
  • Producers are free to leave LibDib at will; they will not enforce Franchise Laws. This makes them effective as an “incubator.”
  • They handle the billing, collection, and reporting, which makes them a virtual back office.
  • A producer can invite any account to purchase their product by sending them a link to the LibDib site. (See this video.)
  • And, LibDib is developing a team of platform sales people whose role will be to recruit bars, restaurants and retail stores. These folks can ultimately become brokers and sales people for the brands.

The accounts benefit by being able to buy what they want and when they want it. There are no minimums. There is no middleman, since the accounts can communicate directly with producers through the LibDib platform. Sales materials and POS are current and easily downloadable. Best of all, in my view, an account can provide the experience of unique, local and limited available products, with no hassle.

As a consumer, I’m perfectly happy buying Buffalo Trace or Bulleit Bourbon, but often I want a Koval or Dad’s Hat whiskey and can’t get it. It would be nice to suggest to my retailer or favorite drinking hole, that it’s pretty simple for them to stock less mainstream brands.

Other Potential Winners

When I was at Seagram, new products, no matter the potential, were an annoyance. It meant deflection of assets—people, money, and other resources—that could be applied to mainstream brand growth and, making the annual sales plan. That problem still exists, although companies like Diageo and Pernod Ricard have established venture groups to facilitate traction from a new brand or idea. But, at the same time, wholesalers still have to deflect their resources to address a fledgling brand’s needs. Oh sure, there are dedicated craft and startup resources at the distributor level but not all are equally effective at building brands.

It seems to me that LibDib, with its incubator capability, just might be the answer for the big boys. I know that if I were still at Seagram, I’d definitely give it a shot.

Finally, wholesalers themselves can benefit from LibDib. It’s a way to test market a new product before taking it on. It can augment and amplify the efforts of craft divisions and personnel. And, it can lift the negative feelings and imagery surrounding how and why large wholesalers overlook small, startup brands.

Like I said, LibDib has the potential to be a real game changer.

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You Don’t Have to be Jewish…

The Whisky Jewbilee Annual Event

For the past five years, Josh Hatton and Jason Johnstone-Yellin have been holding an event involving whisk(e)y tastings, education, and an overall fun evening. On June 15, at Studio 450, they will have their 2017 New York City show. (Other shows are in Chicago and Seattle.)

I’ve been intrigued with this event and set out to learn more about it by contacting Josh and talking to previous attendees and industry insiders.

Let’s start with their simple description from their website:

“The world famous Whisky Jewbilee is a nationwide parade of top-shelf spirits and fine kosher dining for whisky lovers of any faith.

I also learned that the Whisky Jewbilee is considered one of “the world’s top 10 whisky shows,” by The Spirits Business.”

Many of the people I spoke with told me previous shows have had huge turnouts and they consider the event to be top notch.

The Organizers

The Whisky Jewbilee is one of three businesses owned by the Jewish Whisky Company LLC, an umbrella organization that also owns two other companies—Whisky Geek Tours of Scotland and Single Cask Nation. The latter is an independent bottler that describes itself as follows:

Single Cask Nation began as a social fellowship or membership society organized around the right to purchase rare, fine single cask whiskies under the Single Cask Nation label.  More than a mere club, Single Cask Nation represents a unique virtual community in which members share a common affinity for the quality whiskies and other spirits of the world.

The idea is as old as scotch whisky itself. Johnnie Walker, Chivas Brothers and many others began as purveyors selling whisky from various distillers. Single Cask Nation has some interesting offerings. You might want to check it out.

Josh Hatton (L) and Jason Johnstone-Yellin (R)

The event—Jews and Booze

You might not realize it or never thought about the fact that members of the Jewish faith love whisk(e)y. A June 2013 NY times article, had this to say:

“Whiskey has numerous fan bases, but few are more devoted — and arguably less noticed by the press and public — than Jews, particularly observant Jews. Synagogues are increasingly organizing events around whiskey, and whiskey makers are reaching out to the Jewish market.”

In fact, many religious Jews wanted to attend Whisky Fest but could not because it’s held on Friday and Saturday nights. So, Whisky Jewbilee was launched in 2012 (on a Thursday night) with the blessing of the Whisky Fest people. It grew significantly over the years.

Today, the event will cap at 450 attendees and 80 companies/brands will be present with roughly 300 whisk(e)y SKUs (individual brands). But check this out—this is not a drinking event as much as it is a knowledge event and a one to one dialogue between producer and consumer. You won’t find beautiful people from central casting behind the tables or actors mindlessly spewing memorized lines. What you will find are whisky aficionados and well-informed representatives of the distilleries.

By the way, many marketers have told me that kosher consumers are very brand loyal. Perhaps more so than many other market segments.

About that Kosher thing…

I’m far from an expert on Judaica matters but I couldn’t help but wonder about what possibly could be in whisk(e)y that would violate the rules of kosher. So, I spoke with Josh about it and did some research.

What I learned is that there is nothing in whisk(e)y to make it non-kosher. Wine on the other hand, because of its sacramental use, has strict kosher rules. But with a few minor exceptions, nearly all whiskies are okay.

The organizers welcome all whiskies regardless of maturation style. This means that whiskies matured in sherry, port or other wine based casks are perfectly fine and will be present at Whisky Jewbilee. They believe all whisk(e)y to be kosher-by-nature unless the whisk(e)y is flavored. At their event, only the food is under kosher supervision.

The flavored whisky situation has to do with the fact that the flavorings used to augment the whiskey taste might contain non-kosher elements like glycerin. It would take certification to assure observant Jews that the glycerin is a vegetable rather than animal based oil.

But you will find some amazing whiskies there including some of my favorites from Brenne Whisky, Koval Distillery, FEW Spirits, and the best in the world, including—Bowmore, Glen Grant, Four Roses, Michter’s, High West, and many more.

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The organizers of the event have invited me to be there and part 2 of this article will be after June 15. If you attend, please look for me and say hi.

The Chicago Whisky Jewbilee will be on November 9 at Artifact Events. The Seattle show will be some time in February or March.

And, remember, you don’t have to be Jewish to attend. Just enjoy!

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