Vietnam and Chivas Regal: A Salesman’s Story

A Journey to Open a New Market in 1994 (A True Story)

Ted McDonnell was a top-notch salesperson in the Asia-Pacific/Global Duty-Free division of Seagram Spirits and Wine Group. (SSWG or ‘swig’ as it was referred to.) Ted had spent his career living in Australia, Hong Kong, and Guam as a regional director fixing problems and building brands all over Asia-Pacific.

Then one day an outstanding opportunity came his way in the form of a job with Chivas Brothers. He no sooner got settled in London when he was told that among his first assignments was to go to Vietnam to do sales training on behalf of the brand. President Clinton opened the market to trade and management was anxious to expand opportunities in the emerging market.

His excitement was palpable and, as he waited for his visa, he gathered point of sale and training materials. As he scurried about making preparations—including attending a companywide meeting—he was not able to get his ticket and visa until the last minute.  He ended up collecting five boxes of gifts and items that the sales and marketing people could use. You can imagine the effort he put in to get the right stuff and when the week’s wait was over, he ran to his office and collected the visa and plane tickets.

While hoping to stay awake on the flight to see the approach to the country, he instead fell asleep and awoke as the plane landed in a dark and ominous looking airport surrounded by what appeared to be machine gun towers. As he disembarked he felt a bit of relief, when a Vietnamese man tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Are you an American?”

He quickly said, “Oh no I’m British, I’m here with Chivas Regal Whisky.” The man smiled and said, “Would you please tell your American friends we wish they would come back, we’ve missed them.”

With this surprising start to his journey, he collected the five boxes, breezed through customs, and left the terminal to find his colleagues who were to meet him.

Hello Vietnam

Two problems got his immediate attention. Here he is at the airport of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and it’s basically an open-air cement building—hardly what he expected from the biggest city in the country. Second, there were well over 200 people waiting to greet deplaning passengers but no one was there for him. He waited and worried.

“You need taxi? My name is Tran,” said the young man who approached him. “No, I’m waiting for my friends to pick me up,” was Ted’s reply.

A few hours passed while he stopped people to ask if they knew where the Seagram office was in the city. After a while, Ted noticed Tran hanging around the terminal again. He decided to approach him.

“Tran, bring your car, I think we will go to the city. My friends forgot about me.” So, Tran is very happy, and goes to get his car. As Ted describes it, “The car is a little more than a shoe box and I had a hard time squeezing in with the five boxes, my computer bag and the one piece of luggage I had with me.” But off they went.

Tran is very quiet as they drive along a very dark road without much lights. As they are crossing a bridge, Tran stops the car and says, “I go back and get my friend. I go back and get my friend.” Ted nervously replies, “no, no, no… I’m paying you to take me to the city.” To which Tran says, “Yeah, I know I take you to the city… but first I go back and get my friend.”

The next thing Ted knows, Tran turns the car around and heads back to the airport. Only this time the road is deserted and no cars are on the highway.

Ted starts to get very nervous

“How come there are no other cars… how come I’m the only one on the highway and there is the airport… it’s getting dark…only the lights are on out front of the airport with three men standing there and I’m thinking this is it for me. I’m getting kidnapped, you’re never going to see me again and there’s going to be a letter to my family of some sort… I’m thinking I’ve got to get out of the taxi when we reach the airport. But before I can get my hand on the door this guy jumps in the front seat and smiles and says, ‘Hello Joe. How are you Joe?’ I said, ‘Uh, uh, good’ and we’re driving back toward the bridge.”

Picture this—Ted is stuck in the back street, wedged in among the 5 boxes, computer bag and luggage while Tran and his friend are getting angry and arguing with each other. The friend suddenly reaches into the glove box, turns around and points two things at Ted, one in each hand. He can barely see what it is but is sure it looks like a gun. Ted thinks, “Why the hell did I put myself in this fix?”

After a second or two, Tran’s friend says, “Richard Marx or Air Supply cassette player?” Ted starts laughing and so does Tran and his friend. He puts on Richard Marx and he says, “You sing, you sing for us.” Ted’s thinking, “I don’t sing, but if I don’t I may end up in a ditch so sing your friggin’ heart out.”

Now they’re tooling down the muddy roads and all singing Richard Marx and Air Supply in a bizarre (yet frightening for Ted) karaoke event. After a while, they slow down next to a house, the friend gets out and tells Ted to do the same. Ted protests; Tran’s friend is most insistent and mutters something about needing gas to get to the city.

Ted reluctantly leaves the car and is standing on the side of a dark road with all his gear, dressed in a blazer, gray slacks and white shirt. His fear has just gone up a notch or two.

Ted recollects: “But there, next to the little house were three little kids and an old lady that comes out the front door. She takes my hand and leads me inside, sits me down on a small stool. Now that could only be a small stool because if I stood up I think my head would have gone through the roof.” It turns out to be Tran’s family.

What follows is Vietnamese hospitality as Ted is served tea and some food as he begins to relax a bit. He even starts playing with the children and making duck and animal sounds while he waits for Tran to return. All the while he’s thinking that this is the craziest kidnapping ever.

At long last Tran appears and announces, “Okay we go now.” Ted is relieved and delighted and can’t wait to get to Ho Chi Minh City, a shower, and a comfortable Marriott bed. Goodbyes, smiles and happiness is shared all around. In fact, Ted is so happy, he lightens his load by opening one of the boxes and handing out Chivas Regal shirts.

Welcome to the city

“It’s the city, we’re coming to the city,” Tran joyfully announces.

So again, Ted is getting a little nervous being an American in Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. He says, “Tran, ahh what street are we going to?” Tran answers, “I don’t know. I ask the policeman.” Before Ted can object, Tran is out of the car with my paper written in English. The officer looks at Ted and asks, “You Yankee?” he says.

Ted decides that it might be best to claim he’s British and puts on his bad English accent. To which the officer replies, “Ahh too bad … I love baseball, I love the Yankees.” He goes on to inform Ted and Tran that the street they need is too small for the car and they need to take two nearby tricycles. The officer offers to watch the taxi while they head off.

So, they get into the tricycles, with the boxes and other gear, ride down narrow roads, just barely missing other bikes and Ted is thinking what the hell is going on. There are bright neon signs but all are in Vietnamese. Finally, they pull over to a really dark and dingy building and over the doorway it says Marriott Hotel.

Ted is elated but still a bit worried. He goes inside, finds the desk clerk, who fortunately speaks English and asks about Seagram, the colleagues he’s supposed to meet, and Chivas Regal. The man replies no—he has no idea who these people or companies are. Ted says, “I’m looking for the Marriott, maybe it’s a little bigger than this.” To which the desk clerk replies, “Ooh you want the other Marriott.” He writes down the address for Tran in Vietnamese. They collect his stuff and put it in the tricycles, go back through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and find their taxi and the policeman. Once again Ted opens a box and hands out more t-shirts to the smiling policeman.

Off they go to the address and twenty minutes later they arrive at a decent looking hotel but certainly not a Marriott. It doesn’t take long for him to learn that it’s the wrong place and they need the Marriott by the water. He is assured that it’s close by. Off they go.

As Ted describes it:

“I was happy when he said, ‘Not far from here.’ Okay. We’re so close I can almost taste the Marriott air. It was hot, it was steaming. I was so tired, it was like 24 hours since I last slept. It had to be about 11 o’clock by then. So here I am, we’re back in the car we’re driving to the next place. Nearly half an hour passes—not five minutes—and we finally pull up to another hotel but something didn’t feel right.”

Ted goes in and asks about Seagram, his colleagues, and Chivas and receives no, no, and no in reply. By now he’s questioning his sanity, his belief in God, and thinks that he’s still sleeping on the plane and this is a dream, or worse, a nightmare. And, things get interesting.

He asks the clerk for a phone so he can call one of his colleagues. He gives the man and Tran the number and they look at each other quizzically. They speak animatedly in Vietnamese. Finally, Tran turns to Ted and says, “Your friend is not here.” To which Ted replies, “I know you already told me he’s not here.”

Tran explains further, “No, your friend is in Ho Chi Minh City… in the south.” “Well where am I”, asks Ted.

“You’re in the North, you’re in Hanoi,” he learns from Tran.

Ted, takes out his plane ticket and looks at it. Sure enough, the ticket and documents he grabbed at the last minute say Hanoi, but the phone number is for Ho Chi Minh City, 700 miles away.

Ted asks, “Tran why didn’t you tell me that when you had the paper?”

Tran replies, “I don’t read English.”

“So why did you have the paper, Tran?”

“Because you gave it to me.”

Ted sits down in the lobby, is about to cry but decides he might just as well laugh. Then realizes what he has to do next.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Join us next time for the continuing saga of Ted McDonnell, Chivas Regal and the trip south to Ho Chi Minh City, aka, Saigon.

By the way, Ted is the CEO of Liberty Lighthouse Group an international alcohol sales and marketing agency. Their mission is to help develop new brands or to further support established brands throughout Asia/Pacific and other Global markets.

Ted McDonnell in full Chivas Regal attire
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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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