Seagram and Vodka

Until the “acquisition” of Absolut, Seagram was not just a vodka-less company; it was an Ostrich hiding its head in whiskey pretending not to see the world of booze change.

Sam Bronfman’s aversion/reluctance to sell vodka is widely known. Perhaps for him, liquor needed to be aged or brown or have the word whiskey on the bottle. Whatever his reasons, the company was never a vodka player. In fact, when I was in market research, one of the older executives told me the story of how Mr. Sam reacted to a research project about changing consumer alcohol tastes. It may be apocryphal but it sure has the ring of truth.

One of the most notable researchers of the 50s and 60s, Alfred Politz, was an early leader in the techniques of polling and opinion analysis. He was commissioned to do a study of changing consumer alcohol tastes and attitudes. The presentation of the findings took place at an executive retreat and, in an unusual display of bonhomie, Mr. Sam suggested they review the results while sitting around the pool.

Page after page of the report pointed to the potential rise of vodka at the expense of whiskies. Politz was said to have been very clear that the evidence overwhelmingly leaned in this direction. It was also clear that Mr. Sam was getting angrier and angrier. Finally, he got up from his chaise, grabbed the report out of the researcher’s hands, threw it in the pool, muttered some obscenity and stormed off. Politz was said to have been relieved not to join his report.

So while competitors were developing Smirnoff, Popov, Stolichnaya and other brands, Seagram was struggling with entries like Wolfschmidt, Nikolai and Crown Russe.

Finally, someone decided to create a new vodka brand but, unlike most of those on the market at the time, it was to be imported vodka. In fact it was called Seagram Imported Vodka or SIV, as it was lovingly referred to. Imported all the way from Canada.

Management at the time knew that the “white goods” race was passing Seagram by and the pressure to succeed was very strong. So much so that when a presentation to a major California chain was set up to expand distribution, the “brass” decided to attend.

Picture this, a president, an owner, the head of marketing, the head of sales, brand managers…all fly off in the company plane to attend this meeting on SIV. They get to LA early with time to kill before the meeting. Since a few of them had never seen the inside of a chain store liquor department, they decide to visit a few stores.

Next thing you know there are 4 or 5 suits walking the aisles checking the shelves and watching consumers make decisions and purchases. They’re paying particular attention to the vodka section and spot a man looking at the brands and seemingly trying to make a decision.  A member of the entourage goes up to him, takes a bottle of SIV off the shelf, hands it to the man and says, “check this one…it’s imported.”

The man studies the bottle for a moment or two looks at the exec and, as he puts it back on the shelf says, “that’s not imported, it’s Seagram.

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Godiva Liqueur

It took years to get the owners of Godiva Chocolatier to license the brand for a chocolate liqueur. It took a lot less time to learn that building the brand would not be easy.

Despite the absence of a meaningful liqueur in the portfolio, distribution was slow and since liqueurs are not a fast moving category, the turnover rate was even slower.

There’s a great story of a Seagram executive who goes to a Chinese restaurant on Long Island and, while he and his family are waiting for a table, he spots a bottle of Godiva on the back bar. This is the last type of restaurant he would expect to find the product and figures that the distributor sales rep that sold the account must be at the top of his game. What could he have said about the brand that got this small neighborhood restaurant to order it?

He goes up to the owner and says, “What did the salesman tell you to get you to take in the Godiva?” The owner, looked a bit puzzled at first, then smiled and said in a thick Cantonese accent, “Oh, he say two free vodkas if I buy the Godiva.”

After much research and thought, we came to the conclusion that despite the power of the brand name, there was a discontinuity between the expectation of the chocolate taste and the delivery of the product. When you say chocolate to people, they think, chewy, sweet and unique mouth feel. This is hard to deliver in a liquid product without ending up gloppy. So for many, the expectation was chocolate but the product delivered a Kahlua-like consistency.

We had to move out of the chocolate-only world and get closer to cream liqueurs. Two line extensions were introduced, a cappuccino/chocolate and a white chocolate, both cream products.

These strategic line extensions had a number of benefits. First, the facings went from 2 to 6 and the billboard effect on the shelf got the brand noticed and bought. Second, despite the adages not to line extend from weakness, the new forms actually benefitted the base brand (original), which started to grow. A brand that was languishing in the 10,000 cases range grew to nearly 50,000. After Diageo got it, it grew to over 100,000 cases.

I noticed that the brand dropped back to 50,000 in 2009. I also noticed that Campbell sold Godiva Chocolatier to a Turkish company called Yildiz. But I don’t know whether Diageo still has the license and distributes it. Anyone know the status of the brand?

One thing I can tell you is that if you see a bottle of Godiva on the back bar of any Chinese restaurant on Long Island, I bet it’s been there since 1995.

Sort of raises the question about spirits brands and what I like to call ‘borrowed credentials’ – also known as licensed or endorsed brands. Stay tuned…

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The Inventor

Maurice Kanbar is among a select group of entrepreneurs who have changed the spirits industry. And, he’s still at it.

Like my earlier posting about David van de Velde, Maurice is another visionary businessman who has spent a lifetime on finding a hole and filling it. Maurice has been inventing, designing and developing a host of products ranging from films and how we watch them, to surgical instruments, to things, that when we see them, we say “now why didn’t I think of that?” The man has thirty patents and products to his credit.

I first met him in the early days of Skyy Spirits when I was sent on a fool’s errand to see if he would be willing to chat about an acquisition. This was in the late 1990s and the brand was just starting its ascendency. We were feeling the effects of its growth and one of the geniuses in Sweden thought we might be able to “buy him out.” After just a few minutes of chatting, he asked the key question – why sell while the brand is still growing. Duh. Sure got my respect.

But what I really admire about him is his judgment and intuition balanced by the tenacity of an inventive mind.


He complains to a doctor friend that he gets headaches and a hangover from Cognac. His friend explains about congeners and tells him to drink vodka. The next thing that happens, he studies the world of spirits, makes advancements to the distillation and filtering systems and creates Skyy Vodka.

At the time, no one in the food or beverage business used blue for packaging – don’t ask me why…I once got my butt chewed for presenting a new product in blue packaging. Maurice didn’t let this narrow, stay in the box thinking confine him. I don’t know for sure, but I suppose he was thinking Skyy = blue. Another duh.

When his brand starts growing, he’s smart enough to surround himself with people who know the business like Foglio and Ruvo.

So he’s an interesting guy, to say the least.

His newest effort is Blue Angel Vodka, which he says is based on further advancements in distillation that produces an ultra smooth product. But the really cool part about it, in my opinion, is that the inventor has further increased his marketing skills. First, his signature drink is the Blue Angel Martini (BAM as he calls it) made with blue curacao. Also, I like his tongue-in-cheek slogan – “the world’s second best vodka; we’re still looking for the best.”

On second thought maybe he should stick to inventing.

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