Find a hole and fill it

This blog has given me the opportunity to re-connect with friends and to make new ones like David van de Velde whose business motto is the headline for this posting.

In addition to being a very smart and affable fellow, David is an interesting entrepreneur and created Ketel One and Van Gogh Vodkas. In that regard, he changed the spirits industry.

I hope one day to write his full story but here are a few things that make him so interesting.

Let’s start with the motto. In an age of me-tooism, finding a hole and filling it speaks volumes about brand development strategies.

Not long after Seagram got Absolut Vodka, I kept hearing about this new brand, Ketel One, which was unique in its packaging, name, underlying concept and one other “outrageous” factor… a price at a significant premium to the category.

In addition, they concentrated on bartenders and servers and used videos and events to tell the story and even special olives for a martini. Everywhere I went at the time, all I heard was how we needed to learn from the Ketel One folks.

Many people think that the ultra premium vodka market was created by Grey Goose when, in fact, by the time Grey Goose came along, Ketel was already doing 200,000 cases.

David’s understanding of consumers is very impressive. He describes the target customer for high-end vodkas at that time as someone who wears Armani suits without pockets. Someone who walks into a bar and is holding the following – car keys with a Mercedes or BMW logo, an expensive cell phone and a wallet chocked full of goodies. No pockets. The question he asked himself is – would this person drink anything but a top shelf brand?

After Ketel One, he created Van Gogh vodka and brought the flavored category to new levels.

A little birdie told me he will be celebrating a milestone birthday this week so congratulations and keep finding and filling those holes.

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New product failures I have known – Old Breed

I thought I would look at some world-class new product failures and see if there is some learning behind what happened. Let’s start with Old Breed.

When I arrived at Seagram the product was in a few markets and was failing miserably. The premise was interesting. The owner, aware of ‘shot and a beer’ consumption, decided that a beer flavored whiskey was a good idea and pushed for it.

I suppose that the equivalency issue also had a role to play. A blurring of the lines between beer and spirits sort of makes them equivalent from a product standpoint and flies in the face of the lack of equivalency in excise taxes.

Finally, beer flavored whiskey was seen as a novel new product idea.

The product failed on all counts. Wanting a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser is not the same as a whiskey that tastes like beer. There are expectations about the taste of a shot with a beer that can’t be met with a bottled version. Even if the product tasted great, it can’t replicate the fresh version – much less with a product that tasted like stale beer.

Everyone knew this, I learned when I got there, but no one wanted to tell the emperor that his baby was ugly (to mix metaphors).

So the product limped along until a trade researcher interviewed a retailer who went ballistic when asked about Old Breed as in, “tell them to get this crap out of here.”

What I love about market research is that political correctness has little to no role to play in providing information. As a result, the owner learned what the management team was loath to tell him. The product was pulled from the shelves the next day.

Lessons learned:

To succeed a new product has to be both unique and relevant.

Concepts and premises can be brilliant but the product must deliver. It’s about what’s in the bottle.

A management team concerned about being candid will not succeed.

And, a corporate culture that creates an environment that punishes the messenger is doomed to failure.

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Start Ups

Ever since Sidney Frank sold Grey Goose in 2005 for billions of dollars, the industry has attracted many entrepreneurs with the dream of inventing a brand, building it, flipping it and moving on to the next one.

It’s a good thing. The growth of the industry, any industry, depends on the infusion of new ideas, capabilities and fresh passion. Look at the rising stars, fast track and hot brands of the industry. You’ll find lots of entrepreneurial and start up brands.

And, as I mentioned in previous posts, success comes from hard work and the tenacity of people not large corporations.

But for every winner there are loads of wannabes whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs. An investment banker friend described it this way —

“Almost every week I get a guy coming in, generally in his 30’s, who made some money in some type of entrepreneurial venture, was out drinking with his buddy and the two of them decide they can do this…build a winner. It’s usually a vodka with an over the top package, a half-baked story and they say they’re out every night pushing the brand. Most of the time I think that they use the brand and their ‘ownership’ to impress the ladies.”

There’s an old rule in new product development. A winning idea needs to be unique and relevant. To succeed, a brand needs both.

Also luck, the byproduct of hard work.

Keep your eye on Cachaca, Sake and specialty products.

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