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.

Examples:

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading