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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Keeper of the “goodies”

At a recent visit to a Mets game (sorry I can’t bring myself to call it anything other than Shea Stadium) I was reminded of a story about baseball tickets.

Like many companies that entertain customers and clients, Seagram had a designated employee that handled customer/trade events and trips, national sales incentive programs and – the big prize – season tickets to sporting events in the NYC area.

One of these individuals, who I will call Mr. Keeper, was a nice and friendly guy until the subject of tickets came up. He didn’t see himself merely as the guardian or custodian of the coveted seats. Oh no, he was the protector, the de facto owner. Requests for tickets to a game were more often than not subjected to interrogation as to the identity of the intended customer and the rationale behind the request. And, invariably, unless the requestor was of significant ‘rank’ the request was denied outright or “someone else already got them.”

The management of the US operation passed to a new team and Mr. Keeper got an assignment outside of the US operation but still based in NYC.

The team that took over had its own designated employee to handle the customer relations, events and incentive trips. But when the first need for ballgame tickets arose, Mr. Keeper informed the new designate that the seats will be staying with Mr. Keeper and will be doled out as he saw fit.

Needless to say the new team was incensed and a (gentle) management skirmish erupted. But, with bigger issues to be addressed, the matter was set aside — not forgotten, just temporarily tabled.

One day, a senior executive asked for and grudgingly received tickets to a top notch Mets game.

While he knew the general vicinity on the field level where the seats were located, he wasn’t sure as to the exact location. He stopped an usher at the top of the section and handed the tickets to him. The usher looked at the tickets, looked at the executive, then back at the tickets, then at the executive again.

“Anything wrong?” asked the executive.

“Oh no,” said the usher. “I’m just surprised that you’re sitting in Mr. Keeper’s seats.”

For all I know he still has those seats.

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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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