Distributor Sales Rep

The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Of America (WSWA, for those of you in the business) will hold its annual meeting next week. There have been lots of changes in the second tier over the past few decades. From marketing to logistics to the people on the street, spirits wholesaler operations have become much more professional.

But it wasn’t always like that as this story from Bob McBreen who worked at Seagram from 1984 to 1990 illustrates. (Bob was a GM in Missouri and a Manager in Massachusetts.)

Bob was working in Massachusetts in the 1980’s when the 375 Spirits Co. (one of the Seagram companies) introduced Mumm Cognac.  The idea was to use the Champagne credentials to enter the highly profitable Cognac business. In typical Seagram fashion, the new product introduction to wholesalers was an elaborate affair held in a hotel ballroom complete with a French themed dinner.

After dinner the team got down to the business of introducing the product to the distributor sales people. The focus was on the quality, romance, and the story of selling a cognac with the specialness of the Mumm name.  They educated the sales folks on the geography of the Cognac region, the type of grapes used, the distillation process, and the magic of aging… with terms likes Angel’s Share, Grande Champagne eaux de vie, quality grade differences, etc.

After an extensive tasting session with emphasis on the different characteristics of such a high quality product, the salesmen were asked if they had any questions. One hand when up.  It was from a salesman who had been in the business for years. “Yes Irving, what is your question?”

“Does this shit come in half gallons?”

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And the winners are…

Two things came to my attention recently.

First, David van de Velde, founder of Ketel One and Van Gogh was kind enough to post a comment on the “What makes a brand successful” piece below.

Second, the trade magazines have selected the ‘hot brands’ and ‘growth brands’ of the year.

Got me thinking…

The very successful brands since the 1980’s came from entrepreneurs – Grey Goose, Ketel One, Patron, Skyy and so on. When those brands were getting started it wasn’t about bureaucracy, process or systems it was about hard work, tenacity, ingenuity and persistence. No gates, no silos…just determination to win.

Take a look at the current roster of hot and/or growth brands. Nearly all of the 14 brands identified by Beverage Dynamics as “Fast Track,” were created by an entrepreneur or a company not among the top 10 suppliers.

I guess the slogan should be “Build it and They Will Buy.”

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Captain Morgan and modern day Caribbean battles

The Captain is a fascinating brand. When I was first introduced to it, as a marketer I thought, “a cartoon character on a liquor bottle?” I soon learned that its strong following among consumers set an industry standard for growth. In fact, between the time a million case celebration was planned and held, the brand had grown to 3 million cases.

The story behind the brand and its double-digit growth for so many years make it a wonderful case study about the industry and new products. (I’ll get into it some other time.)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that I’m closely following the “battle” over the current brand owner’s decision to move the production from Puerto Rico to the US Virgin Islands. Lots of “volleys” back and forth via press releases, lobbying, congressional involvement…in other words, quite a skirmish.

I’m not sure I get it all but as in most business issues, it’s about the money.

Without taking sides, and hopefully in a nonpartisan way, I have a few observations.

First, a friend and colleague who was instrumental in the birth and upbringing of the brand recently mentioned that in the beginning, Rums of Puerto Rico (the island’s marketing arm) wouldn’t recognize Captain Morgan as a “legitimate” Rum. It wasn’t until the brand started to grow significantly that it was able to share in the marketing support dollars. They’re now fighting to keep it in PR. Ironic isn’t it?

Second, I always thought that when you change distillery locations the product changes. That’s what the production folks in Scotland always told me. More recently, some production friends have said “no way; we can replicate any taste anywhere.” Say it isn’t so…I still believe in the tooth fairy.

Finally and most ironic, despite having facilities in Jamaica, Seagram first began producing Rum in Puerto Rico in the 1950’s to take advantage of the economic incentives that were offered.

What goes around comes around.

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