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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Salesman in Winter

The booze business, at least when Seagram was alive and kicking, was about stories. Here is one of my favorites.

A salesman for one of the Seagram sales companies (or perhaps it was a distributor sales rep) called on bars in Wisconsin in the dead of winter. His main objective was to get Kessler Blended Whiskey placed. His mission, his bonus and perhaps even his job depended on sufficient sales of the brand. Not easy, since Wisconsin was (and still is) a market cluttered with whiskies and brandies.

He would park his car out front, walk into the bar, engage the owner/manager and talk about the virtues of Kessler. Invariably the bar owner would tell him that he already had enough whiskies and no room or interest in a new one.

To overcome the owner/manager resistance, his spiel was always the same. “Listen, this brand is so distinctive and stands out from other whiskies that I’ll bet you I can pick Kessler out of a line up of whatever whiskies you care to test it against. I’ll get a bottle and you can pour a shot of it and any other whiskies and I’ll always be able to pick the Kessler.”

Now baited, the owner would likely say, “What’s the bet?” The salesman’s answer would be something like “50 bucks if I can’t pick it and you buy 3 bottles if I can.” Hardly anyone turned him down.

He would go out to his car, bring in a bottle, give to the owner and turn his back. The owner would pour shot glasses for the ‘taste test’ including any number of brands plus a shot of Kessler.

The salesman would then turn around and take a sip of each whiskey and very quickly point to the shot of Kessler and say, “that’s it.” He was never wrong. Always got the sale, up and down the state of Wisconsin.

How did he do it?

Since it had just come from the trunk of his car, it was the only one that was cold.

To this day Kessler is still a very strong Blended Whiskey brand whose main strength is in Wisconsin.

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Focus groups – the fantasy that keeps on giving

If you’re a consumer and asked to participate in a focus group, do it. It’s a good gig…you get paid to give your opinions and reactions to ideas and concepts. And, it can be fun.

If you’re a spirits marketer and have a yen to sit behind a one way mirror (kind of a voyeur thing), eat M&Ms, lousy pizza (or sushi), stale pretzels and listen to a boring moderator and consumers who are lying through their teeth about what they drink and why…well, that’s a great way to get away from home and feel like you’re in touch with the market. Dream on.

Truth of it is focus groups among consumers in the booze business are a waste of time. The moderator is putting on a show for those behind the one-way mirror. Those behind the mirror spend their time playing with their computers and asking the moderator to pose questions that meet their preconceived points of view.

This may not be true in many consumer businesses but, in my experience, describes focus groups in the booze industry.

I know because I’ve been on both side of the one-way mirror (moderator or observer) for literally scores if not hundreds of group sessions.

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