How an Olive Launched a Brand

The Ketel One Story

Nolet, the distillery behind the vodka, recently celebrated its 325th anniversary and is run by the 11th generation of the Nolet family. While they rightfully take pride and recognition for this accomplishment, the real credit for the success of Ketel One (partially owned by Diageo) belongs elsewhere.

The distillery has been around since 1691 but they’ve only been producing Ketel One vodka since 1983. And, that’s where our story begins.

David van de Velde

I first met Dave back in 2010 when I started writing this blog. Here is that story. But, there is much more to the launch of Ketel One than I realized at the time I wrote that article.

In recognition of the sustained growth of the brand—reportedly selling at 2.1 million cases and the fifth largest import—and given the 325th anniversary, I contacted Dave to get more of the back story. Specifically, what were the most important elements in successfully launching the brand?

Before I get into that, here’s a brief historical context.

Vodka’s growth spurt began in the mid 1980s. The market was dominated by domestic brands (Smirnoff, Skyy was beginning its ascent, and others). Based on a number of factors, Absolut led the charge of the imports and became the poster child for vodka. Suddenly, two other market imports entered the fray with price points much higher than Absolut. One, Grey Goose, had a range of things going for it (name, packaging, country of origin, and the Sidney Frank team). The other had Carl Nolet Sr. and his belief in the ingenuity and business skills of David van de Velde.

The Challenge

The relationship with …

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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 …

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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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