Starting a decade ago, the genesis of social media platforms spawned a remarkable new marketing environment, especially for new, small, or developing brands. Companies and influencers were easily able to create virally trending posts and find organic growth in this environment, categorized by a high number of users and a relatively low number of brands. Nowadays, building a robust online presence has become a key strategy for every company; the playing field is no longer as level, and, like other forms of traditional media and avenues for marketing, it favors established brands with the resources to devote to advertising.
Small brands, however, lacking the muscle or capital to compete in an open media market, are often forced to manufacture social media hype and rely on celebrity co-signs – regardless of their product’s quality.
With that said, however, there is one exception to social media marketing, there remains one tried-and-true method for entrepreneurs and companies to build enthusiasm for their products, the old-fashioned way. That is, simply, by offering a superior, attainable product.
From actors such as Dwayne Johnson and George Clooney to Drake and Conor McGregor, celebrities over a recent period have been making their stake in the spirits business to varying degrees of success.
With endorsements and entrepreneurship being two solid means for public figures to diversify their revenue streams, spirits become a no-brainer in regards to an extra endeavor away from their craft. Some of the most successful brands do not even particularly rely on taste and quality but rather on endorsements and robust influential marketing. As a result, having a strong celebrity figurehead makes a big difference.
Most of the general public does not know the difference between quality spirits. Knowing that Michael Jordan owns it, or LeBron James or Sarah Jessica Parker then makes a difference as their fan bases are so large that there is surely a tangible crossover between them and their spirit drinkers.
After George Clooney’s tequila company sold for $1 billion in 2017, it made sense that there was going to be a gambit of others chomping at the bit to get in on the industry.
In a piece for Men’s Journal, Conor McGregor detailed why he started in the industry through his brand, Proper No. Twelve Whiskey, and its success.
“We spent a great amount of time educating ourselves on the spirits business and partnered with the best of the best to execute the plan. This is not an easy task but we are leaning in very hard as I am enjoying it immensely and am involved in this business every day when I am not training or being with my family. I am not used to being the “David” going against the “Goliaths”. This is a challenge I am enjoying and while there are very big companies trying to crush me every day, they have and will learn they cannot overcome a passion and desire that runs so deep to win and win big. In this business, I like being the underdog.”
Starting in 2018 the brand went on a tear, dominating the whiskey market in early sales, “We sold out in Ireland and America in a matter of days, and as a result, we were out of stock for almost two months time. We couldn’t let the consumer down, so we airfreighted almost 30,000 cases to America during December and then sold out again. It has been a great feeling to see the support from people around the world. It has been magical for me and my team and it’s only the beginning.”
Talking to Rick Sicari, the co-founder and CEO of ALB Vodka, there’s a sense that though endorsements are great in the spirits industry, quality is what’s going to push you over the top.
Distilling was started in 2011 and began as a two-man operation. The creators behind the vodka, John Curtin and Rick Sicari, both knew that the only way to compete in a crowded market was to disregard the concept and pursuit of hype, focusing exclusively on quality and craft.
Using their extensive spirits knowledge and experience, they tried countless iterations and methods until they came up with a winning formula. After months of experimentation and trial and error, they settled on a gluten-free corn base and developed an obsessive, exhausting charcoal filtration regimen.
“Myself and my partner John Curtin both got our start in the service industry; we knew how important it was to have reliable, well-made products that customers enjoy. After several years of us producing award-winning whiskeys and rums, we decided it was time to branch out into vodka. It’s a deceptively simple spirit, and we wanted to make sure we did it right.” He said.
Sicari notes that they tapped into all the knowledge and know-how they had accumulated over hours in the distillery and worked on the vodka until it was perfect for them.
He continued, “For ALB Vodka we specifically focused on quality and craft rather than hype and marketing, as a result, we have found a home in many of NYC’s most iconic restaurants and bars. I think we’ll ultimately have much more longevity than a celebrity-endorsed brand. People will always go for the quality. When they ask their server or bartender – who will have tasted the options – they’ll recommend quality over hype.”
Though Sicari understood the hype behind having a celebrity endorsement he noted that often it could be a mediocre product that is putting all of its eggs in the marketing basket.
“We believe in quality ingredients, a handcrafted approach, organic growth, and reasonable pricing,” he said. “As a small brand, we’re perpetually challenged by companies with more muscle and deeper pockets. We can’t launch massive advertising campaigns or overwhelm stores with point-of-sale. We had to hand-sell to accounts ourselves and focus on high standards of production.”
Without much noise or fanfare, ALB Vodka has captured a large portion of the vodka market share for NYC restaurants in a short amount of time, all while posting a 99% reorder rate. Amidst the buzz in NYC, inquiries from restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs around the world have reportedly also begun.
He concluded, “The issue the Vodka industry currently faces specifically is market saturation from start-up companies with pervasive social media presence and celebrity-based campaigns propping up mediocre products. Big companies are watching local distilleries edging in on their market share, and they don’t like it. They’re launching astroturf brands to compete, so we need to be very vocal and transparent about who we are and what we’re doing so we don’t get lost in the noise.”
Some celebrities have gone further into the alcohol business than others with the aforementioned mixed martial artist Conor McGregor and the pub he owns in Dublin, The Black Forge Inn.
Dwayne Johnson was aware that being a celebrity added extra pressure to succeeding in the alcohol space also through his brand Teremana Añejo.
In a Rolling Stone interview he said, “While this was my first foray into the spirits industry, I was well aware that it was an incredibly competitive market with a lot of tequila brands out there that people love and enjoy. Tequila has always been a big part of my family so there were brands out there that I did enjoy, and I still do, though not as much as Teremana. It was also really important to me to go into the spirits industry with my hat in hand, and to respectfully approach the entire process with reverence. To come with an attitude and energy knowing it was my first day on the job recognizing I had so much to learn.”
Continuing on the brand’s success he opined, “I think people are responding because of the taste. People are also responding because of the price point, and the price point was extremely important as we went into this and as we looked at the market, I would say 4-5 years ago, when we were putting this Teremana Tequila venture together. We looked at the white board and saw a white space;” I wanted to create the “Tequila of the People.”
Some others are using the venture as a means to make more revenue for themselves. Oftentimes the distinction seems clear. Regardless, it appears that celebrity endorsements may bring you to the dance but the quality will make you Prom Queen.