Magic in a Bottle

Reading about the new Smirnoff “Exclusively for Everybody” campaign that pokes fun at the pretentiousness of Belvidere (“distilled according to a 600-year-old Polish tradition”), I remembered the story of Grey Goose and Sidney Frank. Mr. Frank was the character who invented the “super premium” classification and made billions of dollars in the spirits business by, as he put it, “give them a good story.”

Prior to launching Grey Goose, Sidney Frank came across Jagermeister (translation: Hunt Master) during a trip to Germany. The somewhat bitter and musty-tasting digestif would be considered a long shot – at best – to become a wildly successful drink among young people in the United States. But, leave it to Sidney, the old master storyteller. In 1985 Frank launched the beverage as a rumored aphrodisiac to college students and partygoers in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Word spread about this odd aphrodisiac drink and nearly 30 years later Jagermeister is still a staple at every college bar and party.

However, Sidney Frank’s true stroke of marketing/storytelling genius was his invention of Grey Goose vodka. The name Grey Goose came to him in a dream and then, with no actual product or distillery, he decided that the vodka should come from France and be made with French wheat and water from the Alps. A team was sent to buy a distillery that fit the bill and in 1996, Grey Goose was marketed with its distinctive etched bottle as “the best vodka you can buy … unrivaled quality.” Of course, by law vodka is a grain-neutral spirit with zero smell and no flavor. When mixed, which the majority is, it is highly doubtful that most drinkers could discern any taste coming from the vodka.

Meeting with distributors and his sales staff, it was suggested that Grey Goose be positioned as a premium vodka to go up against Absolut, which was then selling at around $17 a bottle. Defying the advice of his experts, Mr. Frank decided to call Grey Goose “super premium” and sell it for $30 a bottle. The brand was positioned as “everyday luxury” and targeted at influencers. The rest is history and Grey Goose was sold to Bacardi in 2004 for a cool $2 billion. Sidney Frank passed away in 2006, shortly after launching Corazon tequila.

Speaking of tequila, there’s another spirits brand that is magic in a bottle, or, in the case of Patron – the magic is the bottle. It was founded in 1989 by Martin Crowley and John Paul DeJoria, the billionaire philanthropist of John Paul Mitchell Systems hair care fame. The idea for Patron was hatched when Mr. Crowley tasted 7 Leguas, a small tequila brand, during a trip to Mexico. He came back with the notion of using the distinctive hand-blown bottles and naming it Patron. Marketed as the “world’s #1 ultra premium tequila,” Patron was priced in the area of $50 a bottle (unheard of in the tequila category) and positioned as the ultimate in “taste and sophistication.”

Rather than using traditional advertising, Patron was selectively placed in the top night-clubs and uber-trendy bars in NYC, Las Vegas, Miami and Los Angeles, where the distinctive bottle was soon seen in photos featuring top hip-hop artists, actors and country music stars. Shortly after, Patron was called out in a number of hit songs and rapidly became the status drink that you just had to have to make the scene. Bacardi picked up distribution and a minority share in 2008 for an undisclosed amount. It is believed that Mr. DeJoria now earns substantially more income from Patron than his well-known hair care business.

The use of distinctive bottles, labels and great storytelling continues to be a driving force in the spirits business. The Philadelphia-based ad man Steven Grasse has had great success with his Sailor Jerry’s rum and Hendrick’s gin. With the dramatic rise in craft distilleries in the past few years the shelves are now stocked full with hundreds of brands vying for the shopper’s attention. Cutting through the clutter requires much more attention on the bottle, label, naming and, of course, a good brand story.

While Grey Goose, Patron, Hendrick’s and countless others are all quality products, their success is not driven by the spirits in the bottle. Perception and brand image are just as important, if not more important than the actual quality of the product. Their popularity, profits and top-shelf position comes primarily from distinctive packaging, great marketing and good old-fashioned storytelling. In fact, all of this storytelling has made me thirsty. Time for a vodka and tonic.