Thursday, August 10, 2017

What Fresh Hell Is This?



On Monday, it was "The Death of the Brand Ambassador." Today, it is "Revenge of the Global Partner," reminding us that fanciful titles for paid celebrity spokesfolk are also a hot new thing. Just ask Wild Turkey Creative Director Matthew McConaughey.

McConaughey got his gig about a year ago. Kunis has been global partnering with Jim Beam since 2014. Today she recommends that we drink Jim Beam Vanilla, for when "you love the taste of bourbon but are sometimes looking for something a little different." A mixture of vanilla liqueur with Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, it adds to the Jim Beam flavored portfolio that includes Jim Beam Apple, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, Jim Beam Honey, and Red Stag by Jim Beam Black Cherry.

Jack Daniel's Honey is the leader in the flavored whiskey segment. It is a mixture of Jack whiskey and honey liqueur. By mixing whiskey with a liqueur you can introduce grain neutral spirit (i.e., vodka) as part of the drink's alcohol content, as neutral spirit is the alcohol component of most liqueurs. A blended whiskey that contains neutral spirit must disclose that fact on the label. Liqueurs are assumed to contain neutral spirit, so a whiskey blended with a liqueur doesn't face that requirement. Jack Honey and Jim Vanilla are classified as 'distilled spirit specialties,' not whiskey.

Neutral spirit costs a lot less to manufacture than whiskey. That makes flavored products more profitable and helps stretch currently tight whiskey stocks. Products classified as 'specialties' can also be sold at a lower proof, 70° (35% ABV) rather than the minimum of 80° (40% ABV) required for whiskey.

But to the typical consumer, it says Jack Daniel's or Jim Beam on the label so it's whiskey, right?

If you hate these products, blame Sazerac's phenomenally successful Fireball, another whiskey/liqueur mixture.

When Jim Beam first got into the flavored whiskey game, they said it would never get as crazy as flavored vodka.

We'll see about that.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Death of the Brand Ambassador



The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) is promoting a seminar next week entitled "Build a Better Brand Ambassador," conducted by Robin Robinson.

The seminar is described as follows: "BUILD A BETTER BRAND AMBASSADOR is focused on creating the next generation Brand Ambassador: a sales-oriented, account-driving individual. Full of brand and category knowledge, loquacious and articulate, this individual delivers the brand pitch with aplomb and insider confidence. But also sharply focused on where the brand is at all times and dedicated to driving adoption and volume." (Emphasis added.)

The term 'brand ambassador' is used in many industries, not just distilled spirits. Originally, it was used to describe celebrity endorsers, so the term has always been flexible. But when the distilled spirits business began to use it, maybe 15-20 years ago, the idea was to have someone in the field who was focused entirely on product knowledge and brand education, without the pressure of moving cases and reaching sales goals.

The idea was that salespeople typically have responsibility for multiple brands in multiple categories. It is hard to have in-depth product knowledge about all of them. This reflects on credibility, as does the fact that salespeople have a reputation for saying whatever it takes to get a sale. No criticism intended. If your job is sales, then selling has to be your number one priority. That is why part of the definition of brand ambassador has always been, 'not a salesperson.'

With that background, this seminar doesn't tell producers how to 'build a better brand ambassador.' Instead, it tells the rest of us that the brand ambassador era is over. There can be no such thing as a brand ambassador who sells. That person is called a salesperson. To call them brand ambassadors is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst.

The ACSA is a terrific organization and Robin Robinson is a superb presenter who understands the marketing and promotion of distilled spirits products better than anyone I know. Again, this is not intended as a criticism of anyone involved, just of their rhetoric. This also is nothing against salespeople. As salespeople are fond of saying, nothing happens until somebody sells something.

The argument has been made that craft producers, as small operations, can't afford to field both types of representatives. Fine, makes sense, then build a better salesperson. Don't pretend they are brand ambassadors.

The 'redefinition' (i.e., death) of the brand ambassador role is not limited to craft producers. Last year, 'world's-biggest-drinks-company' Diageo ended its 'Masters of Whisky' program and 40 people lost their jobs. Some were rehired as 'redefined' brand ambassadors, i.e., salespeople.

Another role in the mix here is 'field promotions manager.' Now some of them are being called 'brand ambassadors.' Could it be that 'brand ambassador' is too desirable as a title to be wasted on actual brand ambassadors?

If 'the next generation of brand ambassadors' is really the next generation of brand-aware salespeople, there is nothing wrong with that. Just don't pretend it is something else.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Coming Soon: a Limited-Edition Bourbon for $22.99



My latest for The Whisky Wash is a brief history of Early Times (ET), a 157-year-old whiskey brand made and sold by Brown-Forman. In it, I write that ET is a price brand, not well-regarded by bourbon enthusiasts, so that "there are no limited releases" of Early Times.

I was wrong.

Brown-Forman today informed me that, in fact, a limited edition of Early Times will be hitting the shelves very shortly, as in yet this summer, and it will be bourbon, not 'Kentucky Whisky.' Early Times Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky will be in select markets including Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Oregon at the suggested retail price of $22.99 for a 1-liter bottle.

The fact sheet for ET Bottled-in-Bond (BIB) says, "(BIB) standards introduced a new era of guaranteed quality within the spirits industry." That is not quite true. When the law was enacted, the federal government went to great pains to emphasize that Bottled-in-Bond did not guarantee quality. What it guaranteed was authenticity. It was America's first 'truth in labeling' law.

Although the Bottled-in-Bond Act became law in 1897, the heyday of BIB was the decades after WWII. Whiskey-making was curtailed because of wartime priorities, so fully-aged whiskey was in short supply when the war ended. BIB became known as 'the good stuff' because it was always at least four-years-old and 100° proof (50% ABV). The limited-edition Early Times BIB bourbon attempts to duplicate the brand's style from the 1940s.

The press materials note that DSP No. 354, home of ET, is the longest continuously-operating distillery under the same ownership in Kentucky. That is a mouthful, but Brown-Forman prides itself on the precise accuracy of its historical claims.

ET is also re-introducing its most famous proprietary cocktail, 'The Pussycat,' a twist on the whiskey sour that gets its sweetness from amaretto and orange juice instead of simple syrup. Back in the day, Brown-Forman even sold a powdered Pussycat mix.

Also notable is that the release will be in a one-liter bottle, rather than the more common 750 ml. This is a play for the bar trade, which prefers the liter size. Even though it is in a larger size, the suggested retail is a mere $22.99.

ET was a bourbon until 1983, when Brown-Forman converted it into a 'Kentucky Whisky.' To save money, they decided to do some of the aging (about 20 percent) in used barrels, disqualifying it as bourbon, which must be entirely aged in new, charred oak barrels. Because of the current bourbon boom, that may be a decision they now regret.

A few years ago they introduced a line extension, Early Times 354, that was bourbon, but it never caught fire and was discontinued. Although this is a limited edition, it may be another effort to get value-conscious bourbon drinkers interested in ET again. We'll see.