R emember your favorite band or singer you liked growing up, and how cool they were when they played at the local dive bar, but how lame they got when they got signed and added a bunch of fancy production to their music? You would say they sold out wouldn’t you? The same thing happens in the liquor industry. Or does it? That was the topic of the seminar we attended, “I Love…I Hate BIG BRANDS”. It focused on the perception that big brands have gotten a bad rap over the years, and how small brands are now looked at as trendy and cool. It’s the classic story of “David vs Goliath”, and as usual, we tend to root for the underdog. But is it so bad to enjoy Absolut or Tanqueray over that small batch vodka or rare gin others rave about?
Our host for the day was Claire Smith, global brand ambassador for Belvedere Vodka. Not a bad gig right? Our panel for the debate included industry insiders from all across the spectrum. On the “love” side of things were Jacob Briars, Jacques Bezuidenhout, and Angus Winchester. Jacob is the head of education and training at Bacardi, while Jacques is an ambassador for Partida tequila, and Angus is the global brand ambassador for Tanqueray gin. Each of them comes from the trenches making a name for themselves behind the bar.
On the “hate” side of the big brand argument, the talent is equally impressive. The group included Simon Ford, Robert Cameron and Erick Castro. Simon, in addition to owning is own world famous bar in the UK, is the co-founder of The 86 Company, a spirits company that works with some of the best distillers around the world. Mr. Cameron is a marketing VP for Belvedere, and Erick Castro a bartending behemoth who has created some of the most unique spirit programs in the world.
One huge focus of the argument was that big or small, brands use wording, and clever marketing to trigger thoughts in our head about what type of company they are. Words like “craft”, “small batch”, and “artisanal” are often tossed around to give you the impression it’s better for you then the big bad brand two spaces over. And it’s not just limited to the liquors you drink or the bars you frequent. Been to the grocery store lately? How about the farmers market? They push the idea that buying it local, and going organic is better for you. Several alcohol brands have done an amazing job with this concept and benefited greatly. American made Tito’s Vodka is a perfect example. They live by their “hand made” motto, and in fact, it’s on every bottle. But as they’ve doubled in sales each year, and now sell over 850,000 cases a year, you have to begin to wonder how small batch they really are? Your favorite vodka giant doesn’t become big from selling an inferior product, and in fact you could argue the bigger they get, the better the product can become with the ability to afford better machines and techno
I guess you can see which side of the argument I tend to side on. No liquor brand, hell, no business in general, opens its doors with the plans to be small, and stay small. Jacob made a great point, you create a brand because you believe in it and you want to share it with the world. You can’t do that selling a few bottles here and there. And likewise, just because you label yourself small batch or craft, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re better, it just means you’re small. Interestingly the comment was brought up, that nearly 40 other rum brands existed and/or started up in Cuba around the same time as Bacardi, and yet we only really recognize them. They made great rum, and in large quantities and now we’re penalizing them for it. Like Bacardi, Patron is another huge brand that suffers from an image problem where people think it’s over rated, and over priced. What often isn’t mentioned is they practically created the 100% agave tequila category, which led to other brands following after.
At the end of the day, the only difference between the big brands and the little guys is the corporate expense cards. Ok, so there’s a little bit more to it than that, but you get my point. Don’t let a brands marketing dictate your taste buds. Drink what you like, and like what you drink.