Expensive lunches, trips abroad, big bar tabs—throwing down a credit card is a common way spirits companies endeavor to build sales and loyalty with accounts. But sales goals are taking a backseat for some brands as they look to put more support behind the bartender rather than the bar. With an eye toward a growing need for self-care in the drinks industry, spirits brands are building an affinity with buyers through wellness, rather than drinking, activities.
Wellness initiatives in the spirits industry are often inspired by personal philosophies and experiences. Cory James says he started his former job as the Absolut brand ambassador for California (he now has a national role) in October 2015 with a “really definite idea of not being that normal brand ambassador. I didn’t want to take people out to just drink alcohol. It’s not what my focus is for myself, and I don’t think it should be the focus for the trade.”
Responding to multiple incidents of assault in the industry—and coming from a childhood in which there was abuse in the home—James used his brand ambassadorship to start organizing self-defense workshops in April 2016 in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. The classes, sponsored and paid for by Absolut, were led by professional trainers and took place in the morning; they were followed by a light lunch. Cocktails were served at the meal, but the focus wasn’t on drinking, the way it is during most industry meals. Rather, the meals turned into “more of a roundtable,” says James. “Usually what would happen is I would just sit back and everyone would talk about their experiences”—often connecting over personal stories of assault—“and discuss how impactful this event was, without me even interjecting.” The demand was apparent: The successive classes grew in popularity, and Absolut ambassadors in London took note of the project and re-created it in their market.
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The cost to run the workshops included an instructor’s fee—James estimates that trainers charged $475 for a group of 15 people for two and a half hours—and the cost of lunch. In offering the workshops, James hoped that in addition to providing a helpful service to industry colleagues, the expenditure would yield brand affinity and bartenders would offer a vodka-seeking patron Absolut—but that wasn’t the total goal. The most significant ROI for James was “bartenders simply remembering how well taken care of they were and how the brand really cares about their health and well-being.”
Some brands choose to eliminate a tasting of their products altogether and to focus solely on wellness at brand-building events. El Silencio, a producer of artisanal mezcal based in Santa Monica, California, offers a program called Physiology of the Modern Bartender, which focuses on injury prevention behind the bar. The concept started as a seminar topic featured by the brand at Tales of the Cocktail and other conventions, and it eventually evolved into hands-on, trainer-led workshops for select bar groups. Demand became widespread. Says Natalia Garcia Bourke, El Silencio’s national brand director, “The people who went to the workshops [a couple of years ago] and saw benefits from it are now beverage directors of big groups and are requesting [the trainings] for their staff.”
While most businesses would capitalize on this demand and charge a fee, El Silencio, while selective regarding the groups to which they offer the workshop, hosts them for free. “We don’t gain [financially] from them,” says Bourke. “It’s really the bartenders that can take away from it, learn from it, and discover something that will make them a better bartender” and, hopefully, an advocate for wellness in the industry.
Not only does El Silencio not seek financial gain from the workshops, but the brand almost never incorporates product placement in the curriculum. “We’re there as a team,” says Bourke. “We’re present during the workshop itself, and it’s sponsored by us, but it’s more about … focusing on the wellness aspect rather than trying to sell them more product at the [same] time.”
“Mezcal is the girl that everyone wants to dance with right now,” says Taryn Olsen, El Silencio’s events director. “Looking at the category, everyone is jockeying for a position because it’s very popular and there’s no Coca-Cola of mezcal.” With multiple brands vying for sales dominance, El Silencio believes its personalized focus on bartenders’ well-being builds a loyal family of customers and assures its product a permanent position in a bartender’s well.
Billy Ray, a Los Angeles bartender who uses his new premium-mixers company, Mixwell, as a platform for creating change in bar culture, has become one of the biggest advocates for wellness in the drinks industry. “Being a brand owner, I’m able to do stuff that’s effective,” he says. He doesn’t have to focus his efforts on taking customers out for drinks or planning an elaborate drinking activity in order to show his boss how he’s building brand loyalty. “That brand message doesn’t need to come through when you have a cocktail in hand; it can come through in our [other] actions.”
A recovering alcoholic, Ray is all too aware of the temptations and pitfalls bartenders encounter every day. Because of his own experience, he doesn’t believe a brand should build loyalty by reinforcing the partying culture. As an alternative, he runs gratis exercise bootcamp sessions in a local park and is currently involved in talks with Seedlip, a line of nonalcoholic spirits, to create a Seedlip-Mixwell nonalcoholic cocktail for bars to serve during Dry January. Down the road, he wants to work with Headspace, a popular meditation app, to create pre- and post-shift meditations for bartenders.
When people ask Ray why he’s in the industry if he’s sober, he says it’s because the industry “needs a change. The lack of self-care among bartenders helps drive him—and other like-minded brand representatives—forward in the pursuit of wellness. Believing bartenders’ needs should come first, these disruptors of the drinks industry’s brand-building status quo seek to connect with their customers in healthier ways and to turn the tide on the current culture of heavy drinking.
Shana Clarke is a freelance wine writer based in New York City and a PR/Marketing consultant for the wine and restaurant industries. You can often find her drinking BYOB Champagne at dim sum brunch. Follow her on Instagram or visit www.shanaspeakswine.com.