New Strategies for Building Your Alcohol Brand

Why alcohol brands should think less about going viral—and more about creating value, building trust, and making sure you’re discoverable across the supply chain

Illustration by Larry Lee.
This article was produced in collaboration with SevenFifty.

Ah So Insights’ Scott Rosenbaum brings ideas and inspiration to wine and spirits professionals. Here, he shares best practices for importers and producers. Also read his article on How to do Competitive Market Research

Building a beverage brand isn’t what it used to be.

The ever-growing number of suppliers means increased competition. Importers are facing greater logistical hurdles and wholesalers are taking on fewer SKUs in the face of economic uncertainty. Conventional sales and marketing outreach has faltered in the wake of social and technological transformation. Retailer consolidation and the market’s whiplash embrace of ecommerce has left many struggling. But are these contemporary concerns about brand-building grossly overstated and misunderstood?

In a word: yes. Here’s why.

Increased competition means more noise, and that’s certainly intimidating even for the most seasoned marketer. But it also presents opportunities for your brand to be the signal. Reduced access to traditional markets is a boon for prospects when you consider evolving geographic and digital frontiers. Retailer consolidation spells the chance to strengthen relationships because you’re not spread so thin. Adopting digital solutions allows for your reach to scale far beyond your finite resources.

As a consultant, I’m always looking for inspiration from outside our industry. In the face of seemingly intractable problems, the brilliant 19th-century mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi popularized a powerful mental model: “Invert, always invert.” Basically, consider the opposite of what you want. Spotlight errors and roadblocks in advance. Think about what you want to avoid as much as what you want to achieve.

Moving from the realm of abstraction, what does this mean in practice? Conventional thinking would tell you to get your most updated trade assets into the hands of your distribution partners. Even when you email your partners the most current files, they’re still responsible for downloading and sharing them. The inverted model—how do I avoid having my distribution partners use outdated assets?—would inform your decision, for example, to share those assets via an interconnected marketplace like SevenFifty’s online marketplace, where multiple stakeholders, from sales reps to restaurant and retail buyers, can access your trade assets in real time. Here are a few ideas for pushing forward with a fresh perspective and innovative methods for effectively getting your message out to the trade in this burgeoning ecommerce era.

Values Over Buzzwords

If you’re tired of the last decade’s marketing buzzwords—viral, authenticity, disruptive—it’s because we’ve exhausted them. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have their place in certain contexts, but it’s time for new paradigms to inform our thinking of how alcohol brands achieve resonance, reach, and relevance.

Buzzwords don’t serve brands, but values can.

Be beneficent instead of viral. Virality as a marketing model is outdated. Metaphors aside, we’ve all lived and reckoned with what it means for something to be viral. The force, while powerful, is also unpredictable. Better to be beneficent. Cultural strategist Ivan Askwith set the stage a decade ago when he said, “We need to understand that effective marketing is no longer about making consumers serve our agenda, but finding meaningful opportunities to serve theirs.” Look to brands like B Corp-certified Lubanzi Wines and Brooks Wine and how they strive to improve the way they do business with stakeholders. Lubanzi contributes 50 percent of their year-end profits to the Pebbles Project, an organization that works to improve the lives of those on South Africa’s wine farms, while Brooks is a member of 1% for the Planet and donates to environmental causes. Others like Du Nord Craft Spirits and Uncle Nearest support social causes through investing in their communities in a way that amplifies their identities as sincerely progressive brands.

Be honest instead of authentic. Authenticity is a slippery slope in the beverage business. Changes in climate and taste are challenging staid notions of what a typical wine and beer can be. Increasingly, spirits refuse to be easily categorized. And what even is an authentic RTD? To thine own brand be true. True selves learn, change, and grow. Honesty allows for these developments in brand while authenticity imposes boundaries. An authentic brand passively expects others to understand them, whereas an honest brand actively works hard to share, disclose, and inform.  

For some brands, like From the Tank boxed wine, this is baked into their name; the wine is literally made in concrete or stainless steel tanks. Others like La Gritona Tequila are blatantly transparent on social media platforms about tricky subjects like the diversity of their investors.

Be subversive, instead of disruptive. Only brands and companies want to disrupt. Restaurants and retailers want to grow their businesses with as little effort and few resources as possible; end consumers want to enjoy their lives. Subversion looks something like this: Capturing some of the market power held by dominant brands through a combination of competitive pricing, eye-catching packaging, and unforgettable brand narratives. Break with the accepted establishment without trying to reinvent the whole system. Need some inspiration? Look to Aviation Gin’s brilliant “Peloton wife” spoof as a case study, which undeniably generated buzz for the brand.

Discoverability is Essential

Beneficence, honesty, and subversiveness are the new elements of brand-building. But you can’t put the cart before the horse. The quality and value of your product and branding are irrelevant if your potential clientele doesn’t know it exists. Twenty years ago, your brand was only as discoverable as your sales force was large or your marketing spend was big.

Today, digital tools allow you to ensure the integrity of your brand’s content across markets and platforms. 

Ecommerce—thanks to the wonders of cloud connectivity—is an increasingly powerful notion for broadcasting your brand. A consistent message builds trust and reinforces the honesty of your brand, as well. How often does an outdated tech sheet impact the way a customer views the reliability of you or your partner’s sales teams? Or worse yet, how often does your sales team feel unsupported for lack of tech info, shelf-talkers, or labels? The content and collateral exist; make sure everyone who needs it can access it at any time anywhere. If your brand doesn’t fill in the blanks, the rest of the world will.

Also don’t expect the trade to find your brand without stacking the odds in your favor. It’s a lot easier to find a needle in a haystack with a magnet. Targeted SEO coupled with proactive social media engagement act as complementary push and pull strategies for buyers. This means updating your website regularly. A dormant blog with three posts won’t cut. Producing content that others will want to link to is key. The use of alt tags on images will help, too, as will making sure your website is mobile-friendly. (Google’s SEO Starter Guide is a great primer.) 

Take advantage of new opportunities available to importers and producers that offer the chance to market your products directly within the wholesale marketplace. These are channels that, quite frankly, weren’t widely available a decade ago. SevenFifty’s Marketplace Storefronts, for example, are a quick way for suppliers to build brand presence right where buyers and distributors are doing business. Check out the Storefronts for Catoctin Creek, Purple Brands, Ridge Vineyards, and Winesellers Ltd. for a master class in getting your brand and trade assets in front of active buyers.

For suppliers who have traditionally felt pushed to the sidelines when it comes to marketing to the trade, it’s all about closing the alcohol marketing gap. The beverage alcohol marketplace might indeed be less forgiving to those who have failed to accept that it is evolving. Brand-building isn’t what it used to be. Thank goodness. If you and your brand are willing to take calculated risks, employ smart tech, and invert, the playing field is more level than ever before.


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Scott Rosenbaum is CEO of Ah So Insights, a wine and spirit industry newsletter and consultancy. Scott was formerly the vice president of T. Edward Wines & Spirits, a New York-based importer and distributor.

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