• Richard Siddle: can start-ups and big business really work together?

    From Innocent Drinks to Ben and Jerry ice cream, brands might start off niche but once they become part of a big corporate how do they keep hold of that credibility? Richard Siddle looks at how big drinks giants are trying to develop craft credentials by working with start-ups and entrepreneurs.

    From Innocent Drinks to Ben and Jerry ice cream, brands might start off niche but once they become part of a big corporate how do they keep hold of that credibility? Richard Siddle looks at how big drinks giants are trying to develop craft credentials by working with start-ups and entrepreneurs.

    mm By September 22, 2016

    The story of how Our Vodka has become a global brand working with local micro distillers, but with The Absolut Company quietly pulling the strings, raises interesting questions about how far big business and start-ups can work together.

    For all the talk of market stagnation, cost cutting and consolidation within the drinks industry and hospitality sectors, there is still an extraordinary amount of innovation, new openings and brand launches to keep us all busy. 

    In fact, at all ends of the market and across all channels of the on-trade it is hard to keep up with the level of new activity be it from the number of drinks products being  introduced to the sector to the amount of new bars, pubs, restaurants and hotels to sell them in.   

    From the weird and wacky, to the tried and tested, from start ups, to heavily backed private investors, to the big corporates constantly looking to re-invent themselves. 

    That said the lines between what constitutes a start up, a craft beer or spirit, say, or a new street food operator with an established high street operator or corporate brand are becoming increasingly blurred. 

    In some cases you find a new brand, or operator is actually a combination of a number of these elements. Each one feeding off their best traits to create a new product or service that neither could have achieved on their own.

    Which ultimately means not everything we see is actually what it claims to be. Scratch below the surface deep enough of the latest craft spirit, or new wine label, and you will find a big investor or producer lurking below the radar. Some more discreetly than others. 

    How many ice cream fans or fruit juice lovers realise that their favourite Ben & Jerry ice cream or Innocent Drinks fruit juice is now owned by Unilever and Coca-Cola respectively.  

    Our Vodka: local entrepreneurs and Pernod's Absolut vodka working together
    Our Vodka: local entrepreneurs and Pernod’s Absolut vodka working together

    Which brings us to the (relatively) new vodka brand, Our Vodka, which we profiled on The Buyer this week. On the face of it this is a hugely innovative brand that has been able to create a global brand based on working with craft and micro distillers and start up entrepreneurs in a host of cities across Europe, from Berlin to Amsterdam, from London to New York, via Seattle and Los Angeles. 

    We came across the Our London brand at the Boutique Bar show this week. And very impressive it is too. Made, it claims, from London’s first micro distillery dedicated to just making vodka underneath the railway arches in Hackney. 

    But even from first impressions there seemed another story at play here. It was just all a little too slick, too well thought through and too successful to be just the work of a group of separate micro distillers all doing their own thing in their own city. 

    It is actually the joint work of a Swedish brand development agency, Great Works, and  enterprising individuals with Pernod’s Absolut Company division in Stockholm.   

    Global ambition

    Their ambition was to build a global brand but using local entrepreneurs in different key cities around the world.

    Hat’s off to them for it is a brilliant concept, and a great example of how a big corporate giant can play effectively in the world of craft and micro distilling.

    But then that said it does become a little less brilliant and original when you understand quite how involved the Absolut team has been involved in the brand. 

    It’s going to be a difficult balance for the Our Vodka team how they balance Absolut’s and Pernod’s involvement. 

    Big them up and they risk losing all brand credibility, but hide their involvement too much and they could run in to trouble of double standards and duping their customers. 

    From the videos the Absolut team have created to explain their involvement in Our Vodka it seems they are on the right side of that line. 

    Particularly as the entrepreneurial spirit they hoped to tap in to is alive and kicking in how the brand is being sold and marketed around the world.

    Take Our London. It is a great product. It’s genuinely different in its crown cap, milk bottle, 37.5% sized bottle. It tastes crisp and clean with enough fruit characteristics to interest most discerning barmen. 

    For Absolut and Pernod it appears to be delivering all they might want. The opportunity to launch a craft, locally produced spirit in to key, hip bar-driven cities around the world. They can see, from a distance,  how they are best marketed and received by knowing spirits drinkers. All without the risk, or the enormous marketing spend, of introducing a new vodka brand of their own. 

    Big and small together 

    We are seeing a host of other big name high street brands and retailers adopting similar link ups with third party start up, creative hubs in the hope of embedding some of that culture and thinking in to their own business. From Tesco to Unilever to Proctor & Gamble to Pernod Ricard, big brands know they can’t grow in the future unless they are interesting and relevant to their customer base in the future. 

    We wish Our Vodka well. It caught our imagination both as a brand, a concept and the fact Pernod and Absolut are involved makes it even more significant. 

    But it is also acts as a line in the sand. Not everything we are seeing behind bars and on wine lists are necessarily what they claim to be and it is up to the people behind them to make sure they intrigue and excite us, but they don’t pull the wool over our eyes about what they really are or where they come from. 

    If we do we’ll collectively show them to the door. 

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