Independent Thought - The K&L/Springbank Connection

Doing the podcast with Springbank last Thursday really sent me into deep reflection this weekend.  If you listened to the conversation I had with Peter, you'll hear him talk about putting flavor in front of profits.  I replied with a sarcastic quip about flavor not being something that has a distinct monetary value, and we had a good laugh about how Springbank is an accountant's worst nightmare.  I really feel a kinship with these guys because they're also of the philosophy that money will eventually come with hard work and a good product.  In all honesty, I never look at our sales figures.  I have no idea how much booze we sold last month or what our projections are for April.  Heck, the only reason I even know my own salary is because I just did my taxes recently.  I'm not looking to cash in here, so it's not really too important to me as long as I can pay my bills and afford to eat out on the weekend.

This is not how anyone else in this industry thinks, however.

This industry is about building brands.  Getting logos on T-shirts.  Moving palates.  Sponsoring events.  Growing the company, and then selling it for a billion dollars.  In fact, you'll hear Peter say during the podcast that his accountants are frustrated with Springbank because they have no interest in ever selling it! At K&L we've been lucky because our customers are not branded - they want something different every time and welcome our in-house opinion.  It's difficult to explain this to some large brand managers who don't understand the way we do business.  One side is about marketing, the other is about passion.  It isn't impossible for these two sides to come together, but it's not easy to maintain credibility when doing so.  Not all marketing is obvious however, nor is it inherently bad.

The one market that big companies are having trouble reaching is the whisky geeks, but believe me they're trying.  Burns Stewart just changed Bunnahabhain from 43% to 45.8% because they're reading the blogosphere and that's what the "insiders" are complaining about.  Everyone is switching to unchillfiltered, but it isn't because they suddenly started to care about flavor.  While some may simply ascribe this transition to giving customers what they want, remember that less than 1% of the whisky market even knows what unchillfiltered means.  Again, some people may think that Bunnahabhain tastes better now that it fits the "geek" profile. I actually like the 43% better, but if it makes their whisky more attractive to some drinkers, that's good marketing.

Because K&L tends to cater to the "geek" market, everything we do is catching the attention of big companies looking to break into this crowd.  They want to know how we're selling so much of the "boutique" stuff, when larger stores are struggling.  What are we doing differently? Being honest? I'm not sure it's the result of any one thing.  It isn't advertising though because, much like Springbank, we don't pay for ads nor do we accept money for ads.  If I had to summarize it, I would call it credibility.  Maybe because we're not putting money first, people trust us to tell them the truth? 

In the end, it's difficult to argue against major advertising.  It's nice to believe sometimes that we make our own decisions about what we like, but the truth is we all are influenced by the desires of others.  If an influencial writer rates a new whisky highly, that whisky will instantly become more saleable - therefore whisky companies give free samples to these whisky writers (me included).  The more access they have to blogs, email distribution, and Facebook, the more they can permeate the media that influences thought (one reason I will never reside on Facebook - 1000 friends and they're all liquor companies).  Good ads still work - I still associate Campari with those amazing Salma Hayek photos and it makes me want to drink it more!

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll