Behind the Bar

The 5 Advantages of Being a Founder-Led Spirits Brand

Two hands scooping grains in front of liquor stills.
What's the virtue in building a spirits brand with your own two hands? Freedom to explore. (Photo: blueflames)

When Distill Ventures launched in 2013, it was with the vision of helping spirit entrepreneurs take advantage of a specific moment in the market. More than ever before, consumers were losing interest and confidence in huge brands across all businesses. This applied to the spirits industry, in which words like “craft” and “small batch” began to be a brand’s strongest selling point.

“The love affair with some big brands is over,” says Dan Gasper, chief operating officer of Distill Ventures in a recent livestream Q&A. He remarked that some $18 billion in sales have shifted from large to small companies from 2009 to 2014 across all consumer packaged good categories, “and we believe that’s just the start,” he says.

This mounting distrust of large corporations across industries is changing what consumers value and prioritize. We’re in search of high quality products with diminishing interest in big brands.

“We're inherently more interested in the product than we used to be,” says Gasper. “We have an appetite for quality over quantity.”

This shift is also a result of the changing ways in which consumers find out about brands, as well as increased access to purchasing obscure products from across the globe.

“So, what’s the net result of that?” Gasper asks. “It creates an unfair advantage for founder-led brands.”

Gasper outlines five advantages at the hands of founder-led brands, and as COO of Distill Ventures, he encourages the brands they incubate to use these “unfair” advantages to their greatest gain.

1. Founder-led brands have an interesting story to share.

In today’s economy, people are compelled by products with a story. Founder-led brands are perfectly positioned, in this case, to use their journey as a marketing tool — one that is authentic and meaningful.

“Having a real and interesting story is a powerful tool that connects in a way that few big brands are able to, as the founder is sharing their personal journey and that gives them a really, really good reason to exist,” he says.

According to Gasper, the best founder-led brands shine in this department. They engage their consumer base by sharing their mission and communicating what inspires their business. “Great founder-led businesses spark interest because they’re constantly sharing their story as it is evolving. What it started as, where they are today and where they’re going. They spark interest by constantly talking about what they’re making, why they’re making it, how they’re making it and who’s making it … It’s incredibly engaging for consumers today.”

2. They can build real communities.

Not all brands launch with a modern story. Some have to dig into their history and heritage to forge an identity. This is another space in which a whole community of people can become engaged. To get people involved, Gasper says, some founder-led brands revive a community, resurrect a tradition, push the boundaries of a flavor (for example, making a low carb drink to satisfy a specific demand), or celebrate a specific region and terroir. “By doing something interesting and sharing the results with people, the bond that you can create can be far, far deeper with your audience.”

3. Founder-led brands can make great friends.

“A big part of community building is collaboration, and this is a space where founder-led brands have a massively unfair advantage,” Gasper says. “The best founder-led brands understand that they have more in common with other craft makers than what divides them.”

These brands have unique opportunities to actively work and collaborate with one another, whereas many massive brands can only compete with one another. Instead, these startup brands can help educate each other for the good of the industry as a whole. This extends even to collaborations with products that are non-alcoholics and sometimes not even drinks (for example, a whiskey brand can work with a boutique chocolate maker). “Collaborations are a great way to create interest and celebrate shared values.”

4. They can experiment with passion, drawing out magical journeys driven by curiosity.

Historically, spirits brands wouldn’t dare release a product that wasn’t exhaustively vetted and cautiously produced. New releases were calculated and deliberate. This is still the case for some big brands. But founder-led brands have the autonomy to release experimental drinks, and they’re now well-received in an economy in which people are interested in even the most outlandish flavors. There’s a heightened spirit of creativity and exploration is highly encouraged by the market.

“In a previous world, all of the experimental drinks were something that you’d never see and weren’t particularly interesting,” he says. “But because we are now a nation interested in flavors … releasing small amounts of weird, wonderful, beautiful things can be a great way to build a loyal following … It makes for stories that are not all perfect but more magical, it’s the highs it’s the lows it’s the happy accidents.”

This is one of many ways that founder-led brands can keep consumers intrigued about what they’re doing next.

5. They have the freedom to make it memorable.

What’s the best thing a founder can do for their brand? Be themselves. “Founders can enjoy themselves and that brings a very realness to your business.”

You can listen to Dan Gasper's talk on "Leveraging Your Unfair Advantage" talk in its entirety in this Facebook Live video.

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