Wine Warehouse’s Spirits Director, Brandon Bartlett Says “Be Realistic”
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a new brand seeking distribution? Distributor Insight investigates.
“Be prepared and know your cost of goods. Then, remember there are other costs that go on top of that before you can get to where you need to be pricewise on the shelf.” – this is the No.1 piece of advice Brandon Bartlett, Director of Spirits at Wine Warehouse Distributing gives to new brands seeking distribution. No. 2 is, “Can you continue to supply your distributors if and when you are successful?”
Wine Warehouse is well-known in the alcohol industry as the distributor house that “builds brands”. The company sticks with its partners through thick and thin, building their identity in retailers, restaurants and bars. But for a new brand just starting out, the main question is: how does one even get in the distributor’s door?
Mind Your Own Business
“Before you even call your target distributor, know exactly how much your product costs to make,” says Brandon. “Sounds simple but there are some brands who don’t really know what’s involved in getting onto shelves.”
Brandon advises anyone with a new brand to research how distribution works in detail, including shipping and taxes. He points out that taxes change according to proof, and then again, according to state. These are the overlooked costs to which he’s referring.
“When a potential new brand comes in with a realistic goal, then we’re already off to a good start,” the Spirits Director asserts. “Too many times new brand teams hear about a tequila that’s doing x amount of cases and they think they can reach that in their first year. It’s highly competitive out there, and although you have a stand-out brand, you have to consider there are other stand-out brands already operating that have acquired years of loyalty from their followers.”
So, what matters the most beyond the liquid itself? According to Brandon, success often comes down to what you have behind your brand. Manpower and resources will usually affect the accomplishment of the brand’s development within the three-tier system. Word-of-mouth is still the most reliable way to build a new name, and that takes patience. “What some people think is a sales hook, really isn’t,” Brandon explains. “The story behind a brand must relate to the alcohol in the bottle, and all too-often marketers try to pass of gimmicky, tenuous tales as the backstory. It rarely ever works. The story should, ultimately, focus on the spirit.”
“The story behind a brand must relate to the alcohol in the bottle, and all too-often marketers try to pass of gimmicky, tenuous tales as the backstory. It rarely ever works. The story should, ultimately, focus on the spirit.”
A clear picture of what your brand’s competition looks like ranks highly on Brandon’s “must-do list”. “Who do you want to sit next to on the shelf? Apply that realism I talked about a bit earlier to the pricing structure. When you see yourself as the next x, y or z brand, ask yourself: do you have their campaign resources? Be realistic. Consider the old-adage of ‘crawling before you walk’”, he says.
“When a brand gets to me, I taste it, consider the packaging and if I love both of those, I send out a prospective brand form which forces the details like which distributors the brand is already with, its price point, marketing investment dollars and is it currently in California? – the latter being of importance since Wine Warehouse only operates in this state.”
If Brandon assesses the information that comes back to be suitable, then the product goes to the Tasting Committee – a board comprising the company President Greg Akins, Executive Vice Presidents John Rhodes, Dan Melvin, Trevor Thiret and Scott Rankin, VP of Marketing Lisa Mize, and the Director of Spirits Brandon Bartlett. As a group, they, of course, taste and look at the brand and whether they like it or not. If it passes the taste and packaging test then they look at how and where it would fit in with the other spirits in the book. “Wine Warehouse is very picky” Brandon explains. He says, “We are selectors, not collectors”.
If the brand(s) get voted in then the Wine Warehouse team goes to work on pricing. “The brand people need to be available for these conversations,” says Brandon. Know you importer’s information if you have one. Together with the Spirits team the supplier (brand owner or manager) decide on not just pricing but deals called combos and any incentives for the distributor mangers or sales reps.
“Next we launch the brand to our sales representatives. This goes back to knowing your costs. Figuring in sample-costs to a new brand’s budget is important. After all, if nobody can taste it then how will they know if they want to stock it?
“Next, who will speak to the reps on your brand’s behalf and get them enthused? Sometimes it’s the brand manager and sometimes it’s me,” Brandon clarifies. “But if the brand can have the distiller or the founder come in at launch-time, it makes a big statement of commitment on their behalf and spikes some interest. They need to tell a great, passionate story and get our reps excited who, in turn, will get the buyers keen, but it all starts with the brand team’s attitude.”
One mistake many brands have in common is that they bog down their distributor presentation with geeky information. Firstly, every rep on the Wine Warehouse team already knows the distillation process from A to Z. Secondly, what they need to know is what makes your brand special? If you can, pare that down to three or four bullet points.
While incentives always help to light a fire under most people, it is certainly not a requirement at Wine Warehouse. “When we take on a brand we’ve already agreed to do our best,” Brandon says. “When we partner with a brand it’s because we know we can give it the attention it deserves, without compromising our existing brands. I’ve tasted some wonderful products and have had to turn them down, because it’s not fair to our brands already onboard. Everything must fit just right, for the new brand and how it works within our portfolio with the current ones. That doesn’t mean we can’t handle multiple brands in the same category. It just means it has to be the right time to bring in something new.”
“When we partner with a brand it’s because we know we can give it the attention it needs, without compromising our existing brands.”
Wine Warehouse is celebrated for building brands that develop solid restaurant, bar followings and meaningful retail placements – the kind of brands with staying power that get passed down through generations.
Brandon’s closing statement: “I try not to put anything into the Wine Warehouse sales rep’s bag that I wouldn’t want to sell myself. Quality really does matter and just putting ‘craft’ or “handmade” on a label doesn’t always work. We love brands with a great story that resonates – we’re a family-owned company and we love our family of spirits partners from the big brands to the soon to be big ones!”