Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue.
Brothers Davide and Bruno Codispoti are of Italian heritage, and while growing up in Toronto they were constantly exposed to food. Their grandmother cooked for them – their real-estate-agent father lost his wife when the boys were young – and they were never far from the kitchen, trying to learn Nonna's culinary secrets.
When they grew up they channelled their love affair with food into a business, BrandFusion Ltd., which brings popular restaurant brands into local supermarkets, among them Kernels Popcorn (snacks and spices), Pizza Pizza (dipping sauces) and Mr. Greek (souvlaki).
That was 13 years ago, and since then the brothers have been travelling the world gleaning ideas, with most of their time spent – where else? – in restaurants. "We are foodies at heart and are always looking for an opportunity to sink our teeth into," says Davide, 36.
They spied one in the return of the cocktail. "The "mixology" trend seemed to have momentum and staying power," Davide says. "We could see it going mainstream."
What grabbed them were culinary cocktails, drinks using herbs, spices and traditional cooking methods that make them stand out from the rum-and-coke crowd. Bartenders who create culinary drinks call themselves bar chefs, and among the most celebrated of the new breed in Canada is Frankie Solarik, who mans the award-winning Queen Street West spot called Barchef. Last year, the Codispoti brothers teamed up with Mr. Solarik to create a ready-to-drink culinary cocktail packaged in a one-litre bottle.
Their first product, launched under their own cocktail brand, Crazy Uncle, was Blood Orange Rosemary & Maple Punch, made from real juices and other all natural ingredients. As a bonus, the "rimmer" – think salt for a margarita glass – was attached in a small bag.
Ontario's LCBO stores stocked it right away, and at an in-store tasting the product proved popular with patrons who bought it at $18.95 a bottle. Two more ready-to-drink cocktails followed this past summer: a Basil Honey and Lime Daiquiri and a Spiced Cola Bitters and Mint Julep. But they languished on the shelf, the brothers say, primarily because of where they were shelved: with wine coolers and other premixed one-pour cocktails.
But Crazy Uncle is not a cooler. "We are not Kool-Aid with vodka," Davide asserts. "We are a culinary cocktail. But there isn't a category for us yet, which tends to be confusing for consumers."
And the brand has no real say in the matter at the LCBO: Davide and Bruno, 40, say they didn't even bother asking the retailer to change shelf location because they knew they would have been told no.
Call them crazy but they are not giving up. Crazy Uncle is working on at least three new flavours, but will customers know where to find them?
THE CHALLENGE: How can Crazy Uncle demonstrate that it's something new and put its bottles in front of likely buyers?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Greg Salmela, principal of Aegis Brand Design, a firm offering marketing advice to leading brands and organizations, Toronto
It is no surprise that innovative and new product categories often face a significant uphill battle before earning acceptance in the market. But focusing too much energy into influencing a behemoth like the LCBO could be an inefficient use of resources.
The LCBO, as with all retailers, takes its cues from consumer tastes and purchasing habits. Therefore, the extent of a product brand's leverage in the retail world rests with the strength of its relationship with consumers.
The Crazy Uncle brand builders need to focus on relationships, pursue a marketing strategy that builds rapport, visibility and traction on a grassroots level with the core audience of the brand's potential market. And who is this core audience? Who are the early adopters, the influencers, the individuals who would have a natural affinity for the category and could spread the word? Essentially Crazy Uncle needs to establish the culinary cocktail category in the mind of the market first, ultimately to be reflected in store aisles.
Barry O'Neill, managing partner of investment bank Zed Financial, an investment bank helping to finance mid-market Canadian companies, Toronto
I think the main thing is the popularity of the drink. If they become popular then customers will go into the LCBO and ask for them by name. They should not be so concerned about where the LCBO has put them on the shelf but how to raise their profile among the public.
Because of the uniqueness of the bottle, it's important to get their product on the shelves of popular bars in the city so people will see the labels and ask to try it. They could also do promotions at popular restaurants and bars, having a Crazy Uncle Night where the product is served. The more the public tries them, the more the public will look to find them at the LCBO. If they can get their name on the menus of popular bars and restaurants then people will see it and ask to try their product because of the uniqueness of their name.
Steve Luttmann, founder and president of Leblon LLC, maker of cachaça, an artisanal rum-like spirit made of Brazilian sugarcane, New York
This is a familiar situation to what we experienced. Our own product is an existing category in Brazil. Cachaça is used to make the cocktail caipirinhas, but outside Brazil it is virtually unknown.
So, like Crazy Uncle, we consider ourselves to be a high-end, handcrafted product, not crap in a bottle. But how to communicate that? You've got to educate people. And to that end you need some cool ideas. We published a book, How to be a Brazilian, and also started a digital campaign to legalize cachaça in the U.S., to draw interest to our product.
Of course, you can't taste a product on the Web, so you also have to create events where people come out and try what you are selling. In our case, we bought a cheap ice cream truck, painted it in bright colours with our logo on it, and took it to where the crowds were. These are not expensive ideas, but they are different and unique. Fresh ideas are key to selling products that are unique. They help you show both consumers and retailers like the LCBO that you are not just another liquor or mixer or cocktail. You are your own beverage.
Robin James Wynne, general manager and beverage director of Rock Lobster Food Co., Toronto
I think that Crazy Uncle is not the problem here. It is the LCBO, which seems only concerned with the product passing a lab test, meeting its marketing guidelines, and making sure it can be consistently stocked on the shelf. That's a shame because the product deserves more.
But if there can't be a new category created for Crazy Uncle then I think the best way for the LCBO to market this product would be to do a feature release on it, and introduce some tasting sessions with Frankie Solarik at key LCBO locations. The LCBO could also feature Crazy Uncle in their in-house magazine in an article highlighting the difference between this premium product made from natural ingredients and ready-to-drink coolers made with artificial flavouring and colouring. I think that, in general, the LCBO needs to work with bartenders, bar managers and cocktail enthusiasts to make sure products like this are successful.
Such support would also help promote cocktail culture as a whole. Toronto already has some of the best mixology happening in the world, with our bartenders winning national and international competitions. The demand for craft and unique products to be stocked at the LCBO is very high.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY CAN DO NOW
Take your product to the people
Conduct tastings, which will help show consumers and retailers that you are not just another liquor or mixer or cocktail.
Build a community of influencers
Put your product in popular bars so people can try it. Then they will look to find the drink at retailers and create demand.
Exploit your brand name
Host Crazy Uncle Night where the product is served.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.