<#029> Why you should build your category instead of building your brand (and how to do that)

<#029> Why you should build your category instead of building your brand (and how to do that)
Photo by LOGAN WEAVER | @LGNWVR / Unsplash

Building drinks brands in the On-trade is not an easy task. The back bars are full of bottles. Drinks menus are either full of difficult-to-understand cocktails or hold just a handful. This makes it very difficult to have a product that is featured in it or to stand out.

In the last years, there has been a proliferation of brands. Tequila in the USA and Gin in Europe is probably the most visible examples.  A lot of players have been lured in by each category's growth.

During the craft brands renaissance in the USA, the first brands were not really competing against each other. They were joining their efforts to build together their new category (e.g. craft bourbon, craft gin, etc.). They had the vision to bring something fresh to consumers. They were driven by passion, not (only) money.

When the number of entrants outpaces the growth in the category, the cookie crumbles; instead of making the pie bigger, brands start eating each other's slide. This drives cannibalization. Consumers pick a new brand and stop buying the ones they used to drink.

This happens because new entrants become "me too" brands. Instead of creating their category, they try to differentiate themselves with small details, such as botanicals within an existing category.

I am often asked about the secret sauce to making a successful brand. While there is no such thing as a silver bullet, some recurring traits exist.

The attention always falls on branding, packaging, and marketing campaigns, but we tend to forget that often brands don't have big budgets to go to market. They reach success bottom-up. They win outlet by outlet, focusing on their category.

Budgets are tight, and deciding to invest in your brand is natural. You don't want to be a missionary and spend money building the category. You think big brands should do the heavy lifting in building the category. Yes, but no. They used to do it but have left the job to smaller brands.

You should build your category, not an existing one.

Building your category is counter-intuitive because it lets you pretend you are not focusing on your brand, but you are. It's a softer way to get people to your brand without being too pushy.

Category? That's a broad term, and among others, it can refer to:

  • An existing spirit category such as Gin, Bitters, Whisk(e)y
  • An occasion-driven category: a session drink, an approachable aperitif, an after-dinner drink that's great in cocktails
  • A purpose-driven category: sustainability, lower alcohol content, etc.

No matter what a "category" means to you, the important thing is that you become the reference for a niche you have created. Then you can expand the niche from within.

You should do the same as the early successful craft brands. They used to bring new people into a (most often dormant) category. They created a new category that blends in with the old category, driving sales for the whole category. They made the cake bigger.

Think about how American Whiskey brands shook the category. The same has happened to bitters, vermouth, agave spirits, and Irish Whiskey—dormant categories ruled by a handful of brands that new entrants have revolutionized.

The most successful ones do what big brands have stopped doing. They stopped educating about the category and now only educate about their brands. Consumers want to know the options and then pick what they feel like choosing based on what they like.

Let me share my 3 top picks to do that: