Bacardi launched the global ad for Grey Goose last week

Bacardi launched the global ad for Grey Goose last week

Returning to the just-drinks fold in the guise of our white spirits commentator, Richard Woodard kicks off his latest stint with us with a look at Bacardi's recently-announced global marketing push for its Grey Goose vodka brand.

Have you seen that new Grey Goose ad yet? 'Fly Beyond' is nifty enough, combining an aspirational/inspirational strapline with an against-all-odds narrative: French maître de chai François Thibault risks the wrath of his fellow countrymen by making – shudder – vodka, but wins them round in the end. Hurrah!

The broader campaign plays on the Grey Goose production process – the use of the same grade of Picardie winter wheat employed by all those fancy French boulangeries and pâtisseries, the water filtered through limestone in Cognac. The painstaking approach, the traditional skills and expertise. Etc, etc.

It illustrates the evolution of high-end vodka marketing, from the totemic, minimalistic Absolut ads of the ’80s to this tale of provenance and artisanship. “Sophisticated consumers now, more than ever, care deeply about where the products they enjoy come from,” brand owner Bacardi tells us. “They value quality, style, authenticity and craftsmanship, and they want to know the story of their favourite brands.”

That's fair enough, and I’m sure François Thibault is a lovely chap. I just wouldn’t put him at the centre of the Grey Goose story if it was me. No, I’d reserve that role for the late Sidney Frank.

It would take a bit more than a 90-second ad to do justice to the Sidney Frank story. Forced to drop out of Brown University after one year because he couldn’t afford the fees, Frank later became its largest donor with a gift of US$100m.

He described his two Maybachs and his Bentley as “little toys” and wrote a clause into the pre-nuptial agreement with his second wife that he should be allowed to smoke cigars in bed. Too old to play golf, he employed a team of pros and directed them around the course like so many radio-controlled playthings.

Frank was also a marketing genius who turned Jägermeister, a barely known digestif for German ex-pats, into a multi-million-case-selling über-brand in the US, thanks to a combination of luck, the ruthless exploitation of great publicity and an army of hot hostesses called Jägerettes.

Keen to repeat the trick with vodka, like all good marketeers, Frank settled on the name first: He’d sold a German wine in the US some years before called Grey Goose and, while sales had eventually nose-dived, the resonance of the name had stuck in his head. He couldn't see any problem, then, with retro-fitting the image and back-story to suit his purposes.

After name came price and the boldest stroke of all. Absolut was heading the premium vodka pack at the time, charging around $15 a bottle; Frank decided to pitch Grey Goose at $30. And, to justify that price-tag, he needed a reason.

He found it in France, and the country’s status as the home of luxury. Some years earlier – even prior to the Jägermeister success story – Frank had worked with H Mounier distiller François Thibault on Jacques Cardin Cognac. Now, he asked Thibault to put his skills as a maître de chai to a rather different purpose.

With the margins that a $30 vodka gave him, Frank could afford to sweat over the tiny details: the swanky, smoked glass bottle in large formats to stand out on the back-bar; T-top corks, not screwcaps; wooden crates, not tatty cardboard boxes.

This last point in particular crucially recognised that marketing begins not with the first time a punter spots your bottle or your ad, but when the bartender unpacks your delivery. Make him or her believe that your product is classy, and that’s the message passed on to the consumer.

If all of this was designed to reinforce the message that Grey Goose was the best – which its price-tag already implied – the next step was a combination of serendipity and opportunism.

Drinks awards are fickle, as any brand owner knows. You might win a super-duper-platinum-gold medal one year, and nada the next. But, Grey Goose struck lucky early: In 1998, a year after launch, two bottles sent off to the Beverage Tasting Institute in Chicago won it the accolade of best-tasting vodka in the world.

Never mind the inherent subjectivity of such a claim, nor the fact that Grey Goose has subsequently been outgunned in numerous other tasting competitions. Frank leapt at the chance, spent $3m on advertising and spread the word: This is the best vodka in the world. Combining ad claim and price-tag, people believed it.

Better still, the right people believed it. Sure, the pretty girls with more curves than clothes helped put glasses into punters’ hands, but Frank also gave away Grey Goose to be poured at big charity events. This was not just good PR – those attending were the brand’s ideal target audience.

In less than a decade, Grey Goose went from faded Liebfraumilch label to pioneer of a new segment of the vodka market, selling 1.5m cases and netting Frank more than $2bn when the brand was bought by Bacardi in 2004 (some say $2.2bn, some $2.3bn, but let’s not quibble over the odd $100m).

Now, I get the fact that commercial nous and marketing flair aren’t the stuff of ad agencies’ wet dreams. After all, they don’t make for the most compelling consumer narrative, especially when stacked up against the somewhat more emotive combination of “soft winter wheat” and “Gensac spring water filtered through Grande Champagne limestone”.

So, I can see why the people at Bacardi have done what they’ve done with the Grey Goose story. 'Fly Beyond' is in many ways a benchmark exercise of brand reinterpretation for a different time and a changing consumer mindset.

I just hope that, in the process, we don’t forget Sidney Frank and his rather more no-nonsense approach to selling vodka.