Interview

"I want people to focus on Bulldog as a brand. People don't call Jack Daniel's a whiskey" - Interview, Bulldog Gin founder & CEO, Anshuman Vohra - Part II

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In the first part of just-drinks' interview with Bulldog Gin Co's founder & CEO, Anshuman Vohra, we looked at the birth and rise of the brand. In part two, Vohra considers the wider gin segment, Bulldog's relationship with Gruppo Campari and his hopes for the future.

Bulldog Gin Co began operations in 2007

Bulldog Gin Co began operations in 2007

As detailed in just-drinks' recent series of 'Gin Essentials' articles, the segment is over-reliant on the more developed spirits markets of the world. In the medium- to long-term, Vohra doesn't see much changing here. "I think there's still a lot of room (for gin) to run in northern Europe, in markets such as the UK, Belgium and Germany," he says. "Consumers here have very high purchasing power, and the markets are very closely-knit. But, I'm still bullish about the US. We have specific challenges that we need to deal with, but the base for premium gin is still so small. For a smart brand that is well-differentiated and agile, you can do some damage in the US."

Despite this optimism towards his home market, though, the numbers don't appear to back Vohra's claim. Last year, according to figures from The IWSR, gin volumes in the country dipped by 1.7% to fewer than 10m cases. Vohra's enthusiasm is undiminished. "The category as a whole in the US is in decline, thanks in part to traditional brands that are not premium, that have fallen out of favour but represent 20% to 30% of the category," he says. "To me, I see a standard segment and a premium segment for gin. The US is one of the few places where I see no overlap between the two - you could be comparing Cognac with schnapps; that's how different I feel they are."

I press Vohra on this differentiation. "If your drink is, say, vodka & cranberry, which brand you've chosen is virtually indistinguishable in this drink," he explains. "Gin, on the other hand, has such a stark difference between standard and premium that if you asked for a gin & tonic, you'd immediately be able to tell the difference. So, there's no overlap between consumption and consumer. There is zero tendency to trade up in gin - the standard and the premium consumer is so different."

With premium gin volumes in the US floating around the 3m-case mark, Vohra is thankful for the segment dominance by only a few brands. "Three brands represent about 90% of that 3m cases," he says, "Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick's. When there's that level of concentration, it's easy to see who you're going to try to take share from. It's clear who you have to beat, and whose consumers you have to go after."

When it comes to emerging markets, however, gin – like other non-domestic white spirits categories – has never quite taken off. "The problems I see for premium gin in the emerging markets is based on legacy consumption and on purchasing power," Vohra says. "Consumers will gravitate to premium Scotch, for example, in the same way their dads did, so to get the category switch is a long road.

"Then, there's a very finite number of people that can afford to buy Bulldog in those markets, compared to, say, Spain."

Anshuman Vohra founded Bulldog Gin Co in 2007

I can't help trying to show off to Vohra, flagging an article I wrote three years ago, where I bemoan a spirits sector stuck in limbo: "While it may want the sales - both in volume and speed - of vodka," I smugged, " it also wants to boast the history and provenance of whisk(e)y." On the issue of provenance, Vohra sees this as fight not worth having. "That's more of an issue from a trade standpoint," he counters. "I'm not sure how much consumers, when they're making their decisions, segment the world into those silos. We do talk about our provenance with bartenders and the trade, but I'm not sure that that's going to help us get to 1m cases. I don't think consumers are that focused on it, they want to know what's in the bottle and like it, more than they want to know its provenance. Besides, the brands that have been around for 200-plus years? They've won that battle. I don't wish to fight that battle.

"Provenance is not what it used to be today," he continues. "The Millennial consumer rejects the notion of accepting as gospel what their parents or their grandparents used to do. They want to know: Why is this right for me?"

The best future growth driver? Gin has managed to expand its moments of consumption, according to Vohra. "Today, there are potentially eight hours of consumption occasions for gin. Five or ten years ago, that wasn't the case."

Two years ago, Vohra secured a global distribution deal for Bulldog with Gruppo Campari. The partnership, which sees Campari handle the bulk of Bulldog's export markets, has been a game-changer. "It's great," he says of the tie-up. "Today, we're in about 95 countries, with Campari handling around 80 of them. We've trebled in size of footprint - they've been able to get us access and credibility that we didn't have before."

The agreement would also appear to map Vohra's exit strategy: "They have an option to acquire us in 2020," he notes. "They have to earn it, though, through the brand's performance."

And yet, such a move is surely inevitable for Campari, with a gin-shaped hole in its portfolio? Vohra smiles: "They don't have that gap anymore.

"Besides, I don't see it as a fait-accompli. I was an M&A banker, so I've learned that you never know what's going to happen."

Looking to the future, then, Vohra is clear on what message he wants to get across to the consumer: "I don't want people to focus on Bulldog as a gin," he says, "I want people to focus on Bulldog as a brand. People don't call Jack Daniel's a whiskey."

So, how does he envision the company's future panning out? "You never know what's going to happen. One thing I don't have is time. Today, I have access to pretty much everything else, except time. The question we have to keep asking ourselves is: Are we doing the right things to make sure the brand is best served?

"Whatever happens five years from now is a function of decisions we make today," he says. "So, we need to be right more than we're wrong."

And 50 years from now? "I want Bulldog to be a brand that I can show to my kids as my legacy."


Sectors: Spirits

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