Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated the long-awaited move to our new office space alongside some of our favorite local brands. Once we had a chance to sample some of their newest flavors of beer, pickles, tequila, kombucha, and more, we sat down to ask a few of the founders to share with us a bit about their growth journey. Specifically, we wanted to know their keys to building such disruptive brands and inspiring as much customer loyalty as they have so young in their lifecycles.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore their answers in a bit more detail (click here to subscribe so you don’t miss those updates!). For now, here are the highlights of our November Power Hour Panel, featuring Ghost Tequila’s David Gordon and Down The Road Beer Co.’s Donovan Bailey.
One City. Two Founding Stories
To kick things off, we wanted to hear how each company got its start and the path each founder grew the brand to where it is today. While Donovan admitted the two stories couldn’t be more different, there were still some powerful similarities.
Ghost Tequila: "A small brand with big aspirations"
For Ghost, the adventure began when co-founder David Gordon sat down at a bar in South Boston across from bartender Chris Moran. Chris had been infusing ghost pepper into blanco tequila, creating the base for what quickly became the bar’s best-selling cocktail. Frustrated with the labor of in-house infusion, Chris pitched the idea of a pre-infused spicy tequila to David, who already had experience running a liquor store and working with brands and distributors in the industry. The rest is history, right?
Well, not so fast. While they’ve enjoyed tons of local success and have already broken into five different markets nationwide, David says they have a long way to go. “The goal has always been to create a tequila that’s recognized and enjoyed nationwide... I wouldn’t say we’ve had our big break quite yet.”
To get there, Ghost’s priorities include:
- Raising human and financial capital, including partnerships with early stakeholders in Fireball Whiskey and Patron Tequila. “We’ve raised a lot of money and are spending it like bandits.”
- Building a data-driven sales and marketing engine. One of the company’s early hires was a Director of Marketing to lead the collection and analysis of data to improve sales nationwide.
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Down The Road Beer Co: "An inch wide and a mile deep"
For Down The Road, the journey has been rather different, and for good reason -- the two brands have wildly different definitions of success. For the brewery’s founder, Donovan Bailey, success means building a loyal following in the brand’s backyard. “We’re going an inch wide and a mile deep,” he told us.
That slower, deeper growth is made possible partly because Down The Road hasn’t taken on a lot of investment. Donovan turned his passion for homebrewing into a profession with a seed from his personal savings, plus some help from friends and family (he calls the operation “chronically underfunded”). Without the pressure from outside investors to scale up quickly, Down The Road has been able to take a more focused approach to building a presence locally.
Central to their mission to “build a brand people will identify with and want to take ownership of,” Down The Road has focused on the following:
- Hosting more tasting events at local bars and liquor stores than any other brewery in the Boston area.
- Assembling an in-house team and process to handle all ordering, distribution and fulfillment with their on- and off-premise partners.
- Building a tap room in the heart of Everett, MA where they can develop a physical presence for the brand their customers have come to love.
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The Secret to Building a Lifestyle Brand
While the two brands are on very different growth trajectories, the importance of branding to the success of both of their products is impossible to ignore. As our VP of Marketing Allen Bonde pointed out, both companies have worked hard to establish a brand early on, and their success now depends on fulfilling the promise of that branding to the market.
To follow up, we asked both founders for some secrets to building a lifestyle brand that separates their products from the pack.
DTR: “Art is in our blood...without it we’d be just like everyone else”
Let’s start with Down The Road this time. Branding-- and, more specifically, can design -- is especially important in the craft beer space because that’s often what inspires a shopper to pick up the can and check it out. From there, Donovan says, the sale is almost a guarantee. “90% of the time, a shopper isn’t going to want to put beer down once they’ve picked it up.”
To create an interesting and consistent look and feel to their overall branding, Down The Road committed itself completely to the art world. The company hired an artist to work as their own in-house illustrator, defining and bringing to life the images of wildlife and fantasy that don the DTR cans.
That vivid imagery and association with art comes to life at Down The Road’s tap room, too. The walls are full of graffiti-style murals, and will soon play host to a number of pop up art shows, serving almost as a community art gallery. For Donovan, it’s this commitment to the arts that separates Down The Road from its competitors. “Art is in our blood, and building community around our brand through art is a big part of what has made us successful” he says. “Without it, we’d be just like everyone else.”
Ghost: “Building a brand takes so long and is so difficult to get right.”
For Ghost Tequila, the key to branding lies in creating content for your audience to feast on. One lesson we learned from David is that as important as content creation is, you can’t expect to nail it from the start. “Building a brand takes so long and is so difficult to get right,” he told us. With that in mind, the Ghost team took an agile approach to content creation, trying a bunch of different approaches and keeping a close eye on what audiences responded well to.
“You’ve got to start early, throwing content out there and literally creating new content on a daily basis,” says David. “Even then, it takes a long time to figure out what your brand should be all about. The only way to do that is to rinse and repeat and rinse and repeat until you find out what works.”
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After countless tries, Ghost Tequila has found success with short, fun videos and animations on social media (most recently a parody of the famous pottery scene in the movie Ghost), and with Ghost branded merchandise, an admittedly unexpected source of traction. “The merch thing sounds silly, but it can really work. When you find a great piece of collateral that people like, they might just go crazy for it.”
So while Ghost Tequila and Down The Road Beer Co. have very different growth stories, one theme is central to them both: for disruptors, branding is key. Whether you’re stepping into the market with a completely new and in-demand product like Ghost, or cultivating local interest in a larger trend like Down The Road, having an image consumers like to engage with is secondary only to the quality of the product.