By Kathleen DiBenedetto, Sr. Director, Premium Seed Brand Marketing
Like many young people, I wasn’t sure what I “wanted to be” when I grew up. College revealed that I had special skills, but not necessarily the ones I thought were going to pay the rent — creativity and a love of history and writing romance novels. I remember clearly saying to myself, “I will not lead a life of mediocrity.” And seeing as publishers were not actively pursuing the novels I wrote, I embarked on a journey to find my true passion.
I worked as a casting director. Then I took a job in marketing at a car rental company, and I eventually found my way to a promotion agency where I was introduced to Distilled Spirits Marketing.
I loved it. I was good at this.
Finding My Passion
When my main client moved to Jim Beam Brands they brought me along, and thus was the beginning of my 30-year career at a place I now call “home,” Beam Suntory.
This was the perfect fit. I brought my creativity to marketing; the brands needed their history honored and respected; and, frankly, the marketing plans needed to reflect that of a good novel:
- Exposition: Setting the scene or situation assessment
- Increasing action: Building the tension, i.e. the barriers preventing success
- Climax: The exciting bit, the strategy to overcome the barriers, complete with competitive brand conflict
- Deescalating action: Tidying up loose ends or enhancing the brand story to support long-term growth
- Resolution: The brand grows and meets its potential
Each of the roles I have encountered over my career have used this framework to provide meaning to the brands that I have worked on. But to truly articulate and craft a brand’s story, you must experience “first hand learning.”
First Hand Knowledge is a Gift
And here’s an insider tip for anyone in the brand space: first-hand knowledge is a gift. It is the richness that makes your experience with a brand multi-dimensional. And, frankly, it makes you a better marketer. When you get deeper than the surface, when you see more than the tangible aspects of a brand’s legacy, quality, and values, these can be leveraged to create a meaningful, engaging story that is sharable.
Here’s a real-life example.
It was 1993. We had just launched a straight-from-the-barrel, uncut, and unfiltered bourbon called Booker’s and they needed a brand manager. The creator of that bourbon? Bourbon legend and great grandson of Jim Beam, Booker Noe, a larger than life figure. He was a master distiller, 6’3” with hands as big as my head and a stare so powerful it could knock the sense into you from across the room. Booker’s brands were about building a legacy.
As someone who’s always been fascinated with history, I was drawn to the legacy of the Beam Family. From the beginning, I admired the family values that permeated the culture of Jim Beam Brands. Booker was also very active in the distillery, despite being “retired.” He was very clear about his Small Batch Bourbons — they were his legacy to his son, just as Jim Beam Bourbon was Jim Beam’s legacy to his son.
As the brand manager for the Small Batch Bourbon Collection, Booker demanded that I learn the craft of whiskey making. How else could I market his brands if I didn’t know what made them special? From the Grade-A grain, to the sophistication of the distillers (everything done by hand, no computers), to the art of yeast making, and the craft of aging, Booker’s message was not subtle: If you want to do a job well, don’t stop at the surface — go deep.
The group product director up in Chicago didn’t believe it was necessary for me to learn the craft of distilling bourbon in Kentucky. He said, and I quote, “You don’t have to know how to make bourbon to market it.”
Booker’s reply? “Horsefeathers!” (But not that word).
I went to Kentucky.
I learned the craft of making whiskey.
And, along the way, I realized what he wanted me to understand from the beginning: the trip was not about learning how to make whiskey. It was about understanding the weight and importance of legacy. The personal commitment to going above what is required and, ultimately, to understand and embrace the Beam family values that Booker handed down through the five generations of distillers before him.
Today, I still reflect on those lessons as I embark on a new role in the organization — leading Seed Brands. To rapidly drive scale for small brands, the marketing and messaging must be rooted in authenticity and a clear understanding of what makes a brand special. By digging deep into the history, the legacy of founders, and the true “art” of spirits craftsmanship, we can deliver compelling reasons for consumers to select our brands above the competition. And do so in a way that is personal, engaging, and memorable.