Pouring his heart out
Former Saatchi ad man Geoff Ross is the mastermind behind the rise of premium vodka brand. Phil Pemberton reports from New Zealand
MY FIRST conversation with Geoff Ross occurred while I was standing behind 32 bartenders waiting to jump off a cliff. "How you doing?" he asked amiably as I shuffled along at the back of the line.
Considering I had landed in New Zealand the night before after a 35-hour flight, consumed copious cocktails at the welcoming party and was now standing hand-in-hand with my vertigo about to bungee-jump off the side of a mountain, I was doing pretty weird.
However, being English, I actually said in a slight tremolo, "Fine, thanks." This was at the recent Cocktail World Cup, which was masterminded by Ross, the 37-year-old MD of premium vodka brand, 42Below.
I saw him again at various times throughout the week-long event: we put our life jackets on together as the bar crews attempted to mix on a spinning jet boat; I waved at him from the helicopter as it hung mixologists off its outside; and I smiled weakly at his bemused face while Brit barman Barry Galloway lifted up his kilt in a downtown bar.
It was not until the competition had finished (Australia won, the Brits camesecond and Canada third) that I managed to corner him for a proper chat. Flying bartenders to New Zealand, throwing them off mountains and into lakes; what, I wanted to know, was it all about?
"It’s about building a brand," he said in his calm Kiwi manner. "We are cementing relationships with leading bartenders throughout the world, rewarding them for listing 42Below and giving them a flavour of what the product is all about. Word of mouth is very important in the style-bar business. Plus, I was keen to show that weare not a garage brand."
But, according to legend, that’s where it all started. Ross began distilling the vodka in his Wellington garage in 1996 after his wife, Justine, had bought him a still. An unconventional present you might think, but Ross was feeling restless and looking round for alternatives to his day job.
Although he had tried a short stint as a dairy farmer in the distant past, advertising had been his occupation for 12 years, with the latest eight years as a creative for Saatchi & Saatchi. "I was a suit," he said.
"The agency was doing well, in Campaign magazine’s top 10 worldwide, but, even though I had a nice salary, I did not feel I was building anything. Maybe it would have been different if there was a local shareholding with Saatchi, but I wanted to create my own business and nothing felt quite as right as a vodka from New Zealand."
He was on his own with that opinion for a while, as initial reaction to the idea tended to be along the lines of, "Wine? Of course. Vodka? No way." But he realised it was a good time to make a move into spirits because of the international resurgence of cocktail culture.
"In 1996 the lounge-bar scene was growing and I knew we had the combination of a genuinely credible, quality product that had a brand personality to make it in style bars globally." The logistics of the NZ wine industry helped, as there were already effective lines of distribution coming out of the country, but it was when the product got endorsement from London that Ross was convinced the brand had made an impact.
"We got a glowing review in the style-bar bible, Class magazine, and we came out joint top with Belvedere in a premium vodka comparison test run by The Independent on Sunday," Ross said.
"This gained us respect back home and gave us credibility in markets beyond London." He points to what he describes as New Zealand’s "Crowded House syndrome" to explain how something has to be successful in the US or UK before it is accepted by Kiwis.
And Ross believes it is absolutely necessary to get listed on the London cocktail scene. "If you want to be serious about promoting your product in the leading international markets, you need to be on the menus of the top bars in the UK capital," he says.
"It has probably been our toughest area to get a foothold in, but the quality drinking markets in the US, Canada and Australia look to London for the latest products and trends." 42Below can be currently found on the back bars of London luminaries such as Milk and Honey, Shaun and Joe and The Ritz.
Promotion and marketing is obviously the strong suit of the former ad man, and his methods for moving cases of 42Below, as the Cocktail World Cup demonstrates, are not always the most conventional.
Using "viral marketing" on the internet with a series of short animated and politically incorrect films has already got the firm in hot water with New Zealand’s Advertising Complaints Board. One depicts Maoris drinking "large amounts of 42Below" and "exchanging it with the white man for muskets, blankets and Hobbits", while another shows a supposed immigrant employee testifying that working for 42Below beats making sneakers in a sweatshop in China because he gets all the rice he can eat "and they lock us in at night, for our own safety".
These ads reflect the cheeky, irreverent nature of the brand, and it aims to support the ideal of promoting a premium product that doesn’t take itself too seriously. "This approach highlights the big difference between our company and the huge liquor corporations," argues Ross.
"We’re willing to take the piss out of ourselves and we are innovative enough to appeal to social changes, whereas the big corps go down the mass-market route because they need large volumes quickly and are not willing to be patient."
He emphasises the point with the example of Absolut. "That vodka was in the US for two years and sold nothing until a Swedish socialite befriended Andy Warhol and got it into studio 54," he says, "and the rest, as they say, is history."
The future for 42Below is looking positive at the moment, as a recent listing on the New Zealand Stock Exchange and a growing distribution in more than 4,500 bars in 10 countries demonstrates.
But the focus has been purely on the ontrade up to this point, so does Ross have any ambitions for the off-trade? "I must admit to not knowing that market very well," he says, "but I recognise the tension between volume and brand status.
When you have gained sufficient brand prestige then you are in a powerful position to negotiate an off-trade deal. We are not ready to expand in that direction just yet, although we may place small amounts with upmarket outlets."
Further developments at 42Below, the company, as opposed to the brand, include an expansion of its portfolio with a gin called South, which, Ross claims, "stands on its own two feet and is not associated with the vodka". Ross also reveals plans to launch a rum from Fiji which will probably appear early next year.
He does not think the company will ever move into whisky production, but does admit to being, like a lot of us from time to time, "tempted" by tequila.
At the leaving party for the Cocktail World Cup, the mildmannered MD was called upon to make a speech and I was a little surprised by the confidence and composure he displayed in quietening 32 lairy bartenders.
He spoke with passion about the brand and took the occasional heckle in good part; he even made a cocktail, to general whooping from the bar boys and girls.
But I realised, as he brought the vodka bottle round in an arc above the shaker, that, however laid-back his manner, he is really pouring his heart into the drinks business. tequila