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Marketing / Brand builder: Balancing act

Gosling’s Black Seal is aiming to widen its appeal without losing its small but fiercely loyal following among the rum cognoscenti. Fionnuala Synnott believes early signs are promising as it builds momentum in the US

At first glance, Roast, the much-hyped restaurant in London’s Borough Market, doesn’t appear to have any obvious links with the sunny tax haven of Bermuda. Then again, only those in the know would think of ordering a Dark ‘n’ Stormy® cocktail made from one and a half shots of Gosling’s Black Seal Rum topped with Barritts Ginger Beer. Yet Gosling’s has a small but loyal fan base and those who know it, be they bartenders or consumers, love it.

Although famous on Bermuda, where the Gosling family has made rum since the 19th century, Gosling’s Black Seal is not well known abroad apart from among the small community that travels regularly to the island. This cult status forms the cornerstone of Gosling’s marketing campaign, which is based on the rum’s unavailability and implied exclusivity.

Heritage and provenance also form an important part of the brand’s strategy. In fact, the history of Gosling’s Black Seal is a marketer’s dream. In 1806, James Gosling, the eldest son of London wine and spirits merchant William Gosling, was on his way from England to America to find his fortune with £10,000 of merchandise, when his ship, the Mercury, was becalmed near Bermuda. Instead of pushing on to America, he decided to stay on the island and opened a shop on the King’s Parade, St. George’s.

After much trial and error, the distinctive black rum was formulated and offered for sale. Until the First World War, the rum was sold only from the barrel, with most people filling up their own bottles. Eventually the black rum was sold in Champagne bottles, reclaimed from the British Army’s officers’ mess, and the corks sealed with black wax – hence the name Black Seal. Today, Gosling’s has realised that it cannot rely on its homegrown reputation and has to formalise its marketing strategy if it is to build its business outside Bermuda. Glenn Kelley, CEO of Gosling’s brand advertising agency Kelley & Co., says, “We have a small marketing budget so we have had to be very focused and stand out through our creative work.” So far, the firm has mostly used outdoor billboard and on-trade advertising with messages such as “Invented in 1806, successfully marketed in 2006”.

The firm, still run by the Gosling family, uses its family-owned structure to reinforce the rum’s handcrafted aspect. Kelley explains, “Our research revealed that more people knew Black Seal than the Gosling name but our limited marketing budget made us decide to place the emphasis on the Gosling name rather than the rum.”

The artisan nature of the rum is further reflected in its packaging, which is distinctly undesigned and features a black seal balancing a barrel of rum on its nose. Kelley, who has been marketing the firm since 2004, says, “Although there is no such thing as a black seal (they’re grey) it’s a wonderful logo.”

Under the stewardship of the current CEO, Malcolm Gosling, the firm is determined to crack the US market. Kelley says, “We currently have distribution in all 50 states, but we need more retail shelf space and on-premise presence.” Last year the firm sold approximately 50,000 cases of rum in the US – just under half of its total sales – and the company has since seen its sales in Boston increase by 70%. Kelley admits, “This is from a small base, but there is no doubt that Gosling’s has a lot of momentum.” Although the firm has made some changes to its sales and distribution channels, it says it won’t sacrifice quality for volume sales.

Kelley says, “We want to take the product upscale and target a slightly older audience.” Both the off- and the on-trade are important to Gosling’s but the firm is currently focusing more on building off-trade sales, particularly in “gateway cities” such as Boston, Toronto and London, where it sees the greatest potential.

Dark ‘n’ stormy

The firm has also started sponsoring high-end celebrity chef events as part of its Sip, Mix and Cook campaign. The idea behind the campaign is to show how versatile rum can be and how easy it is to cook with. Meanwhile, in the on-trade, Gosling’s is trying to get the Dark ‘n’ Stormy® on bar menus. The cocktail had become such a significant part of the Gosling brand that the firm decided to purchase the trademark for the cocktail.

Gosling’s is also expanding its product range and is currently trying to build a family of rums around its flagship Black Seal. The firm also produces a Family Reserve Old Rum, described as a 16 year-old sipping rum, and has recently launched Gosling’s Gold Rum, a lighter rum that will appeal to first-time rum drinkers.

Kelley says, “Unlike some brands, we don’t have to change consumer perception of Gosling’s rum as it is already very popular with the people who know it. The challenge is how to make more people aware of it.” With a popular flagship product, new marketing and new products, as well as modified sales and distribution channels, surely it is just a matter of time before we are all ordering our cocktails dark ‘n’ stormy.

© db August 2006

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