My career in the drinks industry has been dominated by the case study of one brand. Each and every project I’ve been involved in has involved investors, marketers, sales people and pundits obsessed by the phenomenal success of Grey Goose and the figure for which the founder sold out.
Grey Goose vodka
Grey Goose vodka was the second major hit for a Hugh Heffner-esque man named Sidney E. Frank who had previously turned Jägermeister into a mainstream brand. Frank was a character I only ever encountered once and his rivalry with another equally eccentric vodka tycoon I myself worked with was especially well known. Their mutual distaste for one another fascinates me to this day as I always thought how similar they were in both background and manner.
Sidney Frank (1919 - 2006) with one of his signature Davidoff custom cigars
Frank was born in Montville, Connecticut to a poor Jewish farming family but managed to make his way to Brown University, where he made his first connections with wealth and privilege. Though he did not complete his course due to being unable to afford the high tuition fees, he made the most of his time at the university by meeting and then in 1945 marrying the daughter of the chief of Schenley Distilleries. In a subsequent interview, Frank commented: “If you meet any important people… keep in touch with them . . . And marry a rich girl. It’s easier to marry a million than to make a million” and from here his progress to billionaire-dom began.
Frank was promoted through the Schenley company until 1970 when he was forced out following a familial dispute. At this juncture he decided to set up on his own as the Sidney Frank Importing Company. The operation did well importing Jacques Cardin brandy and then catapulted into the big time with Jägermeister in 1974. From a base of 600 cases across the whole of America, Frank turned Jägermeister into a brand that was selling over 2 million cases by 2006.
The tale goes that Frank, at the age of 77, woke on a sunny day in 1996 and came up with Grey Goose after analysing the success of Absolut, which at the time was considered outrageously priced at $17 a bottle. Instead of seeking to undercut this figure, which many others were doing, Frank realised that another strategy would be to aim even higher and decided that he’d sell his vodka at $30 a bottle and call the category “super-premium.”
That same morning he recalled another brand he’d owned in the 1970s with a name that customers just loved, the Grey Goose Liebfraumilch white wine. Whilst the wine itself had floundered, Frank still owned the rights to the name and so it was decided his new vodka would take just that.
Continuing his mission to create something new and different, he then decided to ignore the traditional approach to making vodka and sought out a French distillery from which to produce his super-premium product. Rather than going to Poland or Russia to produce his brand, Frank decided that the Cognac region of France was associated with luxury and that this would make Grey Goose stand out from the crowd.
The resulting product, he decided, would be made with great attention to detail and so Grey Goose is made using a five-step distillation process designed to concentrate the flavour of the finest French wheat. Pure spring water that has been naturally filtered through Grand Champagne limestone is then blended with the spirit to create what the makers call the “World’s Best Tasting Vodka.” The resulting taste is smooth and buttery with a rounded, long-lasting finish.
Initial marketing of Grey Goose focused on the fact that customers of the time wanted to drink less, but also wanted to drink better. Frank, through the huge margin he was commanding, was able to seize upon this “trading up” and profit followed. Advertising in the smartest titles was a major part of the marketing budget and tactical campaigns included Grey Goose girls, targeting the best clubs and depositing bottles in limousines at The Academy Awards. When the brand name started to appear in the conversations of the girls in Sex and The City, sales soared further and the strategy paid off when in 2004 Frank sold Grey Goose for $2.2 billion to Bacardi. At this point the brand had already become America’s number one super-premium selling vodka as well as the fastest growing distilled spirits brand in history.
The sale made Frank a personal profit of $1.6 billion and in subsequent years his wealth allowed him to become more and more eccentric. He is known for having conducted most of his subsequent business deals from his bed wearing pyjamas and smoking custom made Davidoff cigars. Cases for sexual harassment were brought and settled but Frank’s philanthropic manner endeared him to many others. Brown University alone benefitted to the tune of $100 million and he also became a big funder of sport in Israel. Frank died on a private plane whilst flying from San Diego to Vancouver of heart failure in 2006.
Grey Goose Winter Ball to benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Photography by Matt Hind.
Under the ownership of Bacardi, Grey Goose, though, continues to prosper. There is hardly a club, bar, restaurant or supermarket in Europe or America that doesn’t stock Grey Goose and when out with friends, the majority make a beeline for the brand over any other. To this day, Grey Goose has focused its marketing on associations with high profile organisations and events such as the Tastemaker film series, the Cannes Film Festival, BAFTA and the Elton John AIDS Foundation and as result this is the super-premium brand that remains the market leader.
We’ll leave the last word with this titan of the drinks industry: When asked how he became successful, Frank responded: “I just did the obvious.”
For a fuller profile of Sidney Frank go to http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/bizfinance/biz/features/10816
Follow Grey Goose on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GreyGooseRSVP
Grey Goose retails for £32.99 through TheDrinkShop.com for a 70cl bottle: http://www.thedrinkshop.com/products/nlpdetail.php?prodid=1146&afwinid=90909
For more information on Grey Goose see http://www.greygoose.com
The Grey Goose Winter Ball will be held in Battersea Park on Saturday 29th October 2011 to benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The main partners for the event are El Bulli, Christian Louboutin and Marc Quinn. Tickets, starting at £350 each, can be purchased by calling +44 (0) 20 7603 9996.