It’s my distinct pleasure to be chatting with Robin Robinson today. I first discovered Robin while reading industry trade publications and found him extremely approachable when I reached out to him. We’ve had a couple of conversations and I’m proud to say I count him as a true resource in the spirits industry.
Robin Robinson is a private consultant to the American craft whiskey industry, where he helps small brands identify their unique narratives to penetrate and activate the marketplace. He has combined his background in theatre and technology sales with a life-long love for single malt Scotch whisky and is in demand as a lecturer on brown spirits and whisky. Aside from the many spontaneous whisky lectures during the course of his duties, Robin created the popular “Whiskey Smackdown” series at the renowned Astor Center in New York; he has also taught at the Culinary Institute of America, the Institute of Culinary Excellence (ICE), the Barbary Coast Center, The Flatiron Room, and various USBG chapters across the country. He has been featured in publications such as 201 Magazine, the Chicago Sun Times, AskMen.com, and the Heritage Network, and was awarded “Highest Commendation” from Whisky Magazine’s 2014 Icons of Whisky. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, a suburban chicken farmer, and has a daughter who is also employed in the spirits industry.
Sherman: Robin, thanks for joining me today. tell us, what is your favorite part of the spirits business?
Robin: I absolutely love the contacts, the people. I’ve had multiple careers throughout my life, from the restaurant business to show business to technology to the spirits industry and the people I’ve come across in this industry are by far the most diverse, interesting and dynamic of all of them.
Sherman: When you look back over your time working in the business, what have been the biggest changes? Have they been on the marketing, distribution, technical, venue side or something no one expected?
Robin: I’d say the first was the rise of brown spirits, it caught a whole industry off guard that eventually led to shortages and rumors of shortages as well as a whole army of bloggers to write about it. The next was the explosion of the craft movement, which has the potential of re-aligning drinking habits and tastes for the next 20 years. With this explosion of product on the market, everything else in the eco-system changes and adjusts to it from distribution to marketing and sales to the technology that supports it. The last part is interesting: when I first got into the business it was was tech-laggard, lot’s of old timers who didn’t use computers and kept their calendars in a book on their desk. The smartphone changed all that, as it also promulgated the culture of knowledge which drives the industry now. The bar community attracted a lot of tech kids and they started designing apps for the drinking experience; I know a lot of craft distillers warming up to CRM and other apps that help them work smarter. So we’ve made huge strides there.
Sherman: What happens during the typical day for Robin Robinson?
Robin: Ha! That’s a good one. I’ve got a pretty varied life right now. I’m writing more than I ever have, whether they be proposals or the narratives I create for brands. The narrative structure follows a methodology and its like an investigation before it gets written. I keep meaning to write other things too, like some blog pieces and that whiskey book that’s floating around my brain but they keep getting pushed aside.
I do a fair amount of marketing: writing emails, phone calls, meeting prospective clients, getting the word out. I have financial priorities as well, keeping the books straight and making sure bills and taxes are paid.
I have an educational offering where I create custom training for wholesale distributor organizations, everything from spirits mastery to the art of sales and objection handling; as well as a series of consumer classes on whiskey and other spirits.
I do a fair amount of distributor management and report gathering and data analysis: what are the sales trends, are we near expectations, what programming needs to be put in place. So I always have Word, Excel and Powerpoint open throughout the day.
I like to get out on the street as much as possible, meeting with bartenders, retailers, other industry people. I have a few brands that I directly rep to the trade so I need to be out there mixing it up.
I’ve also been asked to lecture on a number of topics, from brand ambassadors to sales to communications with various trade organizations like Bar Institute, ADI and two new ones coming up this summer at Tales of the Cocktail. Its’ been busy.
Sherman: I love your marketing premise around The Bard of Brands. The power of story. Is there a process you go through with a brand or a process you see the best brands use to develop their story?
Robin: Yes, its a complete investigation, sort of a CSI of the brand’s ethos and soul. Getting a good story is one thing, but putting that story to work in selling the product is something altogether. The narrative is the long arc of the brand’s life: its inspiration, origin, challenge and solution, all wrapped up in the liquid in the bottle. Its not just one story, its many stories, but they all are attached to this arc. Its what gets left behind after the brand’s owner or rep leaves the market, what sticks in the ears of the wholesalers, retailers and bartenders, and each of them listens with different ears. It’s what goes on the label, the POS and the website. Therefore it must have the ability to move product or its just a story.
Sherman: Your graphic around Whiskey Ambassadorship is iconic. Found here: http://www.robinrobinsonllc.com/build-a-better-brand-ambassador/
To those in the industry, it’s an immediate belly laugh. You do have a history in ambassador development. What are the top qualities of the best brand ambassadors out there? Do you know one when you see one or is training a significant piece of the puzzle?
Robin: I thought that graphic really said it all: a good ambassador should have a deft right/left brain balance: part creativity, part rationality. But it’s also an allusion to what’s going on in business in the separation of sales and marketing. It used to be, back in the MadMen days, they were two sides of the same coin. But over the decades they pulled apart, each following a separate path: marketing became a separate discipline moving toward statistic-oriented research and strategy; sales became the execution arm. In the process, they became adversarial. Brand ambassadors have traditionally been a function of marketing, but I’m looking for them to straddle themselves between both worlds. Its for their sake as well: when things get tough, marketing budgets are first to get cut, so showing value to the top line fosters a bit more job security.
Sherman: At what stage rollout or launch or activation do you most prefer to get involved in helping a brand? I’m guessing since the story is important, the earlier the better?
Robin: Yes, this way we get the backbone in place before hanging arms and legs on it. I’ve had to retrofit a few times, its not always easy or pretty. Many times, a brand goes to market without a full sense of itself and it shows about a year or so after its debut when it sees sales plateau or decline. For large companies putting out product after product, they can afford the failure, small brands can’t.
“Ideally, there should be an alignment between narrative, packaging, messaging, line extension all the way to distribution and sales.”
Sherman: What role are you seeing “influencer” marketing beginning to play in the spirits business?
Robin: The idea has been around for many years in different forms, first with the press then through bartenders and retailers but with the rise of social media, its gotten a bit more egalitarian and the entry point is easier. Instagram is maybe the hottest form of it right now, followed by FB and Twitter. The only problem is there’s no known way to quantify it but it’s created its own viral universe. Every brand strategy has a social media component in it, whether or not they know what to do with it. Key influencers shift with the wind and in the end, most of them want jobs in the industry with brands. So it’s still a work in progress, but I think we’re going to see more and more technological approaches to it that make connections and purchases easier.
Sherman: You specialize in working with the craft distillers. Based on your experience, what are the top two or three must-dos before going to market for them?
Robin: Well, as I said, the narrative has to be tight, well thought through and ready for positioning. They need a sense of balance in their overall market thinking: one part “I’m going to change the world” and one part “ok, there’s a lot of work that has to be done first”. They need to adopt a targeted market, avoiding a “boil the ocean” mentality. They need to understand their pricing can be a competitive advantage or a liability and need to be flexible when needed. They need to know this is a long run, not a short sprint, and they have to learn the language of their distributors, their most important customer.
Sherman: Robin, this has been terrific. I’m thrilled to have been able to speak with you today. What might I have left out or didn’t ask that you may still want to share with the readers? Anything on your mind that I didn’t cover?
Robin: Thanks Sherman, I’m obviously flattered that you were interested in my views and insights. This is the most dynamic spirits market in history and its a fun, wild time to be in it.
Sherman: Many thanks Robin. How might our audience find you online and engage with some of the great content you’re sharing on a regular basis?
Robin: You can find my whole program at www.robinrobinsonllc.com. I post frequently on FB under my professional page, Robin Robinson, LLC as well as on Instagram and LinkedIn. I swear I’m working on a blog but there’s only so much time!
Sherman Mohr serves as CEO of Shared Spirits, a mobile app built for purchasing, sharing, and redeeming drinks at great bars and restaurants.