Back in the 1970s the late liquor baron, Sidney Frank, was building his empire in the States. Within his stable was a sugary German Liebfraumilch – a beverage that bridged the gap between soft drinks and wine for a generation of Americans. Liebfraumilch faded like many fads from “the decade taste forgot”, but Frank had registered his brand name worldwide and was clearly attached to it. “There was always something about the name that had magic with the consumer,” he later said.
It sure did, prompting Frank to keep hold of the Grey Goose name and eventually pass it onto the iconic vodka that created the super-premium category almost single-handedly. Grey Goose Vodka was distilled from thin air in the summer of 1996 as a concept with no distillery, no bottle and no spirit. Eight years later, with sales somewhere north of 1.5 million cases, it was bought by Bacardi for a reported US$2 billion. Two thirds of this staggering sum went straight into Frank’s back pocket, though sadly he suffered a fatal heart attack on his private jet two years later. Since then every budding spirits entrepreneur has dreamed of emulating Sidney Frank’s success.
The man’s genius was obvious from Jägermeister – a herbal digestif drunk by elderly German immigrants which he turned into one of the hottest student brands ever. This gave him the confidence, financial clout and distribution muscle to take on Absolut. Rather than go head-to-head or undercut America’s top premium vodka at US$17 a pop, Frank released his Goose at an eye-watering US$30, and called it super-premium. Crucially he gave consumers a reason why.
The “why” came from its production in France, the cradle of luxury drinks brands from Pol Roger to Pétrus, and from being rated “the world’s best-tasting vodka” by the Beverage Testing Institute of Chicago in 1998. No one had heard of this obscure institute until full-page ads splashed its name across the Wall Street Journal. Readers could relate to something that scored 96/100, having been taught to buy wine by numbers by the wine guru, Robert Parker
Later, with the Iraq invasion looming, the ads were stamped with ”100% American-owned”, lest there be any anti-French backlash à la “freedom fries”. To those arty, creative types at Absolut, Grey Goose’s marketing must have seemed almost vulgar, but it worked. Other factors included the bottle design that looked great back-lit in a bar, the fat margins shared through the supply chain and the careful seeding of the brand into the right spots. Celebrity endorsement was also key, not least the appearance of Goose Cosmos in Sex and the City. But maybe the biggest factor was simply the price. As the most expensive vodka, Grey Goose was de facto: “the best”.