Effie Panagopoulos

It’s 2008 and Effie Panagopoulos is at a beach bar on the island of Mykonos. As the daughter of a “very serious first generation Greek family,” Effie remembers fondly this trip that brought her back to Greece. After a long time away, this reconnection with her motherland felt very important to her at the time. Now, as the founder of KLEOS Mastiha Spirit, she knows it was not only important but foundational in transforming her from someone with a career in alcohol marketing and sales to the first Greek woman in history to start a liquor brand.

All around her at this beach bar, Americans are enjoying shots of a local spirit she hasn’t heard of before. A friend of hers brings her one, she takes a sip and is immediately transported back to her youth — not because she did shots as a child (thankfully!), but because the flavor reminded her of a favorite childhood dessert, Ypovrichio. The flavor was mastiha, a key ingredient in that desert she loved and the primary flavor of the spirit. Secreted from mastiha trees, which can only be found on the Greek island of Chios, mastiha is a Protected Designation of Origin product, considered an ancient superfood. Incidentally, it was also the first ever chewing gum.

With that sip, Effie’s worlds were colliding and an idea was forming, an idea that brought together her Greek heritage, a passion for health and fitness and more than 15 years of experience in alcohol sales and marketing in the United States. She took a few years to let the idea develop and formulate product samples she could carry around to get feedback while she spent her final years in a corporate 9-to-5 “taking an old brand and giving it a face-lift” for an agency brand of Bacardí.

With her deep alcohol marketing experience ranging from entry-level side hustles to executive roles for global spirit brands with multi-million dollar marketing budgets — Effie is a treasure trove of information when it comes to building a brand. I recently spent some time with Effie to learn how an experienced and knowledgeable alcohol brand marketer approaches launching and building a successful new craft alcohol brand.

What have you found is the difference between building a brand and building a distillery?

Building a brand is most definitely a more singular, focused activity. When I’m building a brand, I don’t have the stress of keeping the lights on in my distillery. For those that do have the stress of keeping the lights on in addition to the stress of building a brand, it’s really important to have someone dedicated to doing the brand building, marketing and sales work. Building a distillery, you usually have to plan on making multiple SKUs and potentially contract distill to make the cost of doing business worth it. These are two distinctly different skill sets. A great distiller does not necessarily equate with a great marketer or operator.

On the plus side, if you have a distillery that people can visit, along with a tasting room, you have an incredible advantage. Marketing is about creating emotional connectivity with the consumer. A distillery has the potential to create lifelong consumers by guiding every aspect of a consumer’s experience with their products on site and making it memorable. What consumer doesn’t get excited to meet the founder and maker of a product?

People often say that if you have a great product it will sell itself and you don’t need marketing. What’s your perspective on this philosophy?

Having a great product is just the first crucial step. One caveat I always give new entrepreneurs is never create a brand just because you and your friends like it. That does not a business make. I did over 17 formulas and countless focus groups for KLEOS. My industry friends and I loved the drier version of the formula, but consumers liked it with a bit more sweetness. If I hadn’t worked in the corporate world earlier in my career, I never would have believed in doing focus groups. When you’re an insider, you tend to think you know it all and can be quite disconnected from the consumer. Who will drink your brand? How are you communicating to this demographic to create pull-through? What does your brand world look like, and does this speak to your target demographic? Marketing is even more crucial. Case in point: I make a product with an ancient Greek superfood that is top rated by spirits aficionados… That’s all fine and dandy, but the job I have is educating consumers and getting liquid to lips to create pull-through.

When deciding on a brand name, KLEOS in your case, what elements should be considered?

I love this question! So many people just name their brands after themselves! I get it, trust me; I had friends trying to convince me to do the same thing, but a name should have some meaning that is germane to the brand:

Why do you exist? What is your history? What is your story?

Find a word that is connected deeply to those questions. KLEOS, for example, is Greek for “fame or glory attained through good deeds and hard work.” I am literally trying to earn my kleos by building this brand to put my country back on the map in the world of spirits and to leave a legacy of a new global spirits brand with a 3,000-year-old ingredient that is healthy as well as delicious.

Think about your brand call.

Is it easy for someone to say and ask about at a bar or store? Does it lend itself well to cocktail names? Our signature cocktail is the Kleo-Patra, who is a pop culture and historical icon. I joke the woman responsible for the downfall of the Roman Empire was Greek. And so is your new drink.

Does it create marketing extensions, campaigns, taglines?

Besides the signature cocktail, one of our taglines is “Earn Your KLEOS.” The heroes in ancient Greek strategy were trying to earn their kleos, which means they performed deeds so grandiose they’ll be immortalized in Greek poetry. We are trying to regain Greece its kleos with a product that should be a standard on every backbar. The notion of “Earning your KLEOS” also ties exactly in to the bartender competition we’ll be executing.

What’s your best marketing advice for others building brands in the alcohol industry?

Your No. 1 marketing tactic when first starting is feet on the street! Any good business starts with 20 accounts. Target your account list and get your brand on drink menus. I call it trickle-down marketing — you get into influential cocktail bars and restaurants, train their staff, cultivate those relationships and then they serve as organic ambassadors for your brand. It’s the ABCs of liquor marketing. Build a brand on-premise to sell it off-premise.

I regressed 20 years in my career when I started KLEOS and had to go back to knocking on doors and cold calling. I always say the great test to see if you can stomach this industry is to stand in a liquor store on a Friday evening and do a tasting. Once you see how difficult it is to convert one consumer, then you realize it will take an army to sell 20,000 cases.

Remember, most distributors are simply expensive trucking companies. You need your own people to do this. If you have no interest in doing any of this, you might want to reconsider starting a spirits brand. The crux of marketing is creating emotional connectivity, and you just can’t do that if the people responsible for creating the brand and products are hidden away behind the still or behind a laptop.

Can you share your perspective on social media, PR or other specific marketing tactics for building your brand?

It’s important to have a healthy marketing mix, but I always look at things in terms of “need to have” and “nice to have.”Need to have, in order of importance: feet on the street, a tactical budget (tastings, features displays, programming off-premise), event activations, social media presence and, now, some sort of e-commerce solution. Nice to have: digital advertising budget for paid social, trade advocacy programming (cocktail competitions, distillery trips, big trade events like Tales of the Cocktail), large consumer experiential events, PR agency, press trips. Generally, any activity where you can’t justify spending with a tangible, numeric ROI is going to be last on the list.

When you have limited resources, start with things that are measurable and actually move the needle. Yes, I’m going back to feet on the street, getting accounts and actively driving sales! Marketing priorities and budgets also largely depend on where you are in your brand’s life cycle and funding — are you bootstrapping? Seed round? Series A?  You shouldn’t be investing in a $20,000 brand sponsorship at Coachella when you’re just launching. Too many times, I see start-ups investing in the “nice to have” categories and running out of cash early and then scrambling to hire salespeople and not able to afford their salaries because they prematurely spent on activities that don’t actually sell bottles. Why are you hiring a PR agency when you don’t yet have distribution and route to market sorted?

Don’t try to do everything at once poorly. Instead, keep adding value-driving tactics to your marketing mix based on where your brand is in its life cycle. Learn deeply about each tactic as you bring it to life, have clear KPIs and experiment so you can quickly turn off what’s not working, optimize what has potential and lean in to what is working.

Your bottle for KLEOS is incredibly unique. Can you talk about the decision to invest in a custom bottle?

I feel very strongly about this topic. Your bottle should not be an afterthought! Too many brands are using stock bottles, with a label being the only differentiator. I wanted the bottle to be identifiably Greek/Mediterranean, since this is the first impression we give on shelf, and we have to cut through the clutter. There is nothing more iconic than Greek architecture, and our bottle evokes a Greek Doric column without being a literal one.

This is not the place to go cheap or quick. I spent four years researching, sourcing and designing my bottle. A custom bottle is not easy but 90% of my marketing is my bottle — especially with liquor stores and on the backbar! The only time a stock bottle works is if you have exceptionally beautiful or memorable branding, which also is not easy.

This was another place I used focus groups to help me make the best decision based on form and function. I had two different bartender focus groups. One group worked at high-volume bars and restaurants, and the other group worked at elevated craft cocktail bars. I asked both groups to bring in five bottles they loved and five bottles they hated and asked them why on both sets. We learned so much! The importance of neck length, bottle width, the importance of fitting on the steps of the backbar, etc. I initially wanted a short, stout bottle based on other luxury cordials and quickly changed my mind after these groups!

When it comes time to invest in marketing or sales roles, any advice?

Liquor sales require a certain personality type — they can’t be a wallflower, shy or a homebody, and they have to be a chameleon to some degree. It’s also a lifestyle choice, so people have to fit the lifestyle, meaning they should enjoy the world of hospitality, going out, entertaining. That said, I’m practically sober at this phase of my career, so they don’t need to be a party animal. Also, this isn’t a fixed schedule. You’re working many times on Friday and Saturdays.

When you do finally hire someone, you need to invest time in molding and training them. When I hire people to do in-store tastings, I lead mock scenarios, share recordings of myself doing store tastings and have two pages on how to handle objections. I also know that people who are good at sales often hate administrative work, so I do my best to minimize the time spent on reporting and maximizing time spent on the field to yield the best results.

When it comes to hiring agencies, whether it’s PR, digital or for event activations, it is very important to have a very specific scope of work and KPIs contractually agreed upon. For example, with digital, having merely a KPI of over 10,000 followers is not a good goal. Whereas xx followers and a yy% engagement is a smarter goal. Why? It’s better to have 4,000 organic followers and 10% engagement than 10,000 followers for good optics and a measly 0.5% engagement. Everything has to be measurable and then tie back to sales. Last thing you want to do is hire an agency based on their impressive client roster and end up paying a huge retainer, with no solid results to show for it six months later. Also, nowadays everyone is a digital marketer. Ask for and review client case studies!

Any final advice for anyone building alcohol brands?

You have to have patience. Brand building is like bodybuilding. You have to do the same things over and over again with consistency and repetition to grow. Don’t be afraid to test different campaigns, get feedback and tweak your brand messaging as you go.

Also, celebrity endorsements are not the foolproof answer to fast growth. People don’t realize there are way more failures than successes in the world of celebrity brands, so proceed with caution. If a celebrity can organically amplify a good story, meet KPIs, stand in liquor stores and have some skin in the game? Great. But far too often, it is not the magic bullet you expect, and many founders give sizable chunks of equity for endorsements that, again, don’t move the needle. Ultimately nothing works unless you and your own people do! And in my humble opinion, nothing tops that!

A worker with a scored branch of the mastic tree dripping aromatic resin.
Image courtesy Effie Panagopoulos.