The race to distribution, for many distillers, is an important one on the journey to sustainable growth. As a seasoned marketer, however, I have to ask: What does it matter if you have product on the shelf if no one knows about you? Let’s play devil’s advocate to many of the responses I’ve heard to this question:

“My spirits are some of the best out there. They practically sell themselves.”

“Compared to the other craft spirits, mine are an amazing value.”

“My label/bottle is eye-catching, so we’ll stand out on the shelf.”

“My distributor really loves my products and is going to help market it for me.”

“The bartenders love it. They’re telling everyone about it.”

“My product is unique, so my niche will recognize and want to try it.”

Any of these sound familiar? Essentially, they’re all based on the premise that only people with inferior products really need to invest heavily in marketing. If I build it, they will come.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that technically we all believe there’s a lot of value in marketing. However, the disproportionate amount of time distillers spend on solving the distribution challenge without solving the marketing challenge to make distribution worthwhile is perplexing. Let’s address these beliefs one by one and discuss how savvy marketing alongside distribution can be a game changer.

My spirits are some of the best out there.
They practically sell themselves.

Let’s be honest. Are there many distillers who don’t believe this about their own products? There are countless incredible spirits out there these days, and while some consumers do have discerning palates, many only know what they like or don’t like, and pay little attention to whether a product might be the best of the best. The bigger issue with this underlying belief is that even if you do make the best spirit, it simply doesn’t matter unless consumers can try it before they buy a bottle.

So, if you truly do believe this as a distiller, trial is your objective. The only way your distribution is going to pay off is to provide opportunities for people to come to their own conclusion.

Conduct in-store tastings

Attend spirits carnivals

Put on distillery community events, like game night

Partnering with restaurants on tasting events

Partner with local businesses to put on neighborhood walkabout nights

The ideas are endless but once product trial becomes your objective, the marketing task to drive sales where your product is carried becomes clear. Of course, some of these ideas are better suited to local execution while others can be implemented on a broader scale. (See “Hit Your Mark with Focused Local Marketing” on page 12.)

Compared to the other craft spirits,
mine are an amazing value.

All of the points made above also apply here; you’re basically saying that compared to others at my price point, mine is the best. But no one knows that without trial. Layering on the price comparison gets tricky because it can cut both ways. If people have tried your product and love it, they can determine that it’s a great value. If they’ve never tried it, though, and just see the other brands at your price point, they’re going to think that you likely deliver the same quality. No one is going to assume you deliver better quality than your competitive set unless they have a reason to do so. Which brings us back to trial.

Now, can marketing help at all here? Sure. If you have consumer-understood awards that you can share at shelf right next to the price point, that’s a way of conveying high quality. Depending on the state and establishment, though, this can often be difficult to do. If you offer online sales, make sure you’re gathering consumer ratings and reviews. That’s the most effective value-marketing message you can have at the point of sale, and it’s fantastic for social media as well.

My label/bottle is eye-catching, so we’ll stand out on the shelf.

This actually isn’t a bad start. An eye-catching bottle often does bring attention to your product. But consumers are smart enough now to wonder, “If they have such cool packaging, yet I’ve never heard of them, is it just a marketing gimmick with swill inside?”

So, packaging alone often isn’t enough to entice most consumers to buy, especially above a certain price point. And those who do will likely be on the hunt for the next cool package unless your spirit really blows their mind and converts them into loyal fans.

How can marketing help in this situation? Your label is your only marketing at shelf. Your bottle may catch their eye, but when they pick it up your label has to do the heavy lifting. Your story must be conveyed clearly and succinctly to move consumers, in about two sentences. Not an easy task, but a critically important one. Don’t waste space on buzzwords or superfluous information.

In this situation, it’s also important to get your bottle recognized outside the retail environment, where you have more space to tell your story. Social media is perfect for this. When posting bottle shots (remember, hard sales posts should only make up ~20% of your social media content), make sure the photo and caption are compelling to get people actively looking for your bottle. Perhaps even start a social media hashtag or contest asking people to share their own views and uses of your bottle.

My distributor really loves my products
and is going to help market it for me.

If you’re a larger distillery, sure, this might be true. If you’re big enough to provide financial incentives based on unit sales, it’s definitely true. For the rest of us? Unless you’re working with a distributor that focuses on smaller brands, this just isn’t true. But, hey, you kind of knew that, didn’t you? It’s just hard to believe when you see their passion and enthusiasm for your products! And don’t get me wrong, they may authentically love your product. It just doesn’t pay the bills (yet!) compared to the other brands in their portfolio.

The obvious answer here is to right-size your distribution partner. There are craft distributors out there who marketers work with directly to help them market their brands while they focus on distribution. Some put on in-store tastings for their brands. They’re small and hungry like you, so every sale counts. Your distribution build will be slower, sure, but it will be better supported and more sustainable. Who cares about wide distribution if your product sits on shelf for years?

When it comes to on-premise, talk through their marketing plan and be realistic. Have you ever tried something because a cheap table topper was highlighting it? I know I haven’t. Have I asked about an ingredient I don’t recognize that’s part of a specialty cocktail? Absolutely. Don’t settle for ineffective marketing just for marketing’s sake. Save your money so at some point you can invest in what resonates for your brand.

The bartenders love it.
They’re telling everyone about it.

Similarly, here, you’re relying on consumer-facing staff to help market and sell your brand. Let me ask you something. When do most people go to bars and restaurants? Weekends and nights. When are bartenders busiest and thus less able to talk to consumers? Weekends and nights.

It’s not to say they don’t love your product and they don’t want to tell consumers about it, but the number of times it happens is much less frequent than we’d like to think. I am the person going to bars during slow times specifically so that I can talk to bartenders and get the inside scoop. Yet they’re often still too busy for me. And I’m really invested and trying! So, it’s unrealistic to think that consumers are casually encountering this often enough for it to positively impact your sales.

This is where great consumer education and content marketing is key. You don’t want to rely on bartenders, waiters or retail staff pushing your brand onto consumers. You want to create a pull. You want consumers walking in and asking about you. This is the primary job of marketing, and it’s a win-win. Every time a consumer asks for your brand, it tells those who do/could sell your brand that there’s demand. It’s the best word of mouth there is and will, over time, drive tangible sales.

My product is unique, so my niche
will recognize and want to try it.

First, kudos to you for niching down and making something that a small, target market is interested in where the market isn’t already saturated. It’s risky because the market is smaller, but it can also pay off if done well. Simply getting on the shelf won’t do in this situation. Out of the hundreds of people walking into that retailer, only a teeny fraction of them are looking for aquavit, for example. First you have to find your consumers, help them become curious, then direct them where to buy.

From a marketing standpoint, this is where online distribution is key. When you find your people, you want to be able to immediately convert them, instead of asking them to work hard to find your unique product. More than any of the other scenarios we’ve covered, this one is begging for great consumer education and content marketing to help increase demand for what you’re making. Broader content marketing of your category, the history and how to best enjoy your product once they have it, is critical here.

Next time you find yourself spending time with your distribution partner or planning and fretting over your distribution, make sure you’re spending at least equal time on marketing. That’s the only way to complement your distribution efforts and actually drive meaningful sales.

In my dream world, all distributors would have marketing partners that they work with in tandem, the yin to each other’s yang, both better positioned to help make the distillers they represent successful when they work together. Until then, you, as the distiller, are on point to ensure your marketing and distribution are coming together in a beautiful union to ensure people are aware, interested and provided with easy access to both try and buy your incredible spirits.