In a drinks market saturated by sugary soft drinks and a bevy of alcoholic offerings, Seedlip is the first brand of its kind—a sophisticated non-alcoholic spirit. JP Kuehlwein, global brand builder and author of “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of The Ueber-Brands,” interviewed Ben Branson, the founder and owner of Seedlip (www.seedlipdrinks.com), on creating the lore and legend around the startup company and shared the results with BRANDPACKAGING.
JP Kuehlwein (JK): To get us started, tell us about yourself, particularly as it relates to ending up making a non-alcoholic spirit—before we even talk about what that is.
Ben Branson (BB): I am a man of two hearts. Half of my family has been farming in the North of England for just over three hundred years. The other half is in brands, design and marketing. I grew up on a farm, outside, in the countryside and then went into working with brands and design and marketing. I am putting those two backgrounds together to do something that solves the modern dilemma that people are facing: what to drink when you’re not drinking. I ended up creating something that we’re reliably informed no one has ever created before, which is pretty exciting.
JK: The dilemma of what to drink when you’re not drinking—is that based on some personal experience?
BB: It’s based on the ten years I spent working on a lot of spirit brands and alcohol companies, as well as many soft drink companies. My favorite projects, by far, were the Absoluts and the Glenmorangies of this world, rather than the soft drink projects. I found the kind of depth, story and history behind them more exciting. The irony within all that is I actually don’t drink. Part of wanting to solve this dilemma initially started because of my own problem: I love food; I love going to a great restaurants. The world of food in London is absolutely incredible, and what’s going on in cocktails and with spirits has never been more dynamic and exciting. But when it comes to what’s on offer when you’re not drinking, it’s really poor, all fruity, sweet, fairly childish options. So initially, it started out that I wanted a better drink.
JK: So tell us about what the product is all about. It’s a spirit that is distilled, yet has no alcohol. I thought distilling means extracting alcohol, but I’m no expert.
BB: Distillation is a form of extraction. Fermentation is how alcohol is actually made, but alcohol is used as part of distillation to extract flavor from ingredients. What we do is quite similar to gin. We are using herbs, spices and different botanicals. We are using copper stills. What we do different is that we managed to find a slightly laborious, but very specific and special process working with our distillery to actually individually distill all of our ingredients at different temperatures, under different pressures, for different amounts of time, which means we can get the best flavor that we want from each individual ingredient. We’re then blending those individual distillates without any sugar or sweetener. We’re very transparent about what’s in it, but we’re not transparent about how it’s made. We’ve got to keep some secrets.
JK: And this all happens in the 1400’s stone cottage that you have on your website?
BB: JP, I am guessing you just answered a future question around you know, myth verses what’s going on. I am really glad that that’s how it appears in some ways, but no, I don’t. I started distilling in my kitchen, but it quickly became apparent that I was not going to be the man that was going to be behind the distill wheel doing all the science around it. We have a distillery in Germany that we work with. A man called Norbert, who is our master distiller, does all the distillation for us.
JK: This is interesting. It’s where the rubber hits the road in the storytelling and myth-making arena. You use words like “laborious.” I see beautiful pictures on your website of you working on your Apple laptop in a kind of rustic yet really clean-line kind of environment. You have an agency background; this is obviously all about storytelling. Do you try to create authenticity, or is it very consciously a façade?
BB: We wanted to bring Seedlip to life visually, in a beautiful and natural way. Certainly, given my career in it, I would hope we could. I don’t know much about the science, distillation and building the business of a drink company, but the brand, storytelling and aesthetic are something I feel very strongly and am very passionate about. We make no efforts to conceal the fact that we couldn’t find a distillery to work with in England.
JK: Why couldn’t you find any in the U.K.?
BB: We couldn’t just go to a normal spirits distillery because it is more complicated to do than just creating a vodka or gin. Also, when you wind the clock back, and you haven’t got a product and just the bare bones of the brand, and you’re one-man band asking people to get on board with your journey of creating a non-alcoholic spirit; people laugh and shut the door because they can’t get their head around it. It took a lot of time to find the right people to help us. Norbert, fortunately, is crazy enough and thinks we’re crazy enough. He said, “Okay, let’s do it. Let’s give it a go.”
JK: Beyond the idea of non-alcoholic, did you have a very specific taste in mind?
BB: I had two very key points of guidance. One was a book published in 1651 called “The Art of Distillation.” I didn’t find this book under my grandfather’s floorboards; I found a copy of it online. I since have seen the original, which was King George III’s copy that lives quite happily in the rare books section of the British Library. In this book are all these alcoholic and non-alcoholic remedies. This is back when there was a lot of illness, a lot of people looking for cures. People were trying to turn water into gold, looking for the elixir of life; it was a fascinating time, in terms of spice routes and trade routes being set up. There are two hundred ingredients mentioned in this book, so that gave me a really good reference. I then had a guide, in my own mind, how I wanted it to smell and taste. It was very personal to me; it was the inside of my grandfather’s combine. During harvest, when it’s dusty and you’re moving the earth, and there’s a lot of smells. That smell of being on the inside of the combine with my grandfather … however strange it sounds.
JK: Get us a feel of the flavor, and how you mix it, and how it all comes to life from a product prospective?
BB: Sure, so we use two barks, two spices, and two citrus peels. It has a very good spicy and earthy flavor profile. Think clove, pepper, cardamom, with some kind of nice grapefruit/lemon juiciness. We recommend it to be served in a very simple way with tonic and a nice slice of red grapefruit. You can play around with different kind of mixes and sodas for long drinks. And then we do some kind of short, martini-style non-alcoholic cocktails. We try not to use fruit juices, we try not to use lots of syrups; we use more interesting ingredients like brines and vinegars. We purposefully didn’t use juniper berries to try and make it taste like a gin. We wanted to create a new category for people to have a new experience rather than what they’re used to at the moment.
JK: As I listen to your story, I wonder whether you’re too honest? We have done many of these stories before with brands: It’s very heavy storytelling; it’s very heavy myth making. You going out and saying, you know what? This book—I didn’t find it under the floorboard. Which, by the way, would be a great story! It kind of bursts the bubble a little bit. Are you afraid to be too honest? Or on the contrary, is that part of what’s going to make your mission and myth? Have you thought about what you want to stand for beyond the product?
BB: Having worked big brands from bleach to cheese and yogurt to water, I think I’ve seen firsthand—and been part of creating—too many of those myths. Consumers today are savvier and they kind of have a, excuse my language, BS alert. They’re a lot quicker to catch on when they’re being sold to. We want people to read in and discover and love all the depth and layers of Seedlip, and take their own perception of it. Maybe we are too honest, but my conscience is clear. The top purpose with Seedlip is to solve this dilemma of what to drink when you’re not drinking. That’s our number one mission. If we do that with the right people on board, then the money will take care of itself.
JK: Growth is another interesting arena. How do you look at expansion?
BB: Again, we connect it to how we solve this “what to drink when you’re not drinking” dilemma. I thought a way to do that is to give people a really great, desirable premium brand. They would feel good about choosing, ordering and drinking. We’ve launched a top-end brand in top-end places, and for the moment, we want to stay there. There are, for example, 158 Michelin star restaurants in the U.K. We’re in twelve of them, which is great, but there is a lot to go at in terms of the really top-quality food and drink hotels, bars, restaurants, members clubs, fine food stores. We said no to a lot of people and a lot of big retailers. We’re not chasing volume for the moment. I think we want to build this brand in the right places, with the right people, in the right way.
JK: How much does it retail for? And how can you afford that because often, being in a place like Selfridges demands an incredible retail margin, so that not a lot of money can be made.
BB: There’s an issue in that Seedlip is not cheap to make, and it’s not cheap to buy. You know, you have fourteen servings in a bottle, and Selfridges sells it for 29.99 pounds. We don’t pay the duty, so you take the duty off, and 29.99 is a good, strong price. It’s ten times what a premium soft drink would cost. We set the bar very high. We do want to keep it there because we think that’s part of giving people a really great grown-up adult drink.
JK: And you don’t feel the pressure to scale faster because it’s tough to get to profitability at this point? At the beginning, you’re bleeding because these light house, early distributions—a couple of restaurants and a department store—they have such low volume and demand and such high retail margins that a small business with mostly cost in overhead at this point can’t afford to stay with that little volume. That’s not an issue in your model?
BB: We’re trying to strike a fine line. We’re in a Michelin star restaurant that sells more Seedlip in a week than it does gin and vodka combined.
JK: And how come?
BB: We have some drinks on the menu, and the chefs are absolutely huge fans of it, and so is the bar manager. It’s a restaurant that some people have to drive to, so there’s a drinking/driving element that we know comes into it. I think we are fortunate we don’t just chase volume. I think it would be detrimental to the brand. Trying to hold our nerve is critical in seeing them sticking around and us building a sustainable business for the future.
JK: What is your ideal growth vision?
BB: We have two choices. We can go to other cities in the U.K., and we could keep saying no to all the international requests that we get and sort of go through some of the layers, go into big city markets, and then look at export. I think what we’ve learned and certainly the demand that we’ve experienced, and the Internet is a fantastic leveler for this, is that the global food and drink trendsetting organs, for want of a better phrase, are just that—they are global. Things that are happening in New York happen in London, and they are happening at the same time. Our plan is to start seething into other key culture capitals. Where there’s a fantastic world of restaurants, there’s a fantastic world of kind of culture, design, and arts. There’s a real appetite for more of a balanced and moderate approach to drinking.
JK: You do have a unique advantage over your liquor competition from a regulatory and duty perspective, in that you’re actually not alcoholic. That can be a huge enabler. Now interestingly, we have another podcast coming up, as I told you, with Danish gourmet licorice brand Lakrids. They’ve talked to us about how interesting and important Michelin star restaurants are. We had a podcast already with Diageo and Johnny Walker, and they tell us how important it is to be in the right premises and have the support of the barkeepers. In general, what we find is that there needs to be a group that really loves your proposition, that really sponsors it, and that you need to keep engaged. We call them the design target. And we chatted a little bit before we started recording, we said it’s the hogs, the Harley ownership groups for Harley Davidson, even the Hell’s Angels making the reputation of Harley, even if they might not be the majority of actual drivers. Do you very deliberately plan for this design target? It sounds like, for example, restaurants you need to drive to might be such a supporter group; do you have an emerging design target?
BB: Chefs and bartenders were planned; we’ve started to discover the other, foodies. Chefs just love great taste, great flavor, and ingredients and produce. Our second product we’re launching will start using ingredients from my farm that we’ve grown. Chefs are very engaged by that, and they’re engaged by offering food pairing ideas with Seedlip drinks because typically soft drinks and non-alcoholic drinks don’t necessarily pair well with food. And bartenders are hungry for new things, and they are there to really make guests happy. They can make a guest happy who wants an alcoholic drink; they’ve got all the tools behind them sitting on the back bar. They want to do the same for non-alcoholic drinks, for someone who isn’t drinking. They don’t have that whole plethora of ingredients to work with. So, you know, we are effectively helping them give their guests a great time.
JK: I can imagine maybe some bartenders do not always feel comfortable serving alcohol to people. This might be a nice addition to your portfolio if you feel like somebody had too much but they want to keep being a part of the party.
BB: We were recently at an awards ceremony. I was talking to a lady; she started asking what I do, and she stood there with a glass of champagne. It was a Monday night. She said, “I didn’t really want this glass of champagne.” The amount of people that say to me, well, yeah, if it’s a Tuesday lunchtime, Wednesday evening, or I don’t really want to have a drink, but there’s nothing good that’s non-alcoholic … well, I’ll have a glass of champagne anyway because it’s fits the occasion. If you have a non-alcoholic drink that you feel fits the occasion, I think that’s super interesting and will be part of us having done our job. This leads to the other design target that we really didn’t expect, which is healthy foodies. They will do yoga and look after themselves, and they do drink but very much in moderation. They appreciate good food and drink. There’s a cult wave of these people now in London: a lot of untrained chefs who, seriously, have people hanging onto every Instagram post that they’re doing for breakfast.
JK: Can I hear a bit of sarcasm in those descriptions?
BB: It’s not so much sarcasm; it’s more just disbelief. You know, taking a photo of your breakfast and people commenting on that, it just kind of astounds me.
JK: As you describe the foodies, the big question in my mind is: How will you avoid this being fashionable and a fad?
BB: I don’t think that this is a problem that we’re trying to solve, given the way the world is moving. We are more health-conscious. We’ve got a sugar tax coming in the U.K. I recently heard about the possibility of an alcohol ban in planes. There are lots of forces at work that keep us from having to do all the shouting. The world is not drinking more alcohol. It’s spending more on it, but it’s not drinking any more. For the last 15 years, people have been steadily drinking less Coca-Cola, and for the last 10 years, less diet Coke. Here in the U.K., people are a bit more worried about how much juice they drink. These aren’t fads. Therefore, I think we are not just part of a trend or fad, but part of the future.
JK: Was that all ingenious foresight; was this kind of a driver of your landscape analysis before you even started out with Seedlip? Did you have all these macro trends in mind? Or is this all slowly sinking in as you are obsessed with your proposition and, of course, read every article that is about sugar taxes, etc.?
BB: So two and a half years ago, I wanted to solve my own problem of wanting a great grown-up non-alcoholic drink. I then was mucking around at home growing different herbs and old spices. And that lead me on to finding the 1651 book, which lead me on to buying a little copper still and playing around in my kitchen. And then, that became “Hey this could be interesting; I wonder if anyone has ever done this before?”
JK: Interesting, because I think it gives a lot of hope to some of our entrepreneur brand builders. It often looks and sounds like, in hindsight, these creators, whether it’s Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, had it all figured out before they started. But the reality—and you’re currently creating your startup reality—is that a lot of the things come together as you go.
BB: Absolutely, because the two most incredible things that have happened are totally beyond my control: luck and timing. I think if we launched in two years’ time, we’d have been too late, and if we launched two years ago, we’d have been too early.
JK: So lastly, it does seem to me that there are more and more critical articles about the artisanal. And I wonder if there’s going to be a backlash by consumers against brands that tried to get them by calling everything fair trade, organic, local, homegrown, healthy, claiming no fructose corn syrup, and so on and so on.
BB: Yep. There are a few words that are absolute no-no’s for us. You’ll never hear or see us talking about craft; you’ll never see the word artisanal or us using the word artisanal, and you’ll never hear boutique. All those words that slightly make me cringe. We don’t want to stay small. We’re very open about that. Yes, we started hand-labeling bottles; now that a machine puts them on, I don’t want to keep it in my garage. I don’t want to be making it in my kitchen. The problem we want to solve is big, and the problem is global.
JK: It’s funny, because in a film we posted on our blog on the artisanal—a satire of it—Timmy Brothers, makers of artisanal water, have hand-written labels and then say, “I don’t know why people think 11 dollars for a bottle of water is too much! It is handcrafted water!”
BB: Yes, yes. I don’t think people really give a s***. If I go and talk to a bartender, they want to know about how it’s made. They want to whether we use a Carterhead Still or not. We’re not going talk to somebody sampling at Selfridges—they don’t care that it takes six weeks to distill a batch, and they don’t really care about Norbert and whether he’s got long hair or short hair.
JK: Even though, you do look the part when you go on the website, right? I don’t know if it’s intentional, but it is the very crafty, artisanal kind of look.
BB: That’s just me.
JK: But in that sense, in hindsight, you have made the right choice of, as we said earlier, being too honest. You’re not pretending that it’s all happening in that little stone cottage. You know, you’re digging out the carrots and distilling them yourself in your little copper pot.
BB: Right. Myths are really powerful.
JK: So what about the Seedlip myth then? Is that work in progress? Do you expect it to emerge by itself, or do you deliberately start to create something?
BB: I hear other people tell the Seedlip story right in front of me. I heard it last night! A friend of mine, who is a restaurateur saying to another restaurateur, “Oh, this is Ben. You know, he was the Queen’s entrepreneur of the year this year.” We weren’t. I was invited by Buckingham palace to meet the Duke of York. We did an event with the Duke of York. That’s great. There is a bottle of Seedlip in Buckingham Palace, great. But he’d then taken it on to “Well the Queen’s knighted Ben for his services to the drinks industry in his first six months.” You can’t stop people doing that.
JK: So in a way, I get a feeling that you’re quite relaxed about not having everything totally figured out, ready, planned in advance. That things actually are created quite organically, like maybe a more authentic myth is one that isn’t fully planned, because that would be very apparent. It’s something that comes together over time. You just help it along a bit.
BB: Yeah, I think we’re not set in stone, and we never should be. You have to allow perception and word of mouth to happen, and that’s something that takes some patience. To let people talk about it, you’ve got to let people discover it, and you’ve got to let people make up their own stories for it, of how they then tell someone else.
making myths work for you
Any brand can stand out with the right story and strategic brand design. Storytelling elevates the esteem customers have for modern premium brands and the price fans are willing to pay. These same principles can also be applied to fast-moving consumer goods companies: Brand mission and truth can reach customers and stop people from dismissing your brand as a mass produced commodity. Put the myth back into marketing and seduce, rather than sell, to be esteemed beyond size, price or performance.