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JUNE 2008 www.binonline.


S E R V I N G C A L I F O R N I A’ S B E E R / W I N E / S P I R I T S I N D U S T R Y S I N C E 1 9 3 4

Taking The Country By Storm!
Can a spirit be both timeless and trendy?
Portfolio Reigns Supreme




Written by Elyse Glickman

2 BIN 2 0 0 8 • I S S U E 5
ne look and taste, even in a crowded field, and it

is evident KAI Vodka is clearly a different kind of

vodka experience. Certainly savvy distributors and

retailers do. And as for the consumer looking for something new,

Vietnam is closer than they could have ever imagined.

“What will make this brand get rooted and grow especially in California. With the sophisticated
into something of value for our customers is our American palate adapted to Asian spices and fla-
clearly defining the KAI story and positioning it vors, these adventurous consumers and the on-
so people can understand how special this vodka and off-premise accounts that cater to them
is,” says KAI founder and managing director demand something that will challenge consumer
Marcus Bender. “There are so many European taste buds and mixologist creativity. KAI
vodkas circulating with similar claims and all achieves all of this through its distinctive, refined
these messages about their wheat, traditions and taste derived from the distillation of rare Yellow-
techniques. However, we actually have some- Blossom Rice. It is, according to Bender, a perfect
thing truly special that a variety of demographics fit for this market whether enjoyed in its original
can appreciate, something nobody else is doing form or Lychee, on its own or in a cocktail.
right now.” Adding to KAI’s cache is the fact that this
Indeed, many things do set KAI Vodka and special and rare form of rice is grown in small vil-
KAI Lychee Vodka apart. Both varieties can be lages near the Cam Giang district, along North
positioned either as a sexy, exotic cocktail founda- Vietnam’s Red River Delta. Because of its delicate
tion or as “cocktails” in a bottle as they are smooth nature, it is handcrafted in small batches using
and sophisticated enough to enjoy on their own. techniques that have been handed down for
There is a built in Asian mystique, as well as more than six centuries. The process of fer-
award-winning package design that is in tune mentation and distillation used to create KAI
with a cross-generational demand for lifestyle- Vodka renders a distinctive-tasting vodka that
driven products. Bender and his team are also preserves the natural sweetness of the Yellow-
using high-tech methods such as an updated Blossom Rice. Furthermore, it takes almost
web site and viral marketing (via Facebook 14 pounds of the precious grain to make
and other sites) to reach a wide cross sec- four liters of KAI Vodka. Although vodka
tion of audiences. Although it is still very enthusiasts prize what is inside a bottle,
new on the market, KAI’s industry acco- the sensual, visual and tactically appealing
lades have bolstered the brand into the bottle adds to KAI’s appeal. As a whole,
establishment. The flavor and packaging KAI translates into what may be the per-
have garnered awards at the Beverage fect vodka for a generation of adventurous
Tasting Institute and the San Francisco consumers.
International Spirits Competition…no small “The word ‘kai’ has positive meaning
feat as KAI was launched just a year ago. throughout Asia,” notes Bender, from his
Honolulu headquarters, “The word means
FOUND IN TRANSLATION ‘pleasure’ in Japan and ‘happy gathering’
As the first ultra premium to originate in in China. In fact the word has multiple
Vietnam, KAI has translated beautifully meanings even as one moves through dif-
to the American market, thanks to its ferent cultures of Asia. It’s a word that
bottle and exotic origins. It also helps unifies and brings people together, just
that Asian-Fusion cuisine is here to stay, as a good spirit would. The feedback
Bender reflects. “Both places are small in
size but big in terms of the impact our prod-
uct can make on new and old audiences for
KAI. While restaurants in Las Vegas are
where culinary and mixology trends take
shape for the entire country, we also have
the potential to reach consumers from
around America and the world who come
to Vegas to experience the newest and lat-
est things. Vegas is a place of discovery, and
being there has already helped us in terms
KAI founder and managing director of validating us in other markets. After all,
Marcus Bender in rice fields near consumers are key to the kingdom, and
the Cam Giang district, along with 30 million tourists coming through,
North Vietnam’s Red River Delta there are so many opportunities for this
kind of discovery.”
BevMo’s California and Arizona stores,
meanwhile, are also using their unique
niche in spirits retail to bring in adventur-
“My hopes and expectations for the coming year is to expand ous consumers. Thanks to KAI’s sales team,
our footprint into key markets such as Chicago, New York, in tandem with a variety of marketing
strategies (ranging from word of mouth to
Florida, Miami, Atlanta and other large vodka markets...” “viral” marketing that takes shape in the
form of blogs, networking web sites and
internet magazines), Bender is confident
— Marcus Bender,
that this will help the marketing aspects at
KAI founder and managing director the consumer level for the brand to take on
a life of its own. On-premise events in
Hawaii, L.A. and elsewhere, are also taking
advantage of celebrity-driven events and
from consumers is that they love its smooth, kets,” notes Bender. “That said, California is high-visibility promotions to drive the
unique taste and the fashionable bottle that still high priority for us as we have earned brand. At one recent even in Los Angeles,
captures the east-meets-west spirit.” our accounts and want to continue our work for example, Tobey McGuire (of the
In the wake of KAI’s launch last sum- with those who have embraced us and will Spiderman movies) had the chance to sam-
mer, the brand has beaten the odds by rap- help us get traction because they understand ple KAI at a high profile gallery opening
idly establishing a niche in a very crowded the perspective of our brand. California is a with 400 of his closest friends, while actress
landscape of vodkas, where many “me too” country and universe onto itself, it is the Jenny McCarthy’s autism fundraiser was co-
vodkas tapping into familiar things like ideal starting point for a buzz that will find hosted by KAI and David Beckham was
European roots and traditional ingredients its way into other states because there are so recently spotted in at the W Hotel in
jostle for position. While consumer inter- many distinctive markets here.” Honolulu discovering the vodka with the
est in new premium unique products is Early accounts that have helped the assistance of KAI spokesmodels.
strong, KAI has won discerning audiences brand gain national attention include a mix
over simply by being different, in its taste, of trendy Southern California hangouts
award-winning packaging and the fact that (The Abbey, Koi, Katana, Crustacean and
it comes from Asia. However, Bender rec- Nic’s Martini Bar), sophisticated Northern
ognizes there are still challenges to come, California spots with foodie audiences (Le
even with effective guerilla marketing— Colonial, Three Seasons, I-Tapa) and popu-
expanding beyond California into major lar, crowd-pleasing restaurant groups that
markets throughout the US and the World. cross a lot of different demographics (Roy’s,
P.F. Chang’s). This, in part, has paved the
RICE DREAMS way for KAI to advance into Las Vegas, via
“My hopes and expectations for the coming destination accounts such as Red Square,
year is to expand our footprint into key mar- David Burke’s, China Grill and The David Beckham with
kets such as Chicago, New York, Florida, Bellagio Hotel’s bars and restaurants. KAI spokesmodels
W Hotel, Honolulu
Miami, Atlanta and other large vodka mar- “Las Vegas is like Hawaii in many ways,”
4 BIN 2 0 0 8 • I S S U E 5
TO BE CREATIVE “Why just do a vodka when you can create something with a
David Nepove, a mixologist at Southern
Wine & Spirits in NoCal, like the other unique flavor profile that people will be talking about and
team members, has been so inspired by
the uniqueness of KAI Lychee Vodka that he ordering again and again?”
has set forth to invent new cocktails that will
add to KAI’s pre-existing appeal among — David Nepove
consumers and trade. Mixologist, Southern Wine & Spirits
“With an industry flooded with same
old same old, it is so great to be working
with an original flavor that works so well
with many cocktails,” Nepove muses. HEAVENLY HARVEST to bring a personal touch to the marketing
of the vodkas, they are spreading a very spe-
“Naturally, it is a perfect companion for BEGETS DIVINE DISCOVERY
cific message about how this vodka can
Asian and Pacific Rim foods. As it is a fla- The starting point for KAI Vodka and KAI
appeal to so many different people. While
vor many sophisticated people cannot wait Lychee vodka is fermentation with a tradi-
this vodka is an indulgence, it has its
to get their hands on, I also must say that it tional combination of 30 herbs, spices and
healthy side—the fact it is made from rice
is also a great fit for restaurants of all kinds, yeast that imparts this distinctive vodka’s
also makes it gluten free, which introduces
especially those with innovative bar menus. unusual character. However, rare and exot-
yet another audience into the mix and
Why just do a vodka when you can create ic rice is not KAI’s only sweet and seductive
another great reason to be on the market.
something with a unique flavor profile that component. While other vodkas pride
As accounts like PF Chang’s offer gluten-
people will be talking about and ordering themselves on essentially being flavorless,
free menus, KAI contributes to that health-
again and again?” the delicate flavors in the regular and
conscious factor.
lychee variety add a fresh dimension to the
vodka drinking experience, whether it is
being enjoyed straight or as part of an inno-
1.5 oz Kai Vodka A study in KAI’s quick rise is also, very
3.5 oz (energy drink) vative cocktail.
1/4 oz Blue Cuacao pointedly, a study in contrasts. While the
According to Bender, the overwhelm-
Shake ingredients in a creative message of the print ads and public
ingly positive early responses to KAI
Boston shaker and pour relations efforts is that “pleasure is the ulti-
into a Highball Glass. Vodkas in Hawaii and California was a sure
mate goal,” the product’s positioning is that
indication the brand would find success in
KAI LYCHEE MARTINI other markets, including Nevada and
KAI in itself is a bottle of contradictions.
3 oz. Kai Lychee Vodka For starters, the notion of “Asian
Shake and strain into a martini
Arizona. “Our real success in the early
vodka” is a paradox, as many people still
glass. Garnish with fresh stages has been based on getting people to
Lychee Fruit. associate the spirit with Europe. Vodka is
taste it in our off- and on-premise promo-
an ordinary bar staple since it has almost no
KAI-TINI tions and samplings. While we enabled
flavor or odor, but KAI vodka is extraordi-
3 oz. KAI Vodka consumers to ‘discover it’ in accounts like
nary as it has a very specific taste, aroma
Shake and Strain. BevMo (and are still doing so right now),
Garnish with an olive. and feel. Vodka popular for its simplicity,
we’ve also gotten the buzz going with staff
but KAI redefines the vodka spirit as both
KAI ASIAN DELICACY tastings at our bar and restaurant accounts.
an exotic and sensory luxury. It is exotic
1/2 oz. Simple Syrup* When the staff has expressed their enjoy-
3 Thai Basil Leaves because of its origin, yet very accessible,
ment, it has prompted management to take
1 Lemon wedge (1/8 lemon) because KAI’s team is making sure that this
Muddle Simple Syrup, Basil, that leap of faith in bringing KAI to their
message gets through in Hawaii, Arizona,
and Lemon Wedge bar and being a part of our themed promo-
1 1/2 oz. KAI Lychee Vodka California, Nevada and, later, throughout
tions. The bottom line, however, is that
1/2 oz. Green Tea Liqueur the States. In the end, the interesting com-
people can taste the difference, and we’ve
Shake and strain into a martini parisons not only help introduce KAI to a
glass. Garnish with fresh Basil gotten converts right away.”
widening audience, but also change peo-
leaf and a Lemon Twist. Additionally, Bender says emphatically
ple’s notions of what vodka is about and
that he is a big believer in staying small in
MISS SAIGON MARTINI how it can be enjoyed.
1 1/2 oz. KAI Lychee Vodka some ways to gain bigger traction, especial-
“This is a fitting way to do business
1/4 oz. Triple Sec ly as “specialness” for many audiences
1 lime wedge squeezed since in the market, you have two contrast-
means something that steers away from
3/4 oz. Cranberry Juice ing audiences—the people who want some-
Shake and Strain into a Martini
becoming too big and corporate. Even with
thing new and the others who know what
Glass. Float with 1 oz. his drive to get KAI into bars across
Champagne or Sparkling Sake. they like and are attached to it,” says
America, he is also intent on preventing
Garnish with a fresh Bender. “Once you understand that, you’ve
lime wedge.
KAI from becoming a “SKU in a portfolio.”
got what it takes to tap into the diverse psy-
While KAI brand ambassadors are trained
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ches of different ages and demos and being had a successful career as the director of
smarter of how we go after the business. If Allied-Domecq, another member of the
you don’t take that approach, all you are Board of Directors, is based in the UK and
doing is marketing in a way that is similar to has been an important in helping KAI
taking a shotgun and shooting at random define its place in the world market, espe-
targets. Our approach with the paradox is cially in establishing relationships with dis-
about bringing consumer interest to the next tributors and other key clients. Southern
level by making people understand what sep- Wine & Spirits, meanwhile, has provided
arates us from the competition.” exceptional support for KAI in the Hawaii,
Arizona, Nevada and California markets.
FROM THE PLANTING FIELDS “Kai Vodka is the kind of product that
TO THE PLAYING FIELD excites me,” says Stevens enthusiastically. “It
Even with KAI being just a year old, Bender has a real point of difference and a reason for
and his multi-faceted team of industry veter-
ans and mixology innovators felt there was
being in the crowded landscape of tradition-
al vodkas. Kai has several firsts that allow
no better time to reposition the brand using you (as a retailer or restaurant) to stake out FLAVOR OF THE MONTH
a unique formula of interactive marketing a new segment and call it your own. Kai In a world where there are as many fla-
technology and carefully selected people Vodka is new news.” vored vodkas as there are personalities,
who understood the uniqueness and paradox On the creative side of things, San what makes the KAI personality unique is
messages of KAI so thoroughly they could Francisco’s Gershoni Creative Agency is that the brand offers only one flavor—
bring it to a wide variety of audiences. working closely with Bender and his team to lychee. Although Bender had experiment-
Dan Lyons, a 20-year beverage industry rebrand KAI completely and communicate ed with new flavor concepts, he ultimate-
veteran from Southern Wine & Spirits the revised and refreshed vision through a ly decided to stick with one defining flavor
recently came over to assume the position of rich, full-scale brand re-launch. This re- so marketing efforts could run deep rather
Vice President of the Western Region. Dana launch involves a more thorough and engag- than become so broad that some products
Black, meanwhile, is the dynamic force ing marketing approach, which includes a are cannibalized in favor of others. As
behind the sales and marketing efforts that more polished internet/web presence. The KAI is the only distiller producing a Lychee
have made such a huge impact, while James overall focus thoroughly covers the brand’s flavor, that distinction adds extra weight to
Stevens (a 35-year veteran who made a attributes, benefits and mystique in a fresh the marketing team’s efforts to emphasize
name for himself in beverages via bringing new way. the brand’s specialness over all. And yes,
Perrier to the US in the 1970s, a long stint “We felt now was a good time to rethink there is another engaging paradox to be
at Coca-Cola and his highly successful J. M. the way we are presenting KAI’s attributes, found….KAI’s one flavor of vodka has a
Stevens & Associates, Inc. consulting firm) benefits and uniqueness,” says Bender. “We multifaceted nose and palate with notes of
is exhibiting leadership as the company want to play up the fact that KAI is sensory spice, rose, orange blossoms and honey.
Chairman who is keeping the sales, market- and can take diverse audiences to a new “KAI Lychee Vodka is very much about
ing and promotional arms of KAI on track. place in terms of a flavor experience KAI ‘discovery,’ while both formats are about
California sales reps Gina Johnston, mood, since all the customers we’re looking revealing a secret to conoisseurs that has
Dean DeAngelis, Jessica DoVan and Las at have certain types of education, values existed for over six centuries in Vietnam—
Vegas Brand Ambassador Matt Kurzrok, and desire to engage in cosmopolitan activ- Ruou--which is Vietnamese Rice Wine or
meanwhile, are setting a great example for ities. The web is just one of the many ways Rice Vodka,” says Bender. “Rice is King &
the rest of the US market with their focused the KAI message will be reaching our Queen in Asia. We want to let audiences
efforts to put KAI in the hands of trade diverse and adventurous consumer and know in a variety of demographics that
clients and consumers. Richard Turner, who trade audiences.” ■ what they will experience, especially with
the Lychee, is that what’s simple can also
be exceptional. Furthermore, because
California is a melting pot of many ethnic
restaurants, bars and clubs, we believe
Californians will embrace the uniqueness
of KAI Lychee Vodka in 2008.”
By keeping the focus just on one flavor
and the original, Bender believes there is
less of a risk of distracting from the brand’s
intended message or becoming too
dependent on gimmicks. In other words,
if a product is special enough that it does-
n’t need a crayon box of flavors to prove
Left to Right: Richard Turner - Director, Dana Black - VP Sales & Marketing itself, that kind of confidence says a lot.
Marcus Bender - Founder, Managing Director, James Stevens - Chairman