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BEVERAGE INDUSTRY NEWS
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A SPIRIT-UAL AWAKENING
RARE YELLOW BLOSSOM RICE, SIX CENTURIES OF TRADITION, A HIGHLY SPECIFIC MARKETING PLAN AND ENTHUSIASTIC TEAM PLAYERS BRING ONE OF THE MOST COMPELLING VODKAS ON THE MARKET TO LIFE
Written by Elyse Glickman
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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 into something of value for our customers is our clearly defining the KAI story and positioning it so people can understand how special this vodka is,” says KAI founder and managing director Marcus Bender. “There are so many European vodkas circulating with similar claims and all these messages about their wheat, traditions and techniques. However, we actually have something truly special that a variety of demographics can appreciate, something nobody else is doing right now.” Indeed, many things do set KAI Vodka and KAI Lychee Vodka apart. Both varieties can be positioned either as a sexy, exotic cocktail foundation or as “cocktails” in a bottle as they are smooth and sophisticated enough to enjoy on their own. There is a built in Asian mystique, as well as award-winning package design that is in tune with a cross-generational demand for lifestyledriven products. Bender and his team are also using high-tech methods such as an updated web site and viral marketing (via Facebook and other sites) to reach a wide cross section of audiences. Although it is still very new on the market, KAI’s industry accolades have bolstered the brand into the establishment. The flavor and packaging have garnered awards at the Beverage Tasting Institute and the San Francisco International Spirits Competition…no small feat as KAI was launched just a year ago.
FOUND IN TRANSLATION
As the first ultra premium to originate in Vietnam, KAI has translated beautifully to the American market, thanks to its bottle and exotic origins. It also helps that Asian-Fusion cuisine is here to stay,
especially in California. With the sophisticated American palate adapted to Asian spices and flavors, these adventurous consumers and the onand off-premise accounts that cater to them demand something that will challenge consumer taste buds and mixologist creativity. KAI achieves all of this through its distinctive, refined taste derived from the distillation of rare YellowBlossom Rice. It is, according to Bender, a perfect fit for this market whether enjoyed in its original form or Lychee, on its own or in a cocktail. Adding to KAI’s cache is the fact that this special and rare form of rice is grown in small villages near the Cam Giang district, along North Vietnam’s Red River Delta. Because of its delicate nature, it is handcrafted in small batches using techniques that have been handed down for more than six centuries. The process of fermentation and distillation used to create KAI Vodka renders a distinctive-tasting vodka that preserves the natural sweetness of the YellowBlossom Rice. Furthermore, it takes almost 14 pounds of the precious grain to make four liters of KAI Vodka. Although vodka enthusiasts prize what is inside a bottle, the sensual, visual and tactically appealing bottle adds to KAI’s appeal. As a whole, KAI translates into what may be the perfect vodka for a generation of adventurous consumers. “The word ‘kai’ has positive meaning throughout Asia,” notes Bender, from his Honolulu headquarters, “The word means ‘pleasure’ in Japan and ‘happy gathering’ in China. In fact the word has multiple meanings even as one moves through different cultures of Asia. It’s a word that unifies and brings people together, just as a good spirit would. The feedback
KAI founder and managing director Marcus Bender in rice fields near the Cam Giang district, along North Vietnam’s Red River Delta
“My hopes and expectations for the coming year is to expand our footprint into key markets such as Chicago, New York, Florida, Miami, Atlanta and other large vodka markets...”
— Marcus Bender, KAI founder and managing director
from consumers is that they love its smooth, unique taste and the fashionable bottle that captures the east-meets-west spirit.” In the wake of KAI’s launch last summer, the brand has beaten the odds by rapidly establishing a niche in a very crowded landscape of vodkas, where many “me too” vodkas tapping into familiar things like European roots and traditional ingredients jostle for position. While consumer interest in new premium unique products is strong, KAI has won discerning audiences over simply by being different, in its taste, award-winning packaging and the fact that it comes from Asia. However, Bender recognizes there are still challenges to come, even with effective guerilla marketing— expanding beyond California into major markets throughout the US and the World.
“My hopes and expectations for the coming year is to expand our footprint into key markets such as Chicago, New York, Florida, Miami, Atlanta and other large vodka mar4 BIN 2 0 0 8 • I S S U E 5
kets,” notes Bender. “That said, California is still high priority for us as we have earned our accounts and want to continue our work with those who have embraced us and will help us get traction because they understand the perspective of our brand. California is a country and universe onto itself, it is the ideal starting point for a buzz that will find its way into other states because there are so many distinctive markets here.” Early accounts that have helped the brand gain national attention include a mix of trendy Southern California hangouts (The Abbey, Koi, Katana, Crustacean and Nic’s Martini Bar), sophisticated Northern California spots with foodie audiences (Le Colonial, Three Seasons, I-Tapa) and popular, crowd-pleasing restaurant groups that cross a lot of different demographics (Roy’s, P.F. Chang’s). This, in part, has paved the way for KAI to advance into Las Vegas, via destination accounts such as Red Square, David Burke’s, China Grill and The Bellagio Hotel’s bars and restaurants. “Las Vegas is like Hawaii in many ways,”
Bender reflects. “Both places are small in size but big in terms of the impact our product 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 latest things. Vegas is a place of discovery, and being there has already helped us in terms of validating us in other markets. After all, consumers are key to the kingdom, and with 30 million tourists coming through, 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 adventurous consumers. Thanks to KAI’s sales team, in tandem with a variety of marketing strategies (ranging from word of mouth to “viral” marketing that takes shape in the form of blogs, networking web sites and internet magazines), Bender is confident that this will help the marketing aspects at 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 high-visibility promotions to drive the brand. At one recent even in Los Angeles, for example, Tobey McGuire (of the Spiderman movies) had the chance to sample KAI at a high profile gallery opening with 400 of his closest friends, while actress Jenny McCarthy’s autism fundraiser was cohosted by KAI and David Beckham was recently spotted in at the W Hotel in Honolulu discovering the vodka with the assistance of KAI spokesmodels.
David Beckham with KAI spokesmodels W Hotel, Honolulu
THE “RICE” WAY TO BE CREATIVE
David Nepove, a mixologist at Southern Wine & Spirits in NoCal, like the other team members, has been so inspired by the uniqueness of KAI Lychee Vodka that he has set forth to invent new cocktails that will add to KAI’s pre-existing appeal among consumers and trade. “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. “Naturally, it is a perfect companion for Asian and Pacific Rim foods. As it is a flavor many sophisticated people cannot wait to get their hands on, I also must say that it is also a great fit for restaurants of all kinds, especially those with innovative bar menus. Why just do a vodka when you can create something with a unique flavor profile that people will be talking about and ordering again and again?”
“Why just do a vodka when you can create something with a unique flavor profile that people will be talking about and ordering again and again?”
— David Nepove Mixologist, Southern Wine & Spirits
HEAVENLY HARVEST BEGETS DIVINE DISCOVERY
The starting point for KAI Vodka and KAI Lychee vodka is fermentation with a traditional combination of 30 herbs, spices and yeast that imparts this distinctive vodka’s unusual character. However, rare and exotic rice is not KAI’s only sweet and seductive component. While other vodkas pride themselves on essentially being flavorless, the delicate flavors in the regular and lychee variety add a fresh dimension to the vodka drinking experience, whether it is being enjoyed straight or as part of an innovative cocktail. According to Bender, the overwhelmingly positive early responses to KAI Vodkas in Hawaii and California was a sure indication the brand would find success in other markets, including Nevada and Arizona. “Our real success in the early stages has been based on getting people to taste it in our off- and on-premise promotions and samplings. While we enabled consumers to ‘discover it’ in accounts like BevMo (and are still doing so right now), we’ve also gotten the buzz going with staff tastings at our bar and restaurant accounts. When the staff has expressed their enjoyment, it has prompted management to take that leap of faith in bringing KAI to their bar and being a part of our themed promotions. The bottom line, however, is that people can taste the difference, and we’ve gotten converts right away.” Additionally, Bender says emphatically that he is a big believer in staying small in some ways to gain bigger traction, especially as “specialness” for many audiences means something that steers away from becoming too big and corporate. Even with his drive to get KAI into bars across America, he is also intent on preventing KAI from becoming a “SKU in a portfolio.” While KAI brand ambassadors are trained
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to bring a personal touch to the marketing of the vodkas, they are spreading a very specific message about how this vodka can appeal to so many different people. While this vodka is an indulgence, it has its healthy side—the fact it is made from rice also makes it gluten free, which introduces yet another audience into the mix and another great reason to be on the market. As accounts like PF Chang’s offer glutenfree menus, KAI contributes to that healthconscious factor.
1.5 oz Kai Vodka 3.5 oz (energy drink) 1/4 oz Blue Cuacao
Shake ingredients in a Boston shaker and pour into a Highball Glass.
A study in KAI’s quick rise is also, very pointedly, a study in contrasts. While the creative message of the print ads and public relations efforts is that “pleasure is the ultimate goal,” the product’s positioning is that KAI in itself is a bottle of contradictions. For starters, the notion of “Asian vodka” is a paradox, as many people still associate the spirit with Europe. Vodka is an ordinary bar staple since it has almost no flavor or odor, but KAI vodka is extraordinary as it has a very specific taste, aroma and feel. Vodka popular for its simplicity, but KAI redefines the vodka spirit as both an exotic and sensory luxury. It is exotic because of its origin, yet very accessible, because KAI’s team is making sure that this message gets through in Hawaii, Arizona, California, Nevada and, later, throughout the States. In the end, the interesting comparisons not only help introduce KAI to a widening audience, but also change people’s notions of what vodka is about and how it can be enjoyed. “This is a fitting way to do business since in the market, you have two contrasting audiences—the people who want something new and the others who know what they like and are attached to it,” says Bender. “Once you understand that, you’ve got what it takes to tap into the diverse psy-
KAI LYCHEE MARTINI
3 oz. Kai Lychee Vodka Shake and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with fresh Lychee Fruit.
3 oz. KAI Vodka Shake and Strain. Garnish with an olive.
KAI ASIAN DELICACY
1/2 oz. Simple Syrup* 3 Thai Basil Leaves 1 Lemon wedge (1/8 lemon) Muddle Simple Syrup, Basil, and Lemon Wedge 1 1/2 oz. KAI Lychee Vodka 1/2 oz. Green Tea Liqueur Shake and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with fresh Basil leaf and a Lemon Twist.
MISS SAIGON MARTINI
1 1/2 oz. KAI Lychee Vodka 1/4 oz. Triple Sec 1 lime wedge squeezed 3/4 oz. Cranberry Juice Shake and Strain into a Martini Glass. Float with 1 oz. Champagne or Sparkling Sake. Garnish with a fresh lime wedge.
ches of different ages and demos and being smarter of how we go after the business. If you don’t take that approach, all you are doing is marketing in a way that is similar to taking a shotgun and shooting at random targets. Our approach with the paradox is about bringing consumer interest to the next level by making people understand what separates us from the competition.”
FROM THE PLANTING FIELDS TO THE PLAYING FIELD
Even with KAI being just a year old, Bender and his multi-faceted team of industry veterans and mixology innovators felt there was no better time to reposition the brand using a unique formula of interactive marketing technology and carefully selected people who understood the uniqueness and paradox messages of KAI so thoroughly they could bring it to a wide variety of audiences. Dan Lyons, a 20-year beverage industry veteran from Southern Wine & Spirits recently came over to assume the position of Vice President of the Western Region. Dana Black, meanwhile, is the dynamic force behind the sales and marketing efforts that have made such a huge impact, while James Stevens (a 35-year veteran who made a name for himself in beverages via bringing Perrier to the US in the 1970s, a long stint at Coca-Cola and his highly successful J. M. Stevens & Associates, Inc. consulting firm) is exhibiting leadership as the company Chairman who is keeping the sales, marketing and promotional arms of KAI on track. California sales reps Gina Johnston, Dean DeAngelis, Jessica DoVan and Las Vegas Brand Ambassador Matt Kurzrok, meanwhile, are setting a great example for the rest of the US market with their focused efforts to put KAI in the hands of trade clients and consumers. Richard Turner, who
had a successful career as the director of Allied-Domecq, another member of the Board of Directors, is based in the UK and has been an important in helping KAI define its place in the world market, especially in establishing relationships with distributors and other key clients. Southern Wine & Spirits, meanwhile, has provided exceptional support for KAI in the Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada and California markets. “Kai Vodka is the kind of product that excites me,” says Stevens enthusiastically. “It has a real point of difference and a reason for being in the crowded landscape of traditional vodkas. Kai has several firsts that allow you (as a retailer or restaurant) to stake out a new segment and call it your own. Kai Vodka is new news.” On the creative side of things, San Francisco’s Gershoni Creative Agency is working closely with Bender and his team to rebrand KAI completely and communicate the revised and refreshed vision through a rich, full-scale brand re-launch. This relaunch involves a more thorough and engaging marketing approach, which includes a more polished internet/web presence. The overall focus thoroughly covers the brand’s attributes, benefits and mystique in a fresh new way. “We felt now was a good time to rethink the way we are presenting KAI’s attributes, benefits and uniqueness,” says Bender. “We want to play up the fact that KAI is sensory and can take diverse audiences to a new place in terms of a flavor experience KAI mood, since all the customers we’re looking at have certain types of education, values and desire to engage in cosmopolitan activities. The web is just one of the many ways the KAI message will be reaching our diverse and adventurous consumer and trade audiences.” I
LYCHEE—NOT JUST THE FLAVOR OF THE MONTH
In a world where there are as many flavored vodkas as there are personalities, what makes the KAI personality unique is that the brand offers only one flavor— lychee. Although Bender had experimented with new flavor concepts, he ultimately decided to stick with one defining flavor so marketing efforts could run deep rather than become so broad that some products are cannibalized in favor of others. As KAI is the only distiller producing a Lychee flavor, that distinction adds extra weight to the marketing team’s efforts to emphasize the brand’s specialness over all. And yes, there is another engaging paradox to be found….KAI’s one flavor of vodka has a multifaceted nose and palate with notes of spice, rose, orange blossoms and honey. “KAI Lychee Vodka is very much about ‘discovery,’ while both formats are about revealing a secret to conoisseurs that has existed for over six centuries in Vietnam— Ruou--which is Vietnamese Rice Wine or Rice Vodka,” says Bender. “Rice is King & Queen in Asia. We want to let audiences know in a variety of demographics that 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 doesn’t need a crayon box of flavors to prove itself, that kind of confidence says a lot.
Left to Right: Richard Turner - Director, Dana Black - VP Sales & Marketing Marcus Bender - Founder, Managing Director, James Stevens - Chairman
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