Your Spirits Startup, Fascinating or Blatantly Irrelevant?

Blog | by Norman Kay | 12.19.2019

The Spirits business is an entrepreneurial paradise replete with opportunity, as well as a maze that must be navigated with great vision, realistic planning, a hyper recipe for compelling contagious differentiation, and long financial legs.


According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, overall sales of distilled spirits in the U.S. exceeds $70 Billion. Approximately 2% of the market is attributable to craft spirits, with an annual growth rate of 30%. The explosion of small distillers fuels this enthusiasm.



We are experiencing premiumization in every category amidst a continuing fascination for limited and exclusive American product. The cocktail and mixology mania has stoked the experience for at-home entertaining plus on-premise bar, restaurant & club traffic. Retail and on-premise shelves are bloated with value, premium, super & ultra-premium brands. The consolidated marketers / brand owners who command most of the facings, support their products with blanketed marketing in all media formats. These conglomerates and middle market players continue to add skus, primarily flavor-ades, to the overcrowded sector. Have you gone shopping recently?


Small batch > hand crafted > artisan etcetral! WTF?! Authentic, Awethentic or Unauthentic.

Adding to this narrative landscape is the influx of micros competing for a very small share of the market.

Okay, enough! You know all this. You have slogged through the data. I’ll stop right there. But… if you have a moment, I do have a few questions.


I hear that you have a brand bubbling up. And it’s likely a sure winner. And I’m told that you are nurturing a passion, have deep pockets, patience and zero fear of failure. Nice!


You have an urge to do something remarkable and you’re going to create a few new rules. Excellent!

Have you defined your success through this sea of sameness and nouveau brands?

Is it about distribution > dollars > case count > speed to plateau > peer review > mediaspeak?

So, you’re out to create a tipping point; do you have a breaking point?  just checkin…


Are you prepared to stake out and defend your margin of influence with strategic and tactical differentiation without the flatulent buzz. Sizzle from a proliferated storm of noise that clutters up open media space with more self-aggrandizement is not viral.

Why do you want to do this?


Your goals, your vision, your distinctive idea, your unique ingredient, your underlying strength – your final outcome.


How’s all this happening? Tell us who your customer is.


While you are entertaining my questions, can you please give our readers a concise 60 second, totally compelling, mysterious, yet elegant construct of your idea, your depth of conviction which we will believe to be worth seeking out and touting to our friends on Friday night.; eventually gifting. Unveil your storytelling skills. Excellent!


If you’re still with me, here’s what I’m getting at.

The shelves are mirrored with multiples of good tasting stuff in every category, and at every tier level. Have you considered this? You damn well better.

The market contains data, energy, and communications of every sort. Analyze and humanize that information in order to conceive that new desirable big concept that impels you into the hearts and wallets of your desired franchise. The notion is to create a product with concomitant experiences that fortify your piece of that cultural real estate.

Needs have to do with essentials, and that’s miles apart from this rant. You have to dig deeply and discern what your prospective consumer ‘wants’, or more likely you have to ideate something that they will magnetically aspire to.

And aren’t we talking about serious knowledgeable consumers, not merely first time imbibers. If you are confident in bringing something differential, of higher quality, with greater value; or a disruptive element to the table, move forward vigorously.


Be ready to source, vet and negotiate reliable, quality consistent production with the capacity and agility to manage your boutique business.

Someone on your team has to navigate the volume of various state and federal regs.

Distribution is a tactical nightmare for small independents. The huge multi-brand, multi- tiered marketers command the time and attention of the primary distributors as well as the on & off premise key accounts.  Your left with small, less muscled specialty distributors equipped to service single SKU nascent entries.

And the path is really not about you. You are the wizard behind the curtain. The path is about the product. You have embodied a persona; brought forth an imaginary personality and given it breath.

So, what essentially is this thing? What does it imply, how and for whom? The spotlight must shine on the thing’s experience and the experience it brings.

Did it just deliver fun, a new buy-in identity, prestige, peer adulation?

Who will cast a vote for your success after liftoff? The pretty committee? The disruptive jury? Or those who purchase and come back for more.

Our 5 senses have already been eloquently overfed. Maybe it’s time to explore the 6th intuitive sense and stake your position there.

Just sayin….


Norman Kay is the CEO and Chief Creative Officer and inspiration behind IBC Shell’s creative intuition and market influence. He has directed award-winning packaging and branded consumer identity products for established global brands including Grey Goose Vodka, Estee Lauder, Chivas Regal, Swiss Army, Victoria’s Secret and Bombay Sapphire Gin.  Norman’s work has received The Global Design & Advertising Award, The American Graphic Design Award, The International Award of Excellence for Visual Arts, and The American Packaging Design Award.  He has lectured and authored articles on design, packaging technology, the magnetic forces of packaging, and amplifying the brand experience.