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Nick Gillett: Satisfying distributors – the secret sauce for spirits brands

Published:  13 May, 2024

I don’t think I have to preach about the benefits of working with a distributor when it comes to the UK spirits industry. It’s a complicated market at the best of times and currently full of challenges like cost-of-living pressures and hospitality closures, which in turn lead to more cautious buyers that are harder to access.

There’s just no doubt that by working with the right distributor you open up a new world of opportunities but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. There’s a plethora of independent spirits producers out there, so how do you differentiate yourself from the crowd; and what’s going to convince a distributor to take on your product?

The basics

A great place to start. I’m not claiming that for every distributor the basics are the same, but at Mangrove we have a clear idea of what we’re after.

It starts with the liquid. This has to be exceptional; delicious and well-crafted. If the liquid isn’t right, then there’s a fundamental flaw with the business. Now obviously taste is a personal thing, so to assess the quality of the spirit itself we’ll do comparison tastings within the category and involve plenty of our team to get an array of feedback on the quality.

Beyond the liquid, a whole raft of other things have to be right. There needs to be a strong brand there; something that differentiates you from the wider category, and that element is usually your brand story. At Mangrove, we like to represent a lot of brands who are pioneering in some way – maybe with flavour, production, ageing processes, or more widely in sustainable and ethical practices. We’re fairly outspoken when it comes to trying to do better for the planet and its people, so we find great synergies with brands who think and feel the same way.

We also like to see evidence that there’s appetite for the brand. It could be a sizeable social following or encouraging sales statistics within specific channels or regions; something that our expertise can build upon. Consumer awareness is the biggest problem for brands, so to accelerate growth there also needs to be a commitment to focus efforts and investment into marketing – on top of everything that we’ll do to market your product.

The final basic element we look at is something that is entirely outside of the brand’s control. And that’s a fit with our wider portfolio. Once a brand is part of our portfolio, we are committed to supporting in full, so we’ll only bring on new products that complement and offer something different.

The calculations

But, as fun as it is, it’s not all sipping and chat when it comes to deciding which brands to represent. There’s a science to it.

In a well-defined category, there’s plenty of data we can access and pair with our own sales and distribution stats to come up with a detailed projection of how a product might sell, here in the UK. With that picture, we’ll then overlay forecasted levels of investment to get a realistic idea of where we can take the brand.

In newer categories it’s a bit more difficult. When we’re in unchartered waters, we’ll create trend analyses, examine closely related categories and reference that against internal data to get some form of projection.

In either case, we will never take a ‘punt’ or base our decision on feeling – cold hard cash and commerciality do count for a lot.

The founder’s secret sauce

There are some rare occasions where we know, from the first discussion, that we want to bring a brand on board. Pending of course, positive results from all the stages I’ve mentioned.

So, what’s the secret sauce? I think charisma has something to do with it and the ability to engage our team with their brand’s story. It’s hard to be in a room with pure passion and not be inspired, and it’s occasions like these that remind me what a bloody fantastic industry we operate in.

We’re committed to staying ahead of the curve; identifying trends well-before they take hold of the wider on and off-trade. People who know the industry, understand the market and have a good grasp of the category they’re operating in are also easy to engage with. If you’re speaking our language – we’re listening!

In some of the best conversations we’ve had with brands who want us to represent them, the founders have also demonstrated the strategic benefit to us – whether it’s how they complement other brands in the portfolio, or even open new channels. Remember that distributors are businesses too, and mutual benefit will work to your advantage.

A shift in ambition, but not focus

In 2023, we joined Groupe Bernard Hayot, essentially meaning that we’re now part of a global chain of spirits businesses, and I’ll be quite honest and say that this does change what we can offer, for the better.

Whilst the essence of bottles and brands that we’re looking for remain the same, we’re now also after businesses with global aspirations, or those who are selling in other regions and want to springboard here in the UK. Mangrove is still very much a UK distributor, but with our new global network, we have excellent partners across the world, and especially in France and the USA – both of which are difficult markets to gain traction in.

If you asked me what I’m looking for, for the portfolio – I’d say a great Scotch. And to continue building out our exceptional World Whisky portfolio. Liqueurs are definitely an interesting area too, and we’ve seen some incredible success for some of those brands we represent.

My parting piece of advice is this: have a clear idea and plan for what you want, before you approach a distributor. Be realistic, know what sort of growth you’re comfortable with, and identify what resources you have and are willing to part with. The UK market is expensive and complex to play in, so you need to be certain before you fully commit.

It’s my belief that independent producers are creating the very best liquids and some are truly pioneering. The best distributor relationships come from a great fit – in terms values, goals, and ambitions. So always approach more than one. By finding the right distributor, you won’t only have the chance to get your liquid on many more lips, but you might also become a new household favourite, for tipple lovers across the world.