Jay Harman had big plans for his company's new micro-distilled vodka, Triple 8. The spirit was a silver medalist at the World Spirits Championships in 2002 and Harman, co-founder and CFO of Cisco Brewers in Nantucket, Mass., believed it could do for vodka what microbrews like Anchor Steam did for beer. But with just $20,000 in the marketing kitty, it would be nearly impossible for Cisco -- which was better known for its wines and beers -- to compete with brands such as Grey Goose for space behind the bar. "The only way to compete, and turn a profit, was to get creative," Harman says.
Preparing for Triple 8's national debut in the summer of 2002, Harman got to thinking. Doling out samples to bar patrons had worked well when Cisco was building buzz for its wines and beers. But vodka costs more to produce, so free drinks wouldn't go far. He decided to focus on bartenders and distributors instead. They're the gatekeepers, and if Cisco could get them to believe in Triple 8, they could become the vodka's most effective advocates. It wouldn't be easy. Most liquor companies spend a lot of time and money wooing the same crowd. Nonetheless, Harman set about designing a promotion that would turn the disparate group into his de facto sales force.
Cisco may not have had much money in the bank, but it did have its headquarters in a premier vacation spot. The location became the promotion's centerpiece. Harman contacted about 400 bartenders and distributors and offered the following proposition: Sell enough Triple 8 this summer, and Cisco will give you a three-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Nantucket, complete with tours of the company's vineyard and brewery, fishing trips, and a big bash. The party, dubbed the Bartenders Ball, would be memorable, he assured them. He didn't tell them he was sinking his entire marketing budget into it.
It was a big risk, and Harman needed it to pay off. His first step was to calculate the cost of each vacation giveaway. A winner from Delaware, for example, would cost Cisco about $600 for airfare, room, board, and amenities, while one from the island would cost just $60. He set sales goals for each contestant accordingly. The winner in Delaware, then, would need to generate $2,000 in summer sales to win; that would cover the cost of the trip and bring in $1,400 in revenue. Harman and his staff called the contestants frequently during the summer, offering recipes for cocktails and telling them how they were measuring up.
By the end of the summer, 150 contestants had reached their goals -- generating total sales of $119,000. In September, they descended on Nantucket for the event, which Cisco used as a chance to show clients what it's all about. "They get a kick out of meeting us and watching us label bottles," Harman says. Many even jumped in to help. "There's no better way to educate our salespeople," he says. Case in point: Mike Sullivan, a bartender at Nantucket's Bamboo Supper Club, says he's "fanatical" about Triple 8 and recommends it to customers. He's also a big fan of the Bartenders Ball. "I'm gunning to go again," he says.
Cisco's marketing budget for Triple 8 has edged up since then, to about $50,000. Eighty percent of it goes into the Bartenders Ball. Harman spends the better part of each year planning the event -- and it's worth the effort, he says. Since the inaugural fiesta, Cisco's revenue has doubled to $1.2 million. Sales of Triple 8 jumped 55% in 2003 and another 67% last year, to $320,000 -- with no advertising, just the promotion. Harman expects to sell $500,000 worth of vodka this year.
This Labor Day, the Bartenders Ball will celebrate its fourth anniversary in a local airplane hangar. Cisco expects 450 attendees. Says Harman: "They love telling the stories back at home about this weekend" -- memories, he hopes, that will drive customers to pick up the bottle.