Every morning I wake up to notifications about a new job posting on LinkedIn that fits my qualifications (even though I’m not actively searching). One company needs a “savvy social media marketer.” Another needs an “industry influencer” (they have great alliteration). “Are you able to reach early adopters with digital media?” one opening asked, in need of a B2B (business to business) specialist. “Can you coordinate across various social media platforms to drive revenue and increase success?” another inquired.
If one of the Kardashians started her own vodka company, I’m sure it would be possible to drive sales through social media and digital marketing alone, as few bars and retailers are going to pass up effortless revenue. However, if anyone else with fewer than 50 million Twitter followers tells you they can do the same for your brand, I want to meet them.
Let me tell you about B2B marketing in the booze game: it’s called distribution. It’s all done face-to-face. There is no social media shortcut. As much as technology wants to make everything “scaleable” from the comfort of our laptops, there are still some jobs that require you to leave the home, get in the car, go into a brick and mortar location, and look people in the eyes. That’s exactly the reason I wanted to get into this side of the business. When I worked as a retail buyer, my customers depended on me to find them interesting new bottles. Guess who I depended on to bring me those exciting new products? You guessed it: distributors. While we went out and sourced a number of our own labels, 95% of what we purchased came from in-store, personal appointments with sales reps who physically brought the bottles to us for sampling.
Every week I took meetings with 10-15 local distributors and tasted everything new in their book. I made decisions based on what I liked. I took that information and transmitted it to our sales staff and customers. Having a good distributor I could trust was everything. Someone who took the time to understand my interests, what I could sell, and the direction I wanted to go could do serious business with me over the course of a year. It’s very much the same relationship that I had with retail customers. Much like I was the dealer for a number of whiskey collectors, the distributors were my dealers. I was merely a curator of distributed goods.
Ditto for pricing. If I had a great price on a bottle, it wasn’t just because I felt like being nice! It was due to creative distributors who could cut a deal that was advantageous for both of us. If I went on a trip to visit a distiller, it’s because my distributor (and brand sales rep) lobbied for my presence on that excursion. If I got a large allocation of a hot item, it’s because my distributor decided I was a good enough customer to warrant that allotment. If I got early access to whiskey in demand, it’s because my distributor pushed for a quick delivery. Even if I did my due diligence to get the jump on a new product, I still relied on my best distributors to grease the wheels.
Distillers make the products. Bars and retailers make it available to consume and purchase. But the distributors are the people behind the scenes, out of plain view, connecting the dots. They know every buyer, every store clerk, every sommelier, every bar manager, every top mixologist, and every person of importance in every market they service (at least the good ones do), and they act as networkers between all the spirits being made today and the people who want to sell them. They’re like old school telephone operators, plugging in the appropriate jacks to bring the right people together. A good distributor is the most effective, most efficient, and most important B2B marketer you can have in the booze business.
That’s ultimately why I wanted to become a distributor. Retailing is an incredible conduit to service a community and one of the most rewarding jobs in this business. I miss it every day. Distribution, however, is the grid that services the entire country—every retailer, every bar, every restaurant, and every consumer.
And for the time being it cannot be replaced by an app.