Industry: Food & Beverage
Products: Distilled spirits
In a brand-loyal sector, Ogden’s risk-taking distiller seeks consumers willing to experiment with new spirits
Steve Conlin, Managing Partner of Ogden’s Own, recently had a friend ask for advice on starting a distillery in Utah.
“I told them to not even think about it,” Conlin laughs. Luckily, Conlin did not make a similar call before opening his distillery. But his situation was unique. Before starting Ogden’s Own in 2009, Conlin worked for a mortgage company. As the market collapsed, change looked better and better.
“An acquaintance introduced me to Tim Smith who wanted to start a distillery. He already had a product that was unlike anything currently in the United States. We went to lunch, talked about starting a distillery, and walked away from that lunch thinking, ‘Why not?’” Conlin says.
Nearly ten years later, Conlin admits he could tell you many reasons ‘why not’. “We were naïve,” he admits. “We thought we could come up with a product that was better, stronger, tastier, and people would rush to it. Like they say, build a better mousetrap, and they will come. The alcohol market does not work like that. There are a lot of great products people will never try because the big boys know how to market and how the distribute. And if you don’t, you languish.”
Looking back, Conlin wishes Ogden’s Own would have started with more money and more products to catch the market’s attention. “We only started with one, then grew to two,” Conlin says, “and we were overly optimistic about where we would be able to go with just those two products.”
Conlin and his team learned fast. He became the marketing expert and his team began releasing more products and bottling more often. “When we started off, we bottled four-five times a year. Now we do that in one month.”
One thing that has not changed is Ogden’s Own commitment to Ogden, Utah and its resources. Tim Smith, one of the original partners, hikes into Ogden Canyon to gather fresh water for blending and distilling, particularly for Ogden’s Own vodka-hauling it out five gallons at a time.
“Vodka is supposed to be odorless and tasteless. If you do it right, it’s all about mouthfeel, and canyon water gives us that. We truly are a craft operation. And a side-effect of Tim’s efforts is that he is a pretty skinny guy,” Conlin laughs.
While he appreciates the resources Utah offers, Conlin recognizes that Utah is a small, sober state. To reach a larger market, Conlin works with Total Wine & More to reach a bigger market.
“They’ve gotten us into 149 stores in 20 states. It gives us access outside of Utah,” Conlin says. (That’s the latest on their company page.)
But whether his product is on a shelf in Utah or Michigan, Conlin recognizes the struggle is all about marketing and fighting for shelf space.
“It’s like a cereal aisle,” Conlin says. “If you go to the store for Rice Krispies, you go into the aisle with tunnel vision. You’re not looking for anything new. So how do we reach you, the consumer? Because I’m trying to get you to part with $20, not just $4. The chance of you taking a chance on us is much harder. Exposure takes money.”
Challenges: Sales. Conlin was surprised by how loyal consumers are to a brand and how hard it is to ask someone to try something new. “And because people are loyal, you cannot tell them anything different. It takes a lot of money to convince people to change their habits, even if you have the better product.” Conlin points to new brands that come out with a marketing budget of millions of dollars. “We started with $15,000 for marketing,” Conlin laughs. “We were not playing the same game as everyone else.”
Opportunity: New products. In 2017, Ogden’s Own is launching two new products, including a new gin. “And we’re moving into Michigan,” Conlin says. Michigan has a much larger population than Utah and only a few distilleries. Conlin hopes his brand can find a niche there. “It’s not enough to be craft,” Conlin says. “It’s not unique anymore. It’s about branding. It’s about time: meeting people and putting drinks in hands. Most people think we just make booze. They have no idea how complicated this business is.”
Needs: Better distribution. Conlin is continually looking for the right fit: a distributor that cares and will fight for his product. “Distribution is the key in the liquor market,” he says.