Ketel One Brand Promise Highlighted As Partnership Takes Off

KetelOneA few weeks after Ketel One and Diageo closed their deal to form a new, 50/50 company, the super-premium vodka is being featured as a prime example of a "genuine brand" in a new book focused on the importance of a brand's promise in its success.

Ketel One is one of many brands highlighted in the book--The BrandPromise (McGraw-Hill) by BrandStrategy, Inc. chairman and founder Duane Knapp--including Microsoft, Riedel Crystal, New York Life, the Mayo Clinic and Sunset Magazine.

Furthermore, being cited as a genuine, promise-keeping brand in a marketing book is not likely to make a major contribution to consumer demand. Still, the positive ink is providing Ketel One with a handy added platform to reinforce the value of its history, philosophy and famously enigmatic marketing approach as the newly formed company prepares to aggressively expand the brand's global presence.



For instance, the case study will be used to supplement the communications and educational process about Ketel One and the thinking behind its marketing methods with distributors and salespeople, Bill Eldien, president and CEO of Nolet Spirits USA, recently told Marketing Daily.

In The BrandPromise, Knapp stresses that genuine brands follow a strategy of being perceived as distinctive from other choices; being more relevant to their customers, associates and influencers; offering superior perceived value, and critically, making a clear promise and delivering on it "consistently, eagerly and at their customers' convenience."

In the case of Ketel One, the book cites current chairman and tenth-generation family owner Carl Nolet, Sr. as attributing the brand's success to its promise of product superiority (a "clean, crisp, velvety smooth" taste yielded through the proprietary, wheat-based recipes and handcrafted distillation process originated by Joannes Nolet in 1691) combined with word-of-mouth recommendations.

As Eldien notes, the quality promise and word-of-mouth focus are combined in the brand's long-time emphasis on "discovery marketing": Giving consumers and influencers a first-person, experiential opportunity, as opposed to "in-your-face" product claims or reliance on standard pitches like associating a liquor brand with sex appeal.

Ketel One's marketing strategy has been endlessly analyzed and often criticized over the years. Still, many marketing experts now point to the experiential, low-key approach as being ahead of its time. Introducing Ketel One in the U.S. by using taste tests and education to win over bartenders and consumers in limited, influential venues in key markets for a decade before launching its first major ad campaign in 2003 created a "group connection" with the brand and fostered loyalty through consumers' sharing of their "new discovery" with others, as The BrandPromise points out.

The now-iconic "Dear Ketel One" M&C Saatchi print ad format, featuring a few words of copy in Gothic-style type within a sea of white space was, of course, designed to play off the exclusive, "shared discovery" perception, with its non-selling, usually ambiguous messages. (E.g., "Can we just say, you looked great the other night.")

Nolet has been very cautious about tinkering with the creative formula that has helped nearly double its sales. Even the much-noted addition of a photo of the Ketel One bottle to the print/outdoor ads as of this past spring--after five years of the all-type format--came mainly as a result of a bottle redesign, and has so far been applied in only about half of the ads in the marketplace, according to Eldien.

In the U.S., Ketel One is among the top five print and outdoor brand spenders, with annual media spend now "pushing $20 million," Eldien reports. (A move into U.S. TV is also being considered.)

But the international front will be a core focus as the newly formed, Netherlands-based company--in which Diageo's $900-million, 50% equity stake gives it perpetual, exclusive rights to sell, market and distribute Ketel One Vodka and Ketel One Citroen, as Nolet continues to own its Schiedam, Holland, distillery and supply the spirits--looks to double its sales again over the next five years.

The company is already in about two dozen countries, but on an intentionally limited basis, and so far without advertising support.

One key issue to be resolved as the new international strategy is developed is, of course, whether the core U.S. advertising creative concept will work overseas. Some well-known agency creatives recently interviewed by BusinessWeek declared that Ketel One's U.S. approach is a perfect fit with Europeans' dislike of aggressive sales pitches; others wondered whether it might actually not be edgy or unusual enough within cultures accustomed to highly irreverent, boundary-pushing ads.

There's no question that Ketel One will retain the product standards that form the core of its brand promise. (Eldien notes that a Nolet family member still taste-tests every batch.)

The challenge will come on the marketing front. Can Ketel One retain its discovery-oriented, "word-of-mouth" perception? As BW concluded, the trick will come down to "finding a way to retain the mystique that comes from not being understood by everyone" while pursuing ambitious expansion targets.

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