At 5:20 on a Sunday morning in the summer of 1996, Sidney Frank—liquor baron extraordinaire, dapper elderly gent, CEO of the Sidney Frank Importing Co.—picked up his phone in a fit of inspiration. He dialed up his No. 2 executive, who listened in a groggy daze as Frank proclaimed, “I figured out the name! It’s Grey Goose!”
And so was born one of the most astonishing brands in the history of distilled spirits. Grey Goose vodka, invented from thin air that summer morning, had as yet no distillery, no bottle, and—perhaps the most pressing order of business—no vodka. Yet this past June, almost exactly eight years after Sidney Frank gave name to this nonexistent liquor, Grey Goose was sold to Bacardi for more than $2 billion. Cash. (To understand how much that is, consider that IBM’s personal-computer business, nurtured, honed, and advertised since 1981, recently sold for $1.75 billion.)
After the Grey Goose sale, everyone at Sidney Frank Importing Co. got a hefty bonus. Longtime SFIC secretaries were handed checks for more than $100,000 apiece. Grey Goose was a spectacular success. And now the ride was over. The only question left: What’s next?
Cut to a shiver-cold night in downtown Manhattan, not long after the sale. A team of SFIC employees are out pushing Sidney Frank’s new brand of the moment: Corazón tequila. They chat up pub and restaurant owners. They teach bartenders how to mix new Corazón cocktails. And then, in a small club in the meatpacking district, they run smack into the competition: Bacardi salesguys, making their own nightly rounds.
SFIC publicist to Bacardi salesguy: “What are you drinking tonight?”
Bacardi salesguy, swirling ice in highball glass: “Goose Orange, baby!”
Suddenly, the SFIC folks look a bit downcast. Consider their fate: Just a few months back, their job had been to drink (and promote) Grey Goose, which made them the most popular people wherever they went. A Grey Goose Cosmo here, a Grey Goose–and–tonic there. Then their beloved Goose got sold to these mass-market hacks from Bacardi (who’d tried, without much success, to launch their own superpremium vodka—an Estonian concoction called Türi—before they bought Goose). Now the SFIC team is compelled to push this unknown brand of tequila, all night, every night, on crowds that don’t know what it is and don’t particularly care to find out.
When I suggest to an SFIC vice-president that vodka is by definition odorless and tasteless, his face goes tight. “That is a dinosaur statement,” he says.
Sidney Frank doesn’t necessarily want to be in the tequila business either. Agave plants are notoriously fragile crops, and the fancier tequilas must be aged for a year or two, while vodka comes out of the still and is good to go. And in the distilled-spirits game, tequila plays in the second division, accounting for just 5.1 percent of the market. Vodka dominates with 26.5 percent, while rum has 13 and gin 7.
Making matters worse, there’s already a strong brand entrenched in the superpremium tequila category, Patrón.
But when Goose got sold to Bacardi, SFIC signed a stringent noncompete clause: It can’t launch a new brand of vodka or gin for the next four years. So tequila it is. SFIC will spend at least $3 million on Corazón marketing in 2005 and make it available to all sorts of influential crowds—at a VIP tailgate party at the Super Bowl, at the victory dinner for the Indy 500, and at the Junior League’s Winter Ball in New York. As the product becomes known, says Frank, “some idea will come to me that will push it forward.”
The odds against any new spirits brand are long. Some say the Grey Goose explosion was a fluke, a miraculous confluence of timing and trends. And whatever marketing tricks SFIC had up its sleeve last time—all the guerrilla promotions that Sidney Frank is famous for—everyone else is onto them by now. Given the fierce competition, can Sidney Frank, now 85, do it again? Of course he can. He’s done it not once but twice before.
Born in 1919, Sidney Frank grew up poor in rural Connecticut, a farm boy who harbored a Gatsby-esque drive for social transformation. He wiggled his way into Brown University, where, for the first time, he slept on real bedsheets (not sewn- together flour sacks), and found himself surrounded by the children of the rich and powerful. Frank had to drop out of Brown after one year because he couldn’t afford tuition. (When Grey Goose was sold, he gave $100 million to Brown to provide financial aid for poor students.) But Frank made the most of his brush with privilege. Old snapshots show a handsome, broad-shouldered fellow, always in a coat and bow tie, hair slicked back in an impeccable part. Sidney Frank was a charmer, and he knew which people to charm.
In an interview with the Brown Alumni Magazine, on the heels of his massive donation, Frank was asked if he had any advice for the young Brown student. “If you meet any important people,” he said, “keep in touch with them . . . And marry a rich girl. It’s easier to marry a million than to make a million.” Through Brown friends, Sidney Frank met, and, in 1945, married, Louise “Skippy” Rosenstiel, whose father was chief of Schenley Distilleries (at the time a spirits-industry powerhouse). Frank went to work for the company, made his way up the corporate ladder, and then (after a family falling-out, and Louise’s death) branched out to start his own liquor business in 1972.
SFIC was no overnight success. Frank was forced to sell off personal assets (fine art, property in Antigua) to keep the company running. Early on, during the tough times, he would stroll around New York neighborhoods to see who was drinking what in the bars. Once, during a jaunt through Yorkville, he saw German immigrants downing something called Jagermeister, a 70-proof, odd-tasting liqueur from the Fatherland. It was no big seller, but the drink seemed to have a steady fan base, so Frank took a chance and secured the U.S. importing rights. Nothing much happened for the next decade.
Then, in 1985, for no clear reason at all, college kids in Baton Rouge and New Orleans decided Jager was cool. Just one of those things that happen sometimes. Kids being funny. It’s likely they chose Jager precisely because its taste was so horrific. The whole thing might have easily been forgotten by the next semester. But that’s not what happened.
Bill Goldring is chairman of Magnolia Marketing Co., which was SFIC’s distributor in Louisiana when Jager first hit. “Brands are a funny thing,” he says. “Corona beer started at the University of Texas, where kids were putting a lime in it. Then Jimmy Buffett was drinking it. Then it was the hottest beer in America. With Jager, we saw we were getting large orders because the LSU kids were drinking it. Then there was the newspaper story in the Baton Rouge Advocate.”