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A New Riff on (Marketing) an Old Tradition

A bottle of New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon in my happy place…my front porch

New Riff Distilling has it going on. They have been my marketing crush for quite some time, but I am officially swiping right on them now. This infatuation with the distillery that overlooks the Cincinnati skyline began in the Fall of 2018, when I attended the premier branding conference in the U.S., Brandemonium. New Riff management held a panel discussion on their success and discussed their branding and marketing tactics…and my mind was blown.

As a marketing professor, I am acutely aware of the difficulties in marketing products and services successfully. What I hadn’t considered during my time spent researching and lecturing, was the massive marketing obstacles that a start-up bourbon distillery might have. Stick with me for a second! Think about this…New Riff made a deliberate decision to not sell bourbon that was aged less than 4 years. In other words, they bought a building, equipment and paid employees for 4 years while their bourbon resided in barrels…not on store shelves. When they opened the doors in 2014 they had no product to sell. No product. As the New Riff panel discussed the issues the company faced from 2014-2018 while their bourbon was sitting in barrels and unsellable, I realized that they must be marketing geniuses. New Riff had my marketing senses (far less cool than spidey senses) tingling through the whole presentation. How in the world did they manage to attract a massive following of devoted bourbon drinkers over a 4 year time span when they had no physical product to offer? Marketing the intangible is possible, but this seemed to be very progressive and quite honestly…a miracle.

The Rangers. The key to New Riff’s success was a loyalty program for bourbon connoisseurs…and not just any old loyalty ploy, a full-blown program which created a feverishly excited fan-base for a bourbon that didn’t even exist yet. The creation of a marketing program that celebrated fandom rather than product was pure genius. Bourbon people…real bourbon people are fanatical about their drink of choice. They are meticulous in their bourbon purchases and die-hard followers of the distilleries that produce the spirits. I will spare you the details of the program, because quite frankly, most of us are too late to be in it anyway. So let me tell you this…New Riff had approximately 4,500 New Riff Rangers that were paying for the opportunity to have first access to bourbon from the coolest craft distillery around. 4,500 New Riff Rangers were willing to buy into the program without having ever tasted the product. If your mind isn’t blown by that, it should be.

My Consumer Marketing class visited New Riff recently for a tour and chat with the geniuses behind the most progressive marketing program I had ever seen. My students and I were greeted by New Riff Brand Ambassador (and all-around good guy), Grover. Grover exudes love for the brand and could have talked to us for hours about the intricacies involved in making the bourbon they are peddling. Everyone smiles when Grover talks. Hannah Lowen, VP of Operations/General Manager walked us through the history of New Riff and bragged excitedly about the founder of the distillery and how they are proud to be a part of the rich tradition of bourbon-making in Kentucky. My students were imagining themselves as entrepreneurs as they listened to the story of the craft distillery explosion that has happened in the marketplace. Director of Communication, Amy Tobin chatted about marketing with my students and referenced some of her favorite marketers and the books she has read on the subject. The best part…she used many of the terms I use in class…so basically my students think I am pretty darn smart now too. But that is beside the point. She was captivating and clearly loves the brand. We wrapped up our day with some social media marketing discussion, and I watched my student’s mouths fall open when they realized “the social media guy,” Zach MacMillian, is just about the same age as them. We learned a lot at New Riff…but that may have been the most important lesson. My students walked into a gorgeous building full of successful people that are passionate about their work. For many of my students it was the first time they had imagined themselves in a marketing job that didn’t involve a boring cubicle. To say we had a great time and learned a lot would be a gross understatement.

Wilmington College Consumer Marketing Spring 2019

New Riff Distillery lives and breathes it’s slogan. They are truly a “New Riff on an Old Tradition” and my marketing crush continues to grow.

Oh, and the Bourbon is absolutely phenomenal too. Yummy.

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