Our/Vodka: Pernod Ricard’s Black Ops Project

Our/Vodka is a drinks brand with a difference: a local product, produced by micro-distilleries in individual cities across the world, but with big brand backing. We talk to its London partners about how the brand developed, how the business model works and what’s in it for Pernod Ricard.

With its unusual bottle shape, clean and simple packaging design, and quirky name, Our/Vodka looks every inch the craft vodka, an individual product produced by an independent company. And yet, looks can be deceptive, as Our/Vodka is in fact owned by Pernod Ricard, one of the largest drinks companies in the world and home of brands including Absolut, Jameson and Malibu. So is it a ‘local’ brand or a new product from a large corporation? Well both, as it turns out.

Our/Vodka is produced in small batches by micro distilleries based in different cities across the world including Berlin, Detroit, Seattle, Amsterdam, and London. The production location of each bottle is displayed on its label, alongside the actual address of the distillery. The overall impression created by the packaging is that of a cool, individual, urban product. It’s only if you take the time to read the small print that you’ll see that it has a more famous corporate backer.

The brand first came into existence five years ago in Stockholm, and was the brainchild of Åsa Caap, now CEO of Our/Vodka but then innovation director at Absolut. Caap teamed up with five members of Swedish marketing and design agency Great Works to develop the brand and the team worked on it out-of-hours, spending two years finessing the project before Pernod Ricard agreed to back the development of the first distillery, which is based in Berlin. Since then, four more cities have opened distilleries, with several more planned for this year, including one in New York, which will apparently mark the first distillery to open in Manhattan since prohibition.

Above and top: Distillery manager Matt Lovell at work at Our/London
Above and top: Distillery manager Matt Lovell at work at Our/London
A section of the Our/London distillery
A section of the Our/London distillery
The events space at Our/London
The events space at Our/London

It is an unlikely business proposition in a number of ways. For a global drinks manufacturer to choose to create micro distilleries on expensive sites in cities seems incongruous and this unexpectedness extends to the partnerships that Our/Vodka has made in the individual locations. Rather than team up with experts from within the drinks industry, Caap has deliberately approached figures from outside it, with Berlin run by two partners from the world of fashion and PR, Seattle by designers, and Detroit by social entrepreneurs. The London arm, which produced its first batch of vodka just before Christmas last year, is run by Neil Chivers, who runs music PR firm LD Communications, and Clive Watson, who (alongside his partner Adam White) founded the Riding House Café and Village East among other food and drink establishments.

“They go into the city and find two partners who already have their own businesses, they are successful in what they do already, but don’t have a background in drinks,” says Chivers. “People who can give time to the project without needing any money initially, because it’s a partnership model, and although we don’t have to put any money in, we’re not [receiving] any money until we turn a profit.”

“It’s a very different business model,” agrees Watson. “In terms of launching a spirit to market, there’s a way that it’s traditionally been done for years. This is a different model firstly in that it’s a global brand but made, genuinely, at a local level in different locations around the world. There is an initial outlay to build a distillery in each city, rather than having one central giant distillery, which goes against a centralised, successful booze business, but obviously our consumers on the ground get to know that it’s made near to them and there’s a story there.”

Matt Lovell at Our/London
Matt Lovell at Our/London
A batch being produced at Our/London
A batch being produced at Our/London
Bottles of Our/London
Bottles of Our/London

The London distillery is housed under a railway arch in Hackney Central, and includes a large events space alongside all the machines and tech to make the product, which, if you are a fan of such stuff, is a delight to behold. Aware of its appeal, Chivers and Watson plan to run tours of the distillery, and see the general space as central to Our/London’s development. They are keen to hold events there and partner with other local businesses, or artists, musicians and other generally cool folk that it will benefit Our/Vodka to be associated with.

This emphasis on the local is crucial to Our/Vodka’s success, and is clearly a key marketing strategy. The product itself, however, doesn’t necessarily conform to our typical associations of what a local product might be. It is produced locally, of course, and uses some local-ish products (the ethanol for the London drink comes, for example, from Birmingham), but its core flavour is devised by Pernod Ricard and used across all the different outlets, giving every bottle, wherever it is created, a broadly similar taste.

Both Watson and Chivers are also keen to dispel any notion of Our/London being seen as a craft product, with unique qualities to each bottle. “We don’t pretend to be a craft product,” says Watson. “We’re making it here, in a railway arch, and we’re hand-bottling, but our product is very, very consistent. There are no nuances. This is a very serious product, we’re not pretending to do it in a craft-y way, that’s not what we’re about.”

Our/London shipping case
Our/London shipping case
Our/London bottle caps
Our/London bottle caps
The finished product, featuring design by Swedish agency Great Works. All photographs by Christian Banfield, schmick.tv
The finished product, featuring design by Swedish agency Great Works. All photographs by Christian Banfield, schmick.tv

So, instead of from its flavour, much of the product’s individual nature comes from its partners in each city, through their influence and connections, and their ability to plug Our/Vodka into the right kind of collaborations and associations required to raise its status. There are no large ad campaigns possible for the brand – the cost of constructing the distilleries means there is no money left for this – but that would perhaps be an inappropriate way of marketing it anyway.
Instead, the partners are finding clever and unique ways of promoting the vodka that work in the different settings. This might be selling the vodka as a tourist product at airports, which happens in Berlin, or promoting it by sponsoring house parties, as the London team are doing.

“We’re all fascinated by each others’ territories,” says Watson. “For example, the market in Detroit is very, very different from here. The partners that they’ve chosen in Detroit are social entrepreneurs who are very much involved in the rebuilding of the city. So the way that they position themselves is completely different to the way we do.”

With the appeal of the local and handmade appearing to be an enduring fashion, and global spirit products including big name brands like Absolut facing a sales downslide, the reasoning behind Pernod Ricard’s decision to take a punt on Our/Vodka – which on the surface must have seemed a major (and expensive) risk, hence it being tagged for some time as a ‘black ops project’ at the company – begins to make business sense. And as it continues its rollout, executives are watching its development closely. “They’re all really interested in this project,” says Watson. It’s easy to see why.

ourvodka.com

This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of Creative Review, which is a Food & Drink special. More info on the issue is here.

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