English vodka brand voted the world's best
- 16 May 2010
- From the section Business
It is enough to make a patriotic Russian need a stiff drink to get over the shock - an English vodka has been voted the best in the world.
Chase Vodka has triumphed in the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, beating 249 rivals from around the globe, including Russia and Poland's finest.
Tasted under blind conditions (all the bottles were covered to maintain anonymity), Chase was preferred by a 30-strong panel of independent judges.
And instead of being produced by one of the global drink giants in a huge, automated distillery, Chase is made on a farm in Herefordshire - from potatoes.
The spuds are all grown in the farm's own fields, before being added to water, fermented, and then distilled and bottled. It all takes place on site.
First produced in 2008, Chase is the brainchild of potato farmer William Chase, the man who founded posh crisp company Tyrrell's.
When he sold Tyrrell's to a private equity group that same year, Mr Chase realised he needed to find something else to do, and the vodka business was born.
Despite having no distilling experience, he decided to aim for the gourmet end of the vodka market and use his crops of traditional variety potatoes instead of the more usual wheat or rye grains.
Now making 1,000 bottles a week - a drop in the ocean compared with the best-known global vodka names - Mr Chase says demand is soaring in the US thanks to winning the San Francisco competition.
"Winning the award has been fantastic for us," he says.
"It has really helped to build up the brand's profile, which is vital. You can have the best product in the world, but it won't sell if the brand isn't strong."
The term 'brand' is an elusive concept, but it is vital to get right if a product is going to fly off the shelves, regardless of whether it is produced by a multi-national company or a small firm with just a few employees.
A brand is essentially the combination of a product's name and personality, and whether it is successful can be judged by how well it connects to its customers. And therefore how well it sells.
Far from an exact science, a brand can be built up by advertising or wider marketing campaigns, winning an award, or simply having the best possible logo and packaging.
And, as Mr Chase explains, creating a successful brand need not cost much money.
"When I started the crisp company, I didn't spend any money on advertising," he says.
"Instead it was just me and what I knew was a great product visiting hundreds of little independent stores.
"So essentially I was the brand, and I was friendly and enthusiastic.
"If I had been an arrogant jerk, then the shops wouldn't have taken Tyrrell's crisps, regardless of how good they are. The owners wouldn't have wanted to see if the crisps sold.
"So, certainly when you are starting your own business, the brand is your personality, you have to put your own magic into it."
'Bit of fun'
Another small business that recognises the importance of a good brand is bakery firms Nutty Tarts, founded and run by friends Rachel Warwick and Deborah Armiger.
"We have certainly had people buying our products just because of the brand name," says Ms Armiger.
"We wanted a name with a bit of fun to it, and it came to us on the spur of the moment.
"We have never advertised, but the name has helped us generate a great deal of media coverage.
"Obviously, we wouldn't get any repeat business if our products weren't really good, but having a strong brand helps us attract customers in the first place."
Established in Cambridgeshire in 2004, Nutty Tarts now makes 1,000 cakes and biscuits a week, supplying Waitrose, the Co-op, independent shops, and direct to consumers through its internet business.
"If we'd had a more boring name we still believe the business would have been successful, it just would have taken us a lot longer to get there," adds Ms Armiger.
Now employing eight people, she says the business has quadrupled in size in the past two years, and hopes to double trade again over the current year.
While having a good brand is vital to attract the paying customer, in the first instance it can make all the difference for a small firm hoping to persuade a supermarket group to stock its product.
"Having a clearly identifiable brand that communicates what your product is all about is absolutely vital," says a Waitrose spokeswoman.
"The underlying quality of the product obviously has to be there, but the brand needs to communicate with the shopper, it has to stand out from the crowd.
"For example, you need a good name and how the packaging looks is also very important."
She adds that Waitrose often works with some of its smaller suppliers to help them improve their brand, saying it benefits both sides if a product is a success.
Brand expert Jim Boulton, a partner at advertising agency Story Worldwide, agrees that having a good product is no longer enough to generate strong sales.
"Not only does the product have to excel, there needs to be 'pass on' value, a reason for talking about the product," he says.
"There needs to be a brand story behind the product that differentiates it from the crowd."
Back at Chase Distillery in Herefordshire, Mr Chase is planning to increase production to between 2,000 and 3,000 bottles a week to keep up with demand.
"What has really helped us in the US - in addition to winning the award - is that Americans love an English brand, even if England isn't traditionally associated with vodka," he says.
"By contrast, we've had a few [negative] comments from the Poles and Russians, but you'd expect that under the circumstances."