Educate your team on the philosophy of the business — People often say that the customer comes first but there are no customers if you don’t have an exceptional team. Your team is the engine of a brand. The team makes sure the product or service is correct, the team markets the product, the team sells the product, the team is the steward of the brand. If the company philosophy is truly built on trust and authenticity that will reflect in the way each member of the team approaches the day, how they communicate, their strategies and how they execute them.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Adam von Gootkin, Co-Founder & CEO of Highclere Castle Gin.
A lifelong entrepreneur, Adam von Gootkin’s pedigree in the spirits industry dates back to his family’s distillery in the 1800s, while his lineage as a risk-taker can be traced directly to his great grandfather’s Prohibition-era speakeasy on the Connecticut River. An entrepreneur is, by definition, a risk-taker.
Over a century later, Adam has more than a decade in the spirits industry and brought his family’s legacy into the next generation by co-founding Onyx Spirits Co., an award-winning craft distillery offering America’s first ultra-premium moonshine and New England’s first whiskey. In 2015, his nationally released book Living Proof: Onyx Moonshine’s Journey to Revive the American Spirit, chronicled his unique approach to traditional business principles.
After successfully building Connecticut’s first distillery in over 100 years, Adam’s next venture would take him from the Connecticut coast to the rolling grasslands of the English countryside and to one of the most famous homes in the world. Partnering with the Godson to Queen Elizabeth II, the 8th Earl & Countess of Carnarvon, the owners of Highclere Castle (known to millions of fans around the world as the home in the award-winning tv-series and motion picture, Downton Abbey). In 2017, Adam co-founded the Highclere Castle Cigars Company, produced with world-renowned cigar blender Nicholas Melillo in Nicaragua. The cigar went on to win many awards, with the brand rapidly expanding throughout the US, UK and mainland Europe.
Highclere Castle Spirits joined the budding empire the following year, in keeping with Adam’s vision to create a global portfolio of hyper-authentic prestige brands with deep roots. In 2019, the award-winning Highclere Gin became the first of a super-premium line of spirits made from the oats and botanicals grown on Highclere Castle Estate, specifically, lavender planted by the Bishops of Winchester in the 9th century. The exceptionally smooth London Dry Gin has been released throughout the U.S. and the U.K., with a global expansion planned for 2020 and has won 10 gold awards with many more expected. Adam has been featured on Bloomberg, Forbes, Fortune, NBC, and many other leading media platforms. Adam’s vision is to continue building an ultra-luxury global portfolio of distinctly authentic brands rooted in the uniqueness of their terrior and provenance; a celebration of history, authenticity, and irreplaceable pedigree.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I realized in my mid-20’s that the vast majority of liquor brands in the market are created in marketing board rooms. They have very little authentic story or as a wonderful mentor in the liquor business once taught me, a “reason to be”. This epiphany led me to restore my family’s legacy in the business and we built the first distillery in Connecticut in a very long time. The momentum around our philosophy was clear in creating a successful regional product and queued us up nicely to search for an opportunity to apply what we’d learned to a global brand. It took 2 years because the challenge was finding a brand with global legs that also had a deep level of heritage, pedigree, and authenticity yet also lent itself to using ingredients from the brands home. I believe all brands must have a physical home, a terroir, ultimately a direct link to the soul that manifests the brand. This is the foundation for our creation of a trusted, believable, beloved, spirit brand; Highclere Castle Gin.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
After a year of development on the Highclere Castle Gin recipe we were finally ready for the big reveal. We booked one of NYC’s swankiest hotels and had VIP’s, media, connoisseurs and influencers along with my partners, Lord & Lady Carnarvon, flying in from all around the world for a sneak-peek taste of our gin. We had several interviews scheduled with national press journalists back to back that evening. Because our glass bottle was not quite finished, we only had 1 prototype bottle for the event.The gin itself had arrived in an uglyindustrial plastic jug that was hardly befitting of such a prestigious brand — a typical way for distilleries to send pre-production samples. Thankfully, the gin arrived just in time, literally the day of the event due to customs hold ups. Typically, at a premium spirit event launch the media and VIP’s would expect to see mountains of your bottles displayed on the bar and all over the lounge. Alas, we had just one bottle that wasn’t even printed correctly. In a frantic fit of brainstorming, I had an idea that I still appreciate to this day. I thought since we only have 1 bottle, let’s make that bottle the centerpiece of the entire event. We quickly rented an impressive glass museum display case — the type you might see in the Met, displaying a bust of Cleopatra from 2000 years ago. We drilled a hole in the bottom of the bottle to light it internally, creating a vibrant purple glow. My creative director warned me that while drilling, there was a 25% chance the bottle would crack and shatter. It did not. We were left with a stunning, glowing bottle fully lit inside and out, resting on a pedestal of black velvet cloth inside the museum case placed in the middle of the grand foyer to our party. It became a sensational talking point as people elbowed each other to get as close to the bottle as possible and take a photo. A pile of our bottles all over the bar would never have attracted this much attention from our guests.
The lesson learned here is a reminder that rarity sometimes is the key to standing out. Even when the finest of items are spread all about like a breakfast buffet that perhaps it can lose its magic. That day we were indeed accidentally exclusive.
The other lesson is having an amazing creative team that doesn’t buckle under pressure and applies execution with vigor.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Millions of people around the world recognize Highclere Castle as “the real Downton Abbey”. What’s so impressive about the castle is that its played host to so many of the world’s most famous and interesting people through the centuries. Lord and Lady Carnarvon continue to uphold the standards of quality still today. The very botanicals we use in our gin are grown in exquisitely manicured gardens behind the castle. These botanicals include oranges from the Victorian Era orangery and even lavender, planted by the Bishops of Winchester in the 9th century! What makes Highclere Castle Gin truly stand out is a commitment to true excellence in distilling the finest gin ever made. A decadent balance of historic botanicals distilled in England’s oldest gin distillery and representing the finest parties & entertainment that ever there has been. That is the true “spirit” of Highclere. History, heritage, pedigree, quality and most importantly authenticity. I believe this commitment to truth and beauty are why we have just won our 14th double & triple gold international award. I believe we will be the most awarded gin in the world by next year.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, many exciting projects are in the works but sadly all top secret! I can tell you they will involve employing people and continuing to create as Howard Carter said to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon upon discovering King Tutankhamun’s tomb, “Wonderful Things!”
Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
We were forced during the Covid-19 quarantine and hospitality industry shutdown to ponder this very question. To put it simply, I would call brand marketing, strategy, and product marketing, tactics. In our case, our branding is a rather complex story involving history and many moving parts. Highclere is a global brand, one of the most famous homes in the world. Our challenge was to distill (no pun intended) out the core essence of a vast story into messaging and imagery that would cause a consumer to burn a minimal amount of calories when attempting to “get” our brand. I think this is rather well expressed on our new simple and exceedingly clean website, and trickles down into our PR messaging, point of sale materials and everything else tactical that we do in the streets. Our brand is born from a castle, renowned for its parties, acclaimed for its taste. Everything circles around these three pillars. In other words, Highclere Castle Gin is prestigious, is fun, and is being validated by experts as the best tasting gin in the world…now go buy a bottle!
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
Brands are what people buy with their emotion and their spirit. Without branding, you’re just a tool easily replaced by other similar tools. To entrench yourself in an industry, you must appeal more to the experience of the consumer, to the real solution to their problem on an almost psychological level. If this is achieved successfully, competition will come and go, global challenges may face us but your brand will still exist because its in demand by consumers on an almost metaphysical plane. Building a brand successfully increases the inherent value of a business as not only are you solving some sort of real-world problem but you’re guiding consumers on an emotional experience that is very real and won’t easily be forgotten — and those are the brands that change the world.
Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
- Educate your team on the philosophy of the business — People often say that the customer comes first but there are no customers if you don’t have an exceptional team. Your team is the engine of a brand. The team makes sure the product or service is correct, the team markets the product, the team sells the product, the team is the steward of the brand. If the company philosophy is truly built on trust and authenticity that will reflect in the way each member of the team approaches the day, how they communicate, their strategies and how they execute them. This permeates all aspects of the business and trickles forward to the end customer. Truth starts at home.
- Obsess over the customer — It’s easy for a business to get lost in the sauce regarding continued product development or improvement. Evolving sales tactics, marketing innovation etc. For a brand to be successful, ultimately consumers need to want it, love it, understand it and even need it. Nothing makes me happier than spending time with a customer. I’ve seen so many companies spend time obsessing over shareholder reports, trying to manipulate their stock price or getting lost in frivolous activities. Listen to the customers, speak with them, be with them and just do that.
- Never ever sacrifice integrity — reputation is all we have in life. It’s the true legacy of a brand. Company management sets the tone for integrity. This commitment to truth in a brands purpose should never be sacrificed even though sometimes short-term opportunities might tease us off the path. This is about having a long-term view of success. No individual, company or brand can truly succeed long term without integrity. This is palpable to the end consumer and creates brand loyalty.
- Responsible Entrepreneurship — This is the name of the last chapter of my book, “Living Proof”. We live in a world today where fast food companies readily serve us poison. Food producers pump our bread, eggs and meats full of god knows what. Companies sell us clothes made in entirely unsustainable methods, using potentially dangerous chemicals and sometimes produced in immoral ways. We live in a culture of “canned fruit” where so many things are designed to look real and taste sweet but metaphorically it’s just corn syrup. During product or service development for a brand, I know it costs more and takes time to create something that is truly authentic and real. We spent 3 years developing our gin recipe and custom bottle design. We easily could have purchased bulk gin, slapped a castle on a stock bottle and sold some bottles to unaware Downton Abbey fans. For us the product is a commitment to the consumer. A promise they are getting the absolute best quality gin on the market. I urge all entrepreneurs and existing companies to make responsible entrepreneurship a core part of their reason for being. Commerce should leave the world a better place than we found it.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
A few years back, while on the journey of creating Highclere Castle Gin, I partnered with a very good friend, Nicholas Melillo. He is a world-renowned cigar blender who developed a masterpiece with us in the Highclere Castle Cigar brand. He has gone on to make his company, Foundation Cigar Co., the epitome of believable and beloved. One of the reasons I wanted to partner with Nick was his commitment to integrity and truth and love of history & perfection. Foundation has an incredible and diverse line of award-winning cigars. Each of them hand made in Nicaragua. In fact, Nick spends most of his time in the fields with the farmers and in the factories with the hand rollers. When he is not there, he is with customers almost always. Traveling wherever he needs to be to engage retailers, host events and talk & smoke with customers. Nick is one of those rocks of a person that you don’t encounter everyday in life. That is completely reflected in the DNA of his cigar company, which he could not have more aptly named, Foundation.
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?
Advertising is a tax you pay for not being creative. In most forms of advertising, you can’t truly measure effectiveness. Sometimes, yes on a strictly sales data level but have you truly converted a customer forever? The success of a brand-building campaign is offering the customer multiple layers of experiencing the brand taking them deeper, deeper, and deeper.
For example, with Highclere Castle Gin, your first experience with us might be seeing one of our cocktails on a restaurant menu or perhaps seeing a bottle on the shelf. Does the delicate color purple catch your eye or maybe its some of our simply curated point of sale material? Intrigued, the back of the bottle has a slightly more detailed note written by Lord and Lady Carnarvon, maybe this might inspire someone to visit our website, engage in our social media, read about Highclere’s history and maybe someday even visit the castle. The point is brands should take customers on a thoughtful journey. Done correctly, success in this campaign is measured by one thing we treasure most of all- REPEAT SALES! You’ve captured the customer. Love and support them and they will love and support your brand.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
Social media is a massive component of our branding and marketing efforts. We have grown our following to over 130,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram. As mentioned above, social media allows customers to take that next level of depth into the brand. Meet the people behind it, see and feel the elements first hand that make it magical and unique. We manage our social carefully and thoughtfully. Our Instagram has allowed us to partner with the most amazing and influential bartenders and mixologists from around the world — who create some incredible cocktails for us as well as photoshoots.
During the Covid-19 quarantine, we launched, “Cocktails at the Castle”, a virtual cocktail party at the castle hosted by Lord and Lady Carnarvon. Thinking of our customers and fans stuck at home in scary and dark times, we wanted to bring them beauty, a bit of laughter and cheer to delight them with a unique experience. It was amazing for me to see the hundreds of thousands of people that tuned in. Many of them dressed their very best from the comfort of their couch. We didn’t just bring them into our world, we became a part of their journey, helping them elevate their moment even just for an instant and thus their connection to our brand is that much deeper and more real.
Readers can watch these videos on our Facebook @HighClereCastleGin.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Spend time with your family. Try not to internalize every single piece of the business — which can be so hard to do sometimes. I find running and meditation has an immediate and daily effect on me that allows me to perform. And surround yourself with amazing people and a fantastic team, who are always there and willing to step up and exceed expectations, especially in challenging times.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d like to return to the philosophy that I mentioned above called Responsible Entrepreneurship. I’d love to see such an overwhelming movement for the responsible creation of products and services keeping the customer and their health & happiness first along with sustainable production. It would make me so happy to see this movement garner the most profits, the most buzz and just be the fashionable way of doing busines. There are certainly businesses with a commitment to this approach and I applaud them. My dream would be to see a movement where this is in fact a majority of how companies are run. We implement this philosophy with Highclere Castle Gin. Even Highclere Castle’s farming operations are sustainable and Lord Carnarvon has a real commitment to preservation and responsible farming at Highclere.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
To use a bit of very old poetry, I would use my family crest motto.
“The miser delights in the hoarding of pelf,
For he has not the soul to enjoy it himself.
The bounty of providence is new every day,
As we journey through life, let us live by the way.”
It serves as a reminder that we can’t take money to our grave. While it is a critical tool in life and must be managed prudently and carefully, it’s just as important to leave the world a better place that we’ve found it. To have the soul to truly enjoy and savor the fruits of our hard work and make people smile along the way.
It speaks to the abundance all around us, and that all we need do is reach out and embrace it. And that life is a journey not a destination — so find your principles, stick to your integrity, and above all stay consistent each and every day.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would say Anthony Hopkins. Having worked with celebrities over the years in various ways, I don’t get excited or intimidated by most folks but there is something about his gravitas, his approach to his art, love of painting & music that fascinates me. He strikes me as a real creator, a true artist. Some years back discovered a symphony he wrote turned to life by Andre Rieu that completely impressed me. I think it would be a lot of fun to have a cup of tea with him.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.