Fearless Brand Building

With John Ralph, Founder & CEO, Intrepid Spirits

22. 05. 2024

Robert Costelloe, Head of Growth

Welcome to Eat Takeaway! In this series we hear from business, brand and marketing leaders on their ambitions and challenges this year and beyond. We explore their day-to-day and what lessons they have in the fast-changing and sometimes overwhelming worlds of brand experience and delivering for customers and employees. Check-out our take-aways at the end! 

In this volume, our Head of Growth Robert Costelloe speaks with John Ralph, Founder and CEO of Intrepid Spirits, a beverage business that is growing a portfolio of unique ‘fearless’ brands around the world. From his first experiences founding start-ups in Ireland, to growing awareness in China, to establishing a global portfolio of brands that connect with audiences in Japan, the USA and elsewhere, John brings a unique perspective to one of the world’s largest consumer industries.

Please note this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Robert Costelloe: You’ve built this amazing business over the past 10 years or so. How did it all start out and can you give us some insight into your journey establishing your own businesses and brands?

John Ralph: I suppose a sense of entrepreneurship kicked in at a pretty young age. I started a rickshaw business in Dublin when I was 16 and once I was out of school, I got involved in nightclub promotion. At one point I was negotiating an advertising deal with an energy drink company – to advertise their drink on my rickshaws – but they ended up offering me the distribution rights. I thought “why not” and because I knew all the nightclub managers in Dublin, we were able to get the drink stocked and selling really well. Eventually Red Bull came along and squashed us but I’m pretty good friends with the Red Bull importer in Dublin 20 years later. After that experience I thought why not get into the spirits business for myself.

I started importing spirits into Ireland with one of my friends, initially with Mickey Finn, an apple liquor, but then we picked up the rights to Patrón, Ketel One, some really big international brands. But I always knew I wanted to be a brand owner. So after the financial crisis in 2007, I set up a business in China and moved there in 2011. It was there I created the Cocalero brand, a South American-inspired botanicals spirit, but where the brand really took off was in Japan.

I started importing spirits into Ireland with one of my friends, initially with Mickey Finn, an apple liquor, but then we picked up the rights to Patrón, Ketel One, some really big international brands. But I always knew I wanted to be a brand owner.

We had no money, no budgets, but grew the brand organically, really carefully. We didn’t go near Tokyo at all in the first year – we went to the smaller but prominent cities like Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe – taking the Cocalero brand into small bars and doing a lot of bar training. Evenutally the Cocalero brand took on this counterculture essence in Japan – DJs and music producers took a liking to it, bands were featuring it in their videos. So by the time we launched in Tokyo, there was a lot of pent up demand and we saw the sales just tick upwards.

It was this journey with Cocalero that I learned how to create a brand from scratch and was the time I built my appetite to grow the brand portfolio. This took the form of bringing my friend’s family whiskey brand, Egan’s, back to life and we launched it in the US in 2014. Almost in parallel I created and launched a poitín brand (pronounced “put-cheen”) – Ireland’s original spirit which I’ve always had a huge passion about. There’s this gap in the market for poitín. With tequila you have mezcal for example. You have all these reference points – the authentic, edgier cousins of the mainstream spirits. So we created Mad March Hare poitín and launched it in 2016.

With these three different brands under three different ownership structures, I realised we needed to unite everything under one umbrella organisation.

At this point I’d moved to the US to grow the portfolio business and with these three different brands under three different ownership structures, I realised we needed to unite everything under one umbrella organisation. So that’s when I established Intrepid Spirits.

RC: Can you tell us a little more about Intrepid?

JR: The name has its roots in the Latin which means ‘fearless’ – it really encapsulates what we’re about as a company. On this journey to realise our vision to become the worlds leading spirits brand accelerator, we take bold risks – sometimes it works, other times it’s an absolute failure. Fearless means not having a fear of failure. In times when we know we’ve made a mistake, we just have to suck it up and move on. This can seem like a luxury to have for small companies but it’s really due to our success in Japan that we’ve been able to take those risks and move on from the failures. In Japan, our Cocalero brand is the number one liquor in the market by value. We’re bigger than Jagermeister, Malibu and Kahlúa. They might sell more in volume but we index 2 – 3 times higher in price point versus a brand like Jägermeister. This gives us a lot more margin to support the brand and our global growth.

Our most successful brands which were started before we had the money to do research, market analysis, feasibility studies – all the things we do these days – were created on the back of a napkin.

RC: And what have you learned about brand development and making them successful through all these experiences?

JR: It’s funny because arguably our most successful brands which were started before we had the money to do research, market analysis, feasibility studies – all the things we do these days – were created on the back of a napkin. I think the failure rate of brands is 95%. No matter how much money you throw at them, most fail. The gut feel of recognising the opportunity for Cocalero - it’s very unique, it’s very different. Looking at the Irish whiskey landscape and seeing no brand in there with any real family involvement and true sense of heritage so rolling out Egan’s. These were the decisions we made early on.

I think we were really good at spotting niche opportunities and not overanalysing the market data to make a decision. If we felt it was right, we’d go do it. Despite people telling us that poitín doesn’t exist on the global stage, we can see the opportunity for it. Diageo might not get excited by poitín. That means we can take ownership and create an entirely new category and drive it. Poitín is the national spirit – the original spirit – of Ireland. Whiskey is an afterthought, imposed on Ireland as a means of taxation. So we think poitín has great potential and we’re going to go for it. When it comes to brand building and getting it off the ground, it’s about taking risks.

Diageo might not get excited by poitín. That means we can take ownership and create an entirely new category and drive it.

RC: And when it comes to the Japan market and building an understanding of Japanese audiences and consumers, what are some of your key observations?

JR: There’s certainly no ‘one-size fits all’ strategy for sure. Every market has its quirks and nuances but the US, UK and Australia for example share some similarities. Growing a business in Japan you learn there are so many different channels and consumption occasions which makes it such a fascinating market. We’ve had great success across a lot of different channels - at nightclubs and karaoke bars for example.

When it comes to brand building and getting it off the ground, it’s about taking risks.

A key thing for us is having strong local insights – our team on the ground. We sit down, understand what the landscape looks like in that market and then we support those channels we’ve identified. Every brand wants to be in five star hotels and the coolest cocktail bars. But for us, if that makes sense then great but if it doesn’t make sense, we’re going to focus on where the consumer is drinking and where they’re going to interact with our brand better. The market is so fragmented in Japan which makes it so exciting. One area we are really pushing is izakayas because we’ve learned just how much drinking happens in these small bars all over the country.

The Japanese market is one I will always be learning. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to turn around and say I’m an expert on this market because it adapts and changes constantly. The Covid pandemic for example really drove us to e-commerce, focusing our attention on how we grow that online and retail side of our business. Up until the pandemic, our business in Japan was maybe 95% on-premise, 5% retail. But now we’re in such a diverse set of retailers such as Ito Yokado and even Mini Stop! We’ve really broadened our base of business.

Every brand wants to be in five star hotels and the coolest cocktail bars. But for us, if that makes sense then great but if it doesn’t make sense, we’re going to focus on where the consumer is drinking and where they’re going to interact with our brand better.

RC: So what’s in store for Intrepid Spirits this year and beyond? What are you expecting or hoping to see in the industry as well as for your business and people?

JR: It’s such a fascinating time in our industry right now. In most markets you’re seeing a younger consumer that is not as interested in alcohol as their predecessors. A lot in the industry are saying “Then let’s just drop our ABVs (Alcohol by volume)”. But for spirits like ours, it has to be more about building an experience. It’s more about everyone having a good time and maybe more about the effect of the product.With Cocalero, we’ve highlighted some of the positive effects of botanicals. But we’re also looking at the future. We have R&D projects to help us figure out our next areas of opportunity. In the USA, we’re looking at cannabis infused opportunities. You might think ‘How the hell does that fit into a spirits company?’ but if you look at it as products that have functional benefits for the consumer, then we can certainly get into that world.

As a portfolio of brands in the more premium space, we need to offer the consumer a better reason to drink it and a better experience.

I think we are seeing a trend towards drinking better. So higher quality and better. Cheaper brands are going to feel the pain of that. As a portfolio of brands in the more premium space, we need to offer the consumer a better reason to drink it and a better experience.

The Eat Take-Away

  1. Niche can mean ownership – The opportunity to expand your brand or product portfolio can be thwarted by concerns that they move the business outside of its core areas. But embracing niche opportunities can allow you to create and even entirely own a category that has gone under-served by your competitors – a huge growth opportunity.

  2. Local listening – Global brands can be highly prone to taking an international, multi-market narrative and retro-fitting it for the Japan market, in many cases with disastrous consequences. Just as Intrepid Spirits puts their local team at the forefront of insight sharing and strategy, brand leaders must do the same – identifying where the true opportunity is for consumers to best enjoy and experience your brand.

  3. Organic growth – The need to show growth and brand enhancement within a short time frame can force marketers to be highly aggressive with awareness building – a big outflow of capital with no guarantee of success. By taking a far more hands on, organic approach – going into bars and training bar staff on their brands – Intrepid Spirits was able to create deep loyalty to the brand from the start, equity building to utilise once the big Tokyo launch was ready. In Japan, steady and organic usually wins out.