CEO Q&A: Gerry Ruvo, Skyy Spirits

Gerry Ruvo, CEO of Skyy Spirits, speaks with Danielle Drolet about PR's key role at his company and the importance of consumer touchpoints.

Gerry Ruvo, CEO of Skyy Spirits, speaks to Danielle Drolet about PR's key role at his company and the importance of consumer touchpoints.

What are the biggest opportunities in the spirits business right now? And how can communications be vital to these issues?
The biggest opportunities in the spirits industry right now center mostly on innovation. Large-scale acquisitions that can significantly reposition a company are few and far between at this point. It's up to us to constantly innovate, not only in terms of new products, but also in how we reach our consumer.

A perfect example of this is the work we are doing on our Skyy Vodka brand. We recently scrapped our successful Skyy Flavors business because we felt the entire proposition was simply not innovative enough, from the liquid to the marketing to the demographic targeting. We saw quite clearly that the Millennial consumer was moving toward all-natural, infused products, so that's exactly where we went with our new Skyy Infusions line.

All of our marketing and PR efforts are focused on appealing to a consumer who is a “flavor nomad,” spending their time browsing places such as Whole Foods and farmers' markets. We shifted our communication strategy to focus on the flavor experience only an infusion can deliver. As a result, our sales of Skyy Infusions have already doubled those of our old Skyy Flavors line in three years.

What is the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is rising above all the clutter. Right now, in just the vodka category, there are more than a thousand options for a retailer and a consumer. Tequila is facing a similar glut of products. We need to produce the highest-quality products possible, and then find that “blue ocean” where we can stand above the rest and get noticed.

We have done an excellent job with this on brands such as Cabo Wabo tequila, which was started by Sammy Hagar. We have carved out our niche as the original rock-and-roll tequila, which is completely ownable and, most importantly, a rich platform that our PR team can activate against in a really meaningful manner. 

That is, frankly, one of the biggest traps all marketers should keep in mind: creating a brand platform that is so ethereal that it gives the PR team nowhere to go in terms of activating a strategic plan that actually creates buzz or so broad that it is actually paralyzing to try to concept against it in a meaningful way.

Can you talk us through what the PR team is doing to build on this rock-and-roll platform?
Our PR team has done an amazing job building on our rock-and-roll platform for Cabo Wabo Tequila. One of the best examples is their recent work creating a viral video series, “Off the Record,” which pairs a legendary rock artist with an emerging musician for a frank discussion on how to make it in the industry.

They scored a major coup with the first featured artists, Mick Fleetwood, founder of Fleetwood Mac, and indie darling Nicole Atkins. The resulting video is so authentic and compelling it goes miles and miles in reinforcing the relevance of the Cabo Wabo brand with the rock community.

There are so many competitive alcoholic brands in the market place. How does Skyy Spirits use PR campaigns to stand out?
PR is all about amplification: either amplifying an existing marketing message or amplifying something that is happening in the markets that can benefit our brands.

I really don't like doing PR for PR's sake. One-off stunts or glitzy events do nothing to further enhance your brand image in a very meaningful way. You are only news until another brand pulls off its own stunt or celebrity event. If the consumer isn't exposed to your message multiple times in multiple venues, ranging from in-store to online to social media to print magazines, the message is lost. That is why PR is a very important part of a 360-degree marketing mix.

What campaigns do you have going on currently?
Even for one of our smallest brands, Frangelico, you can see how PR amplifies our marketing programs. We identified that “dessert cocktails” were going to be a big trend this holiday season, as people are looking to save on some calories, but aren't willing to skimp when it comes to indulging.

The PR team researched that platform and took it to another level by developing a media pitch around Frangelico dessert cocktails. They also teamed up with a chocolatier in New York City who is incorporating Frangelico into her truffles for the holidays, which she will sell in her store and in retail outlets such as Bergdorf Goodman. That PR strategy created a credible Frangelico spokesperson for broadcast outreach for our low-cal cocktails and created a new consumer awareness touch point in an outlet where the brand was previously not seen – a department store.

Of all the marketing disciplines, PR is the one where I am constantly surprised at how much amplification can be delivered from a single, simple concept.

Have you done anything with mobile or geo-targets in your campaigns?

With all of our PR campaigns, particularly those that involve events, we heavily rely on mobile and location-based applications to further amplify our efforts. Every event has a specific Twitter component tied to a hashtag that allows us to extend our reach to build awareness, as well as to reward our best advocates with exclusives, such as tickets or other giveaway items tied to the event.

We also enable Foursquare check-in at all events and tie them back to some kind of reward specific to those who are attending the event. In addition, we are now incorporating Facebook photo stations at all of our events, so consumers can share their experience with people from around the world.

How do you manage seven spirits categories and 30-plus brands with a fairly small comms group of six people?

You can do more with less if you have a team that is truly in sync with your marketing and sales organization and has a real handle on what is happening with your customers and consumers. This allows them to sift through all of the information around them in a very meaningful manner, decide what the priorities will be for our communications, and determine what will get the most buzz. That means that there will inevitably be some things that are left on the table, but I am much more interested in creating great return on investment.

Many times, we get caught in thinking that everything is “PR-able.” That simply isn't true and our PR team does a great job of reminding us of this every day. They don't take on work that isn't going to net amazing results. I appreciate that because it not only saves us effort and money, it keeps us all grounded in what really moves the needle.

Describe your efforts to attract the growing Hispanic and Asian population?
The growing Hispanic and Asian populations are absolutely influencing our marketing decisions. A great example of this is our recently released Skyy Infusions Dragon Fruit product. The dragon fruit was virtually unknown in this country just a few years ago.

In researching new products, we noticed it was starting to show up in more and more stores and on restaurant menus. We attribute that directly to the growth of the Hispanic and Asian community in the US, due to popularity of dragon fruit in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

We played this up in our PR outreach, really focusing on how these cultures were driving consumption trends. This garnered a full-page spread in The New York Times, as well as coverage in El Nuevo Herald and other Spanish-language publications.

Can you talk a little bit about this “Women & Whiskies” program to launch in Q1 next year? Are more women getting interested in whiskies? How does the comms team find and track these types of trends?
Randal Stewart, who manages PR for our whiskies, and Nathalie Phillips, the brand manager for The Glenrothes Single Malt Scotch, noticed that more and more women were attending traditional whiskey shows, but seemed too intimidated to ask a lot of questions around the more knowledgeable male attendees. They would take a sip and walk away, even if there was a female brand ambassador on the other side of the table.

So they developed a program exclusively for women that gave them a chance to learn about whiskey in a non-threatening environment. This not only allowed for education, but camaraderie among fellow female whiskey lovers.

We will be rolling out a nationwide series of events in Q1 2012 that give women a chance to sample and ask questions about whiskies from Scotland, the US, Ireland, and Japan, which are all featured in our portfolio. We already have a Facebook page up for the group and have gotten a great response.

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