In 1996, when John Murphy was busy hatching plans to set up a brewery, the opportunity to reverse the fortunes of Plymouth Gin fell into his lap. It was a challenge he responded to with gusto.
In five years he and his colleagues transformed the fortunes of this historic brand before selling to the makers of Absolut vodka.
Gin was the height of glamour in the 1920’s, but when John’s bank manager suggested he run an eye over Plymouth Gin, interest in gin was low and still declining.
However, a few years previously when he was putting a book together on the world’s top brands – which of course included spirits brands – John had been struck by how weak, even boring gin brands were. He filed away a hunch that gin might be due a revival. high yields were up for grabs with a potential gin revival in the next fifteen years.
Allied Domecq decided to sell Plymouth Gin because they already had a premium gin brand, Beefeater. This was one of the brands that had previously struck John as dull.
They did not want to close Plymouth Gin because of the negative publicity this would attract as it had been the gin of the Royal Navy. Since 1793, produced to the same quality in the historic Black Friars Distillery on the harbour front in Plymouth.
John knew the major role narrative played in the lucrative premium spirit market. Plymouth has this rare quality in abundance. His interest was piqued. He was also keen, after twenty years of doling out branding advice, to road test his skills.
The deal included Britain’s oldest operating gin distillery with much underused capacity, and a skilled head distiller and his team. But all other business services had been supplied centrally so would have to be set up.
John visited the distillery, liked the team there and learned more of the history. He discovered that from the late 18th century onwards the gin had been distributed all over the world. It gained fans wherever it went, and was, in effect, one of the first power brands.
He acted quickly and bought it on the spot. A week earlier he knew almost nothing about Plymouth Gin and now he was part owner.
Initially, the other investors included a Dutch friend and investor Fred van Woerkom and the well known investor Richard Koch.
John immediately found himself on the firing line – he became non-executive Chairman.
He soon hired Charles Rolls as CEO, an inspired choice who later went on to co-found upmarket drinks mixer brand Fever Tree.
The new team over hauled the brands “get up” and a UK distributor was sourced. From the start it was brand building with the goal of selling – many of the major spirit businesses did not own a premium gin brand so he was confident this was achievable.
Sales rose steadily – from 2500 cases a year to 9000 – but it was hard slog. The supermarkets were happy to stock the brand on a promotion basis but it was tricky to break into the permanent national listings. Gin was not a top priority for them by a long way. Vodka was the white spirit of the late twentieth century.
And then everything changed. John had always been a pro at getting the media interested – he had a knack for delivering ready made, entertaining copy to grateful journalists – but this time he played no role in the TV coverage that triggered massive demand.
The BBC Food and Drink programme commanded huge audiences – five million people – and, presenting a special on gin, Jilly Goolden – the lead presenter – pointed out that gin was a far more interesting spirit than vodka and that this spirit needed to be drunk at minimum 40% abv but that Gordons, the leading brand had pared this down to 37.5% abv to meet a keener price point and this had a seriously adverse effect on taste.
She went on to wax lyrical about Plymouth Gin – declaring it the best out of 30 that had been tasted – for its subtlety, smoothness and softness on the palate. It also had an abv of 41.2%, a strength which the team had adopted on day one.
Demand exploded and Plymouth Gin became a minor national brand. Soon UK sales were running at 100,000 cases per annum.
The brand was also selling in Canada, Australia, Japan and Scandinavia but John knew the major opportunity lay in the US – which counted for half the world’s premium liquor sales.
They needed a strong distribution network to repeat their UK success but this proved difficult to realise when major player Seagram refused to engage.
As hoped for, there was fortunately a growing appetite for Plymouth Gin among drink companies and when Vin & Sprit, who owned Absolut Vodka, put in a decent offer the investors decided to accept – half was to be sold upfront and the remainder over the next decade.
John knew there was a lot of value in the brand and he suspected (correctly) the gin craze would fully re-ignite in the next ten years. Indeed, the insistent message of Plymouth Gin that gin was a truly subtle and interesting white spirit, whereas vodka was simply white spirit, was already finding an audience.
Another advantage was that V&S’s biggest US distributor was Seagram so this meant access to their network.
By early 2000 the deal was done and Plymouth Gin was part of the V&S group, then owned by the Swedish government (later sold to Pernod Ricard).
Then a bombshell – Seagram was bought unexpectedly by media company Vivendi who promptly disposed of the liquor interests – so the plan of US domination was scuppered.
A clash of opinions followed on how to take the brand forward. The Swedes wanted the Absolut approach with modern stylish packaging and sophisticated advertising.
John preferred to retain the elements of the long-established packaging style and to focus on heritage and the product quality. He also had a low regard for hugely expensive advertising campaigns much liked by the Swedes.
In due course he proposed that V&S bought out him and the other investors. The return John made from the deal was more than what he had earned in twenty years at Interbrand.
By any measure John’s first foray into the brand owning world had been an absolute success.