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Sobieski Marketer Imperial Brands Targets Baby Boomers, Seeks To Expand Portfolio

October 10, 2013

One of the fastest spirits brands ever to reach 1 million cases in U.S. shipments, Sobieski vodka saw its pace of expansion slow last year as parent company Belvédère sought to dig out from under a mountain of debt. Now, with Belvédère having restructured and a new board in place, Sobieski’s U.S. marketer Imperial Brands is back on the offensive, targeting new growth avenues and courting agency brands to build a wider portfolio.

“It’s a new era for the company,” says Chester Brandes, president and CEO of Imperial Brands. “We’re in negotiations right now and expect to introduce our first agency brand in the first quarter of next year.” Imperial is looking at agency options across the board—including in vodka—but generally focusing on higher price points.

Meanwhile, the group is seeking to reignite growth on Sobieski by tapping into a vast—if seldom celebrated—audience of drinks consumers. In an initiative called Sobieski Silver, the brand is keying in on retirement communities across the U.S., vying to become the go-to vodka for the Baby Boomer generation. Brandes says the idea started with a program at one of Florida’s largest retirement communities, The Villages, which houses 70,000 people and contains four liquor stores. Sobieski began doing seminars at The Villages’ 1,000 social clubs around its “Truth in Vodka” positioning, and the community has become its largest Florida account. The effort is now expanding to other retiree-friendly markets like Arizona and California.

Launched in 2007, Sobieski hit 940,000 case depletions in just four years on the market. Last year it slowed to 4% growth, rising to 980,000 cases, according to Impact Databank. For 2013, Brandes says depletions will increase by 3%-5%. He notes that the brand has stayed in positive growth territory throughout Belvédère’s restructuring despite a substantially lower marketing spend during that time.

“We’ve been quiet for a while, but we’ve kept our head above water,” Brandes adds. “And we’re taking price where we can, although pricing is generally contracting, not expanding in the category.” Currently, Sobieski is retailing at around $11 a 750-ml. and $19.99 a 1.75-liter, with the latter accounting for roughly 60% of volume. On the flavor front, the brand will extend with a grape offering next year, but Brandes says the unflavored vodka will remain the top priority. “Flavors come and go,” he notes. “You need them for the presence on the back bar and the shelf, but when they start to take 60%-70% of your business it can disconnect consumers from the quality message on the core brand. On Sobieski, we do about 10% flavors, and that doesn’t bother me at all.”

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