Long before it sat on the shelves of the world’s swankiest bars, watered private parties at hipster music festival SXSW, ran a cocktail world cup on Coronet Peak, even before that one-time international film competition with 42 directors making 42 films each lasting 42 seconds, and almost a decade before that shifty circus bar with the small bearded lady opened up for 42 days in Auckland during the RWC, 42 Below vodka took out the 2003 TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards Small Business title.
Until 2002, no new brands had entered the pure spirit industry in 30 long years. Vodka was for old men. But when not-so-old man Geoff Ross spotted a foreign vodka ad claiming the product came from “a seriously pure country far, far away” he said, “oh, hell no!” A newer, even purer product was sparked with a squeaky-clean marketing campaign to match. 42 Below vodka became purity for purists.
Being a super-premium product, bar managers and bartenders became the target audience; these were the people—and the people who chatted to the people—who bothered to learn about what they were drinking.
The product needed a name that voiced its supreme level of purity, and what better number to lead the charge than 42. No, not because it is the answer to “what is the meaning of life?”, but because it spoke of where the product was born: 42 degrees latitude south. Furthermore, it proudly proclaimed the alcohol contained inside.
Ross, now chief executive of Ecoya, wanted 42 Below to land in 100 of the world’s most stylish bars, so he didn’t just send product, he sent people and personalities to accompany it. These weren’t sales people but ‘brand ambassadors’. Marketing was segmented by city rather than by country, recognising each city’s cool gang as individual and speaking to their quirks.
Determined to avoid what is now known the ‘Flight of the Concords syndrome’—needing to succeed overseas before anyone back home will claim to know your aunty, cousin or cat—Ross pitched 42 Below as a Kiwi battler to be proud of. The brand jumped on the back of New Zealand’s burgeoning film industry with Lord of the Rings, hitching a ride to Hollywood and fronting up at pre-Oscar parties at the Beverly Hills Hotel as well as the trilogy’s premieres.
The results, both at home and abroad, spoke volumes. Ross sold 60 cases in New Zealand in June 2002, but only four months later 42 Below had entered the Australian market with steady growth. Sales were skyrocketing in the US just months after that. By the time Ross and his team were picking up their marketing award back home in August 2003 they had requests from Las Vegas, Rhode Island and New York, with over 100 UK bars ready to hop on board following a successful hospitality show.
Purchased by Bacardi in 2006 for $138 million, 42 Below is no longer owned by some clever Kiwi. But in typical Kiwi fashion we still claim it as our own, so something must’ve worked.
Are you the next big thing? Then get a move on, because you've only got 14 more days to enter the TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards.