Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Think Being a Brand Ambassador Is Hard? Try Doing it in a Control State.

Image: Maddy Peters

Being a liquor rep or brand ambassador can be a rewarding career. Knowing the ins and outs of a product or brand, spending time on the road visiting key accounts and building relationships with bartenders and owners are all key aspects of the job. But working in control states adds another level of complexity and challenge to the business of promoting a spirit, especially in stricter states that impose numerous regulations on how to sell alcohol. Brand reps utilize a number of strategies to navigate these unique challenges, with the primary ones being rooted in straightforward relationships and honesty.

Rocky Yeh, Maison Ferrand’s portfolio ambassador, sums up the challenges and strategies nicely: “Control states, more than anything else, emphasize how much of our industry is relationship-based and how well you know your stuff.”

Bartenders and Bar Owners in Control States

Primarily, control states act as a single distributor for alcohol, selling directly from state-controlled liquor stores to bars and consumers and prohibiting bartenders from placing orders with anyone else. Building that relationship with bartenders, whether you’re the ground team working in that state, or a national rep who makes the occasional stop in, is key, even more so in control states when checking back in is an essential step.

“One difference in a control state is that you can’t always be closing, because there’s a disconnect between pitching products and educating, and the actual purchase,” says Yeh. “They can’t just take an order on the spot. It means there needs to be a lot more follow-up but in a way that’s not nagging.”

Rocky Yeh. Lush Life

Yeh adds, “In control states, even more so than in open markets, it’s important to have bartenders who really enjoy your product. Just be honest and straightforward, and know there’s always a bit of slippage, because sometimes the state might not get a product in in time.”

“In different control states, like North Carolina and Oregon, sales reps often do more hand holding and follow-up because they can’t directly sell to the bar,” says Trevor Schneider, the U.S. ambassador for Reyka vodka. “And it’s important to make sure the brand is consistent throughout every conversation, whether it’s at a bar or at a liquor store or another account, which is why regular visits by ambassadors are so imperative and why local teams and ambassadors need to work well together.”

Liquor Stores in Control States

More than just the people behind the bar, it’s important to build relationships with workers at state-controlled liquor stores. It’s not just about educating them so they can better help shoppers but also to access feedback on liquor sales. Yeh explains that in Oregon, for instance, the only data provided is macro level—the state sold this many bottles in this amount of time. However, individual stores can participate in more account-level data. “You want to build a relationship with those guys because they know off the top of their head what premises are buying what.”

Another challenge with control states is that while there’s often an on-premise discount—usually around 5 percent so that bars are paying a little less than individual consumers—there are rarely bulk discounts offered. The main reason for this is that state liquor controls must act both as distribution and regulation, promoting temperance on top of earning the state money. Any sort of bulk discount would need to apply to individuals as well as bars and restaurants, which could potentially encourage overdrinking, at least in theory.

Some liquor companies can navigate this by offering mail-in rebates on certain-sized sales, made available only to accounts. These rebates, usually handled by third-party contractors, must be filled out perfectly or they will be denied, so it’s up to the individual bars to manage those. Still, it’s a potentially good way to promote a product to bars and can be a practice liquor reps encourage their businesses to launch.

Trevor Schneider. Reyka

Liquor Control Commissions

In addition to bar managers and salespeople, control states add another relationship that needs to be cultivated and maintained: that of the people working in the state offices. Not every person working as an ambassador or rep directly works with the state. Schneider says he only touches base once a year or so to renew his liquor solicitor permit in order to pour spirits at events. But often those working on the state level need to manage those relationships.

“Like anything else, there needs to be a face to talk to,” says Yeh. “It’s important to have a ground team everywhere, but in a control state, there needs to be an emphasis on those relationships.” As for strategy, he again highlights the importance of honesty. “Yes, it’s a state agency, but it’s still made of people,” he says. “Just remember that everyone’s human and not just a part of a faceless entity.”

Bringing a new product into a state is another challenge that comes with a variety of solutions. Some states, like Ohio, take a very practical approach of examining how the product does in other states, and if it sells well, it’s brought in. For states that need a bit of convincing, however, it again comes down to relationships. Having bartenders and owners who want to sell your product asking the state for it greatly increases the chance of it coming in and the volume that it comes in.

To that end, events like Tales of the Cocktail are a great way to meet bartenders who work in potential new markets, though Yeh warns that the events are only a good way to start and build relationships, not to market. That comes later, once everyone’s away from the hustle and bustle of New Orleans or wherever you’re meeting up.