This podcast was recorded pre-covid and at the base of the Canadian Rockies in Banff Canada with Paul Meehan, Creator, Owner & Brand Manager, NÜTRL Vodka Soda right after a little company named Anheuser-Busch acquired him. You can hear the pep in Paul's step during this Cult Brand podcast.
Enjoy this Symphony Talent joint, SmashflyX style :)
PODCAST TRANSCRIPTION sponsored by:
Intro: Hide your kids, lock the doors, you're listening to HR's most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where it hurts. Complete with breaking news, brash opinion and loads of snark. Buckle up boys and girls, it's time for The Chad and Cheese Podcast.
Joel: Oh, yeah.
Chad: It is beautiful here.
Joel: What's up snow bunnies? It's The Chad and Cheese Podcast.
Chad: This is just gorgeous.
Joel: I'm your co-host, Joel Cheesman.
Chad: And this is Chad, I'm mad I'm not skiing, Sowash.
Joel: And we are recording today from Banff Canada at the Cult Gathering Event, the number one marketing conference in the world. And what better first interview for us to have-
Chad: Oh, the first. Jeez. Sorry.
Joel: ... At the event, than the founder of a distillery here in Canada.
Joel: I can't think of any better guests.
Joel: So please welcome Paul Meehan. Paul is the president and founder at Goodridge & Williams. Paul, welcome to the podcast.
Paul: Thanks guys. I'm completely honored to be in a bar, on day one, just post noon chatting with you guys. Strong start. Strong start.
Chad: It's a strong start.
Chad: By the way we get introduced a lot at this conference.
Joel: I'm going to come out swinging here a little bit. Your LinkedIn resume says you did some time at Guinness Canada.
Paul: I sure did. Yeah.
Chad: Tell me about that.
Joel: So, is is it true that the Guinness really is better at the source in Ireland.
Paul: Well, let me tell you a quick story. So when I was a younger man, I was in sales and I was at Guinness. And one of the first things I had to do was go out to all my accounts and tell them that the price of Guinness was going up $20 a keg. And I'm not going to swear on your podcast, that's not allowed.
Joel: That's okay.
Chad: Yeah. This is explicit.
Paul: Okay. Good. So most people are, "Who the fuck are you and why are you doing this?"
Joel: And when this?
Paul: It was 20 years ago. 20, well, 25 years ago, probably. No, its about about 20. This will answer the question at some point though, about 24 years ago. So the price was going up $20 a keg. And the reason why, was the average age of a keg, could be anywhere from three months to nine months old. And my boss is smarter people than me, said, "Well, let's do this. Let's bring the frequency of orders up and the shipment size down, so the beer is fresher." And main reason the beer wasn't as good in Canada and the USA at the time was it could have been-
Paul: Yeah, it wasn't fresh.
Paul: Yeah. It wasn't guaranteed to be fresh.
Paul: And also wasn't on draft gas. So what we did is, we went around ... And this is when, I remember people used to say to me, "Paul, no one's going to spend six bucks for a pint of Guinness," which is hilarious because probably Guiness could be 15 bucks at this hotel-
Paul: ... But people want to have good things. And I said, "Just charge another dollar. Charge more," and ended up being just kind of at the beginning of premiumization of a beer. But to answer your question more succinctly, it's the same beer, it's just fresher. I've actually had it in Brazen Head in Dublin, which is like literally, the rumor's there's a hard pipe from the brewery to the bar. They physically could have one, I don't know if it's fact, but it certainly tastes like that. So yeah. Freshness, we need freshness.
Chad: We were lucky enough to be in Ireland together, not the entire time for a week, and we did nothing but drink Guinness pretty much the entire time we were there. It was delicious. It did taste different. It was totally fresh.
Joel: Little snow hangover, which-
Chad: Yeah. And that was the big ...
Joel: I don't know if that was just ...
Chad: What was that about?
Paul: That's just good living. That's just good luck. I think that's good things happen to good people. I'll tell you, there's two different stories about that. Well, I'll just tell you the most boring one. Again, I'm not the tallest guy in the world. I grew up from two directions, my face down and my belly up. But when I was working at Guiness, I was always remarking how many pints I could put down, and I put on weight, but nobody noticed, I didn't really have a lot of mirrors around the house. But I did go to Dublin on a trip once they came back eight pounds heavier.
Chad: Oh. Damn.
Paul: Now, that is not to do with the Guinness, so much will have to do with all the various foods and the lack of sleep.
Chad: Oh, yeah.
Paul: But a pint of Guinness has got 191 calories in it. So whereas like a pint of a light beer would have pretty much the same, it's 4.1% alcohol, so it's not any worse for you than like a Bud Light or something like that.
Joel: Very thirsty all of a sudden.
Paul: Yeah. We should actually have pints here.
Chad: We should. Yeah.
Paul: I can make that happen.
Chad: Hello. Bartender. So why break out and search your own thing? What was the whole reason behind that? What was in your brain to say, "I gotta do this"?
Paul: Well, you only have a couple of minutes in the podcast here, but I've been in the industry for a long time. And I'm glad you pulled out that, for me, I'm very proud of my time at Guinness, which is something I think of often, lessons learned there. But actually, post that I worked for many other companies, Mark Anthony Group, which is a Canadian business here, it's actually now around the world. And I worked at Sleeman and which is the third largest brewery in Canada. But what I figured out at one point was that, what I was best at was the brand marketing part of it and everything else was babysitting. And my wife will tell you, any employee who I've worked with will tell you I'm not a great people manager. It's not that I don't like people, I still don't really want to listen to them tons, they have all sorts of needs and demands.
Chad: So many needs and excuses.
Joel: Business would be great, except for the people.
Paul: Well, As you know, I have three kids, I'm legally required to take care of them, everybody else I don't need to. But, long story short, I figured out that I could do the best parts of my job in the structural strategic side. So I opened up a company, an agency, about 14 years ago called Me&Ideas. And we've done work for, you name it, tons of different businesses with a heavy bias towards beverage alcohol. We did all the marketing for the world for SAB Miller's flagship brand, Miller Genuine Draft, Miller High Life, Miller Lite.
Chad: Yeah? No shit.
Paul: So I've been all around the world selling American beer. So that's a Canadian selling American beer around the world.
Joel: Love it. So I want to dig into that a little bit. Your background is marketing, and so when you started your own distillery, was it you just had a passion for liquor and wanted to make it?
Joel: Or did you have a passion for making liquor and then creating a brand that would then stand the test of time or in this case be bought by Anheuser-Busch?
Chad: There had to be a market gap.
Paul: Well, the gap was more based around my ... Well, let's go back to the original point about my strength doing business plans and brand plans and structural stuff and creative, and like not the human side of it. I joke but serious, I enjoy looking at brands, seeing what their opportunities, what gaps exist on the brand side, for sure. But to answer your question though, Cheese, on a macro level, what it was was, that 14 years ago, I was either going to open up a craft distillery or an agency. And the reality is the CAPEX is a lot cheaper between my ears than it is on the equipment side. So, I opened up and we actually ended up ... The agency to this day, is a pretty
good size agency. At one point it was a 60 employees, now it's a little less than that, because the focus is more on the distillery. But an opportunity came up to create some brands. So I created brands before I had the distillery and the place where we actually made the brands came for sale and I bought it. My wife and I had a discussion, it was about two minutes long, she said, "Absolutely. Let's buy that."
Chad: "Do it."
Paul: So that was a fairly nascent space.
Joel: So you made an acquisition-
Paul: I made an acquisition. Sure did, yeah.
Joel: ... Which got you off and running, and then the brands came after that?
Paul: Yeah. One came in, and then we bought some with the business and we killed two of three of them, and then we built some new ones. Yeah.
Chad: So, you're on the sales side, you're on the marketing brand side. When it comes to being here, what actually makes your product a cult brand product? How did it get there?
Paul: There are many brands within my business, but the big one is called Nutrl Vodka Soda. And speaking of gaps and opportunities, we are all social people, we all drink beer and wine and whatnot. But there really wasn't a product in the market that met the need of the person who didn't want to have anything too heavy, and light beer's still full of carbs and calories, and light wines are still full of sugars. And we needed to create something that had a really nice, kind of very social, very easy drinking, very non-bloating, you name it on the positive side of the drink side, Plus had a premium feel good, kind of replicated a lot of the kind of things premium beer did. So, my wife and I were in Whistler, we go to Whistler every weekend. And post the third child, we said, you want to be social, you want to have a good time, but you don't want to feel all heavy. We already had the vodka brand and we said, well, let's start drinking vodka sodas. The average vodka soda in Canada has an ounce of alcohol in it, and the in United States has about, in the land of the free pour, I know, two ounces. Most vodka sodas in the USA are like, "Oh yeah, there's a fight in every glass," right? Like there's just too much vodka. So we made it to the point where it actually had the 5% level and also in the taller serving, so in the standard beer can. So we used a standard can, 5%, and very much like the same system that Perrier uses for their fruits, vapor distillation. So an all natural, three ingredient, no preservatives, no chemicals, no pasteurization, very, very light product. And by the way, we're sponsoring the reception tonight, so let's make sure we put the mics down and the drinks up in a bit, and you let me know what you think of it.
Chad: You got it.
Paul: But we started with all the citrus brands, and we have a portfolio of brands now across the range and they've grown to be over 65% of the vodka soda category, which it wasn't even a
category three years ago. Now it's a category. It's called seltzer as well, but seltzer's bit more of a US term.
Joel: It's trending. For sure.
Paul: Yeah. But seltzer in the US means bubbly water, right?
Joel: Pretty much. Yeah.
Paul: And most of the seltzers in the US also have malt spirit or sugar spirit, we actually use vodka, because we're distillers.
Chad: Well, it's saying something when Bud Light, which I think is the worst brand for a seltzer.
Paul: No. I can't ... I'm not legally allowed to agree with that right now, but it's ...
Joel: Guinness seltzer might be worse.
Paul: I agree. Guinness seltzer would be ... Caymus seltzer maybe a bad one also. Yeah. Louis XIII seltzer might be a bad one. Yeah.
Joel: So you don't like people, or at least managing people. So-
Paul: I love people, I just find them draining.
Chad: He loves drinking with people.
Paul: You guys are killing me.
Joel: Being a podcast dedicated to acquiring talent and finding talent-
New Speaker: I love people. I tease. I tease.
Joel: So you make this acquisition of the distillery, I assume you had employees up and running.
Paul: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.
Joel: You had all those pieces in place. So talk about that transition phase, how did you get them to sort of believe in the new brand and vision? Was there a new mission of the company? And as you built a brand, did you find that finding talent or incoming talent became better and more frequent because you were building that consumer brand?
Paul: Yeah. I'll start with the end of your question there, yeah. We built a bright, shiny thing from something that could have been a bright, shiny thing. So there's some polish involved, and
there's also some funny new knobs and whistles to add. So we added some new series of brands and we attracted a lot of great people. When I bought the distillery, it was a business that had literally no line items for sales or marketing, it was all ... The feeling with the previous owner was that ... Feel the Dreams, I used to call him, great guy, but he'd be like, "Build it, and they will come." So on the human side, amazing technical team, but literally no sales and marketing. So we attracted a lot of great sales and marketing people. And funny, one of the things we did in our business, we actually hired, we had sales reps and most people go with distributors, we had our own people across Canada. A whole bunch of branded vehicles, and a whole bunch of sales people and marketing people, excuse me. So we attracted a lot of humans. And one of the reasons why we were attractive is most people funny enough, didn't know how big we were. They knew by volume, but then they found it, wow, you guys did this with like 20 people. But we certainly took on the world, with the humans were the biggest part. And we created a culture of, as we jokingly said, post-acquisition, that our Kool-Aid was pretty good, because it's hard for people to put down our Kool-Aid.
Chad: We'll get back to the interview in a minut. Building a cult brand is not easy, which is why you need friends, like Roopesh Nair. To become cult brands, companies need to build from the inside out. How can messaging and technology facilitate that type of growth?
Roopesh Nair: It's easy to build a so-called employer brand in paper and say, "Hey, this is my EVP and these are my pillars of EVP." But it is much more difficult to activate it internally and ensuring that as you build your EVP, that activation is top of your mind. I've seen a lot of organizations build these awesome EVPs which stands for who they are, but then not necessarily using that effectively internally. Some of the times it's because the EVP is not created in a very genuine way. Then obviously it will not stand the test stuff, that internal activation and hence you need to ensure that your EVP is credible and aspirational as you think about the future. But at the same time spending that time to ensure that every persona in your company understands what your differentiation is, what do you stand for as a company and why is it relevant to that particular individual in that particular role is very important as you basically ensure that you're building that culture or value proposition inside out. Then it's easy to activate it because then you can use your own employees to really activate your EVP and you brand as you think about external activation.
Chad: Let SmashFly help activate your brand and keep relationships at the heart of your CRM. For more information, visit SmashFly.com.
Joel: And do you remember how you found those initial sales and marketing folks?
Paul: Literally, most of the people in the early days for people who we knew from the industry, who were kind of-
Paul: ... They were full on stars. Yeah. So we ripped off as many best and we also paid about 120, 130 index and we also had cooler cars, whereas most would have like [Crosstalk 00:14:14.26]
Joel: So you posted bribes, basically?
Paul: Oh, for sure. Yeah. Why not? Yeah. Yeah. It's bright, shiny toys, right?
Chad: All the perks of working. Right? So what about purpose? What about the things that we hear about here? What made you different and that way than all the other breweries or brands that were out there?
Paul: Yeah. It's funny that purpose is actually one of the main topics of my talk later on today. Like, what do you want to do? What someone wants to do for their life, can it fit within what we want to do as a company? We were very much about alignment. So we'd like to win. We'd like to grow. Nobody in our business had that major love of money or overt success, it's more like success of doing things right. And that sounds trite, but it's totally true. We had a cult- like mentality in terms of this, our way is right, but we're also able to improve, so-
Paul: Yeah. Just direct, straight at it. Kind of Canadian-American type style.
Chad: Very ... Yeah. Very-
Chad: Because Canadians are nice. Americans, depending on what coast you are, not so nice-
Chad: ... But direct.
Paul: Well, I love all our brothers and sisters.
Joel: My Canadian wife says Canadians aren't nice, they're optimistic. And there's a difference.
Paul: I'd say Canadians are not always nice, but always polite.
Joel: So you've bought in, you're five, six years into it. You've sort of mentally said, "We're not interested in selling. We're not flipping this business," but then a big company called AnheuserBusch comes along, walk us through how that went down and how the sale actually happened.
Paul: Well, they were actually the last company to come approach us, of all the big companies and midsize companies and venture capital people. As I've mentioned before, we had the folded pieces of paper across the table. We had some mafia phone calls late at night and deep threat.
Chad: An offer you can't refuse.
Joel: You make it so that they can't refuse.
Paul: Oh yeah. There's horse heads, you name it. But-
Joel: Mooseheads would have been better.
Paul: Oh, Mooseheads. That would have been. I always missed. Too late. It was the people from ABI Labatt here were just unbelievably cool. And overall they wanted to ... They'd loved the Kool-Aid we'd made, and they loved what they saw.
Çhad: I love that you call it Kool-Aid.
Paul: Yeah, for sure. They wanted to see how we could add value to their business, not just on our volume or profile, but our personalities are humans and post-transaction, everybody stayed and everyone got promotions and raises and like, Oh, it was bright and shiny. It was really cool and respectful. So the president of that company is Kyle Norrington, who's a very inspiring guy. He's the president of Labatt Canada, and you could tell he wanted to be part of what we had, and wanted our brands and our personalities, our perspective would be part of his business. And we felt the same way, so it was legitimately like a good fit. But it is funny because that was never the plan.
Chad: So when it comes to branding, when it comes to attraction, in many cases at this event, we're talking mostly on the consumer side. Right? The way that we see the world is, yes, consumer side's huge, but you need that talent. So the attraction on the talent side is as big as well, which means brand is incredibly big. That purpose is big. How do you differentiate, or do you differentiate between the attraction of really customers and candidates?
Paul: I think that everyone wants to win. It's like sports, right? Everyone wants to be part of a cool team. Now, necessarily would, now that these guys are part of a bigger, are they part of a bigger league because they're part of a more funded team? Not necessarily, it's an interesting thing to discuss because everyone who we attracted wanted to almost take them on. Right? And take on this faceless thing. And it was interesting, the last couple of weeks, we were like, "Whoa, who do we take on now?" And I think good people gravitate towards not only their own self directed prize, but like macro ones as well, the purpose driven ones. And so there have been some challenges in that, but what we want to do is make sure that everything we do on the consumer oriented stuff and everything on the internal service is the same. It's like make it as bright and shiny and cool and momentum oriented, and hopefully people want to perpetuate that. And we have consumers who feel like they are part of us all. We get pitched by consumers for various sponsorships, which is a great amorphous term, I'm like, "What do you mean by that?" And also just involvement because they want to be part of it. They want to ... It's like Velcro, right? It's hooks and eyes, they want to be a part of it.
Joel: One of our favorite guests on the show is Douglas Atkin, who was a sort of head of culture at Airbnb. And one of the quotes that he had to the founders, or one of the co-founders
that we love is, "the minute you bring HR into this thing, the culture's fucked". So I'm curious when you took over the company, was there a HR department? Did you eventually put one in? Who was doing the recruiting? Talk about some of those aspects of the business.
Paul: No. Yes. Me. No, there was no HR function. And the guy who runs our business now, RJ, and he can laugh at this, because I hired him, but everybody else, it's questionable. I'm not a great HR person, but I can set a cultural tone. We have HR people now. And there's different ... They're sneaky, right? The HR people, they use different terms like people managers or director of culture.
Chad: Or compliance.
Paul: Yeah, exactly. But the good HR people who we've all met, there are some, they understand their job is to make sure that the people are connected, engaged, and just working properly. Very much, like an engineer would look at a machine how it functions. It's not necessarily lever pulling, but if they're not working like clockwork, right?
Joel: How much if any, does the marketing arm connect with the HR recruiting arm in the company? Or is that something that doesn't happen?
Paul: Again, pre-acquisition, that was a major thing we were looking at doing, is making sure that head of HR currently, within ... It's still a separate business within ABI. That's the mandate, is to make sure that the cultural fit is not just cookie cutter, rather it's more like, how can we constantly improve? And understand, like our main product is momentum. It sounds cheesy, but we want to make sure we're doing something, and that doesn't mean we're always distracted, but we're always moving forward. So we can't have an HR department or head or anyone there that doesn't want people who want to move forward. So it's very much part of that mix.
Chad: So you're going from being big, to being much larger, right? Under the umbrella, a big umbrella, the ABI umbrella. Does that change like motivation and purpose? Because when you're kind of like a challenger cult brand, that's much different than being almost like King of the mountain. Do you think that's going to make a difference with regard to mindsets and going out and being innovative? Or do you think that, again, it's just going to be able to fuel it?
Paul: Well, literally at the post-acquisition, like in the announcements, I think what we're doing is we are actually looking how we acquired, quote unquote, I'm using air quotes here, microphone people, people into our mentality or psychology, the people who already existed in this business. Right? So we have to make sure they understand that, although we're standalone within, we're business as usual, that this bigger parent company understands again, like Kyle would have said, why we work. So we had to adopt people or attract people more over in terms of like our cultural differences and our ... So I don't think there's anyone in our business who can be like, "Yeah, we're now with the big guys, and so now we act big," but it is like having a big brother or 200,000 of them behind you, eight times. But you can also get lost within that. So the job is to stay unique and differentiated and strong. And I'm the fifth of six, so my job is, I'm used to being able to hide, but make yourself over it and make your cultural values clear as well.
Joel: So it sounds like you're going to be expanding at least into the US in the near term, I assume worldwide, at some point. There obviously challenges, new challenges in terms of talent and culture and growing that into a new market. Americans are different in many ways than your Canadian employees. Is there a plan around growth and bringing Americans employees into the culture and how best to do that?
Paul: Well, absolutely. USA is like the biggest market in the world.
Joel: And the best.
Paul: It's a very good one. But you need to ... You can't walk into any market and assume that something worked in your home market, it's going to work the exact same way as the other one. And also we have a different ... We're not first mover and our main product is not in this market, so we'd have to ... And by the way, I was in New York last week and the senior level people there, and also everyone I met in industry, they've all been very supportive. Our hope is on the human level, is to make sure people understand, as people understand obviously, country dynamics and market dynamics, we want to make sure people understand what culturally we do differently. And it's cool that this business, that size respects that. So I guess my obligation is to make sure that I make those values international versus Canadian, which they kind of are, they're kind of constant challenger. They're ones to watch people. So the bar is kind of always moving up, and the human side, we got to make sure anyone we have internally understands that at a base and loves it at an ideal.
Joel: Strange Brew or Slap Shot?
Paul: That's not even a question. Seriously, come on. Obviously, Strange Brew is a Canadian made movie and Slap Shot's an American made movie. Slap Shot is still far superior. Come on.
Joel: Barenaked Ladies or Tragically Hip?
Paul: Well, I'm a fan of both. That's a tough one, but I'll have to go with the Tragically Hip.
Joel: Celine Dion or Justin Bieber?
Paul: That, can I vote for neither?
Joel: Paul, great to meet you, man.
Paul: Nice to meet you as well.
Joel: For those of our listeners who want to know more about you or your company or your portfolio of beverages, where we can send them?
Chad: Where can they get their dink on?
Paul: The best thing is to follow us on Instagram, because that's what all the kids, I mean the young adults are doing these days. Instagram.com/nutrlvodka, N-U-T-R-L Vodka. And if you can't spell vodka, then you're probably not supposed to be looking for....
Chad: And you've probably had too many.
Paul: Exactly. Probably take a break and just sit back. Thanks for having me on guys. Really appreciate it.
Joel: Thanks Paul.
Paul: A lot of fun.
Chad: Thanks, man.