Courier Weekly Friday 31 July 2020

Mélanie Masarin discusses what it's like to launch an alcohol-free beverage brand during the pandemic.

Courier Weekly Friday 31 July 2020

Courier Weekly Friday 31 July 2020

We’re with Mélanie Masarin, founder of the new alcohol-free drink brand Ghia. Mélanie – who previously led marketing at Dig Inn and offline and experiential strategy at Glossier – was supposed to launch Ghia back in April, but things didn’t exactly go to plan. She explains what caused the starts and stops, why the alcohol free-sector is booming, and where she hopes to take the brand. 

DANNY GIACOPELLI: Hey guys, welcome back to Courier Weekly. I'm Daniel Giacopelli, Courier's Editorial Director. If you're new to the show, or to Courier, we're all about telling amazing stories on modern business, showing you how to work better and live smarter. Make sure to check out our latest print edition: the Design issue, which is all about how to make it work as a creative entrepreneur. Just head to couriermedia.co for more. We've also just launched a sister podcast called Courier Workshop, it's jam-packed with business advice. This week, we dug into nailing your brand's tone of voice – you can just search for Courier Workshop on your podcast player to subscribe. We have a bit of a sneak peek at the end of this show, too. 

Today on the show we've got Mélanie Maserin. She's the founder of the newly launched alcohol-free drink brand Ghia. Way back in April, we predicted Ghia was about to take off, and that was even before it launched. That's because lockdown drinking aside, people have been reducing their alcohol intake for years now, and low- to no-alcohol brands are booming. Melanie was previously the head of marketing and creative director at Digg Inn, the farm-to-table restaurant chain in the US. She then led the offline and experiential strategy at Glossier. Melanie and her team were originally supposed to launch Ghia back in April, but things didn't exactly go to plan. Melanie will explain what caused all the starts and stops and where she hopes to take the brand. But first, I want to know where the idea for Ghia came from in the first place. As she tells that it began with a trip to Milan with friends. 

MÉLANIE MASARIN: The trip to Milan was the aha moment. For years you think that there's a product you wish existed in the world, and one morning you decide you're going to wake up and do it. With Ghia, it was really on this trip to Milan that I decided to take the leap. I had been on and off not drinking for a few years; I realised that it didn't really work for me – it made me slow, it hurt my stomach. I was always frustrated with the lack of options for people who wanted to be social but didn't really want something that was overly sweet, or a soft drink. 

In terms of flavours, I was very inspired by the flavours of my childhood. I was born in France, in Lyon. I grew up near the Mediterranean and spent time there every summer. My grandfather is Italian. So there's this blend of an appreciation for food, an appreciation for hospitality, running around empty kitchens as a kid, and also just an aperitivo culture, which I think was the biggest inspiration. There wasn’t a single night each summer that there weren't 10 people in my house moving from drinks to dinner in a way that was very without consequence. You weren't thinking about work tomorrow – it was just a natural progression of the night. A lot of that came with lower alcohol content, and I think also it was a different time when we weren't always stuck to our phones, and there wasn't this overstimulation. I wanted to bring a little bit of this carelessness to the way that we live today. 

When I started Ghia, it was peak 2018-2019, and everybody was in the office a lot. Obviously, Covid has changed a lot of things, but I think the intention behind starting the brand remains in terms of taking better care of ourselves and connecting better.

DANNY: Were you on the hunt at the time for a really good business idea, because you're steeped in the background of quite a lot of successful direct-to-consumer brands, like Glossier and Dig Inn. Were you looking for the next big thing?

MÉLANIE: I think I was looking for the thing that would be my thing. When I left Glossier, which was an incredible work and human experience, it was a tough act to follow. I had decided that the next thing needed to be the thing that I would stay in for a long time, and it just needed to feel right. 

I really missed the food world. I didn't want to open a restaurant – I'm not a chef – but there was something attractive about food and hospitality. Hosting dinner parties is my greatest skill. The way that I live is all about sharing, and it's often over a meal. I wanted to somehow merge my professional life with my personal life in a way that felt very vocational. I was waiting for the right thing to come up, but in the meantime, I was freelancing. I had relieved the pressure to look for the next big thing, but was also finding the time and being thoughtful about what was coming.

DANNY: So you had the eureka moment. What was the first step?

MÉLANIE: The first step was coming back from this trip to Milan and it was doing a little bit of research. I realised that in the UK, there were 120 new non-alcoholic brands that had come to market. In a country where drinking is so ingrained in the culture, that felt very surprising to me; perhaps because it was so ingrained in the culture there were all of these alternatives. Interestingly, they were all direct alcohol alternatives, like a gin alternative, or trying to be a non-alcoholic version of a drink. Some of them had a great track record of success, like Seedlip, for instance, and I thought: there's something there.  

DANNY: Seedlip had tremendous success. They got bought by Diageo. 

MÉLANIE: Yeah, in their third year or something like that. They're in all the best bars, they're very well respected – they have really managed to create a brand and create a trust, and that's really admirable. They have garnered respect from the industry, which is very hard to do as a new category. So I was really impressed with that, but I also felt that that was not what I wanted. I did not want to drink a gin alternative. I wanted to drink something that was dry, and I wanted to drink something that was bitter. 

I was very set on the idea of creating a drink that was bitter. I really believe it's the best base to prepare your palate before a meal, and it's also a very versatile drink. I thought, how do you have an aperol that has no booze and no added sugar? I think an aperol spritz has 19g of sugar. I mean, it's neon-orange, it's very chemical. I wanted something that was as cool and as fun. There's a whole brand around the aperol spritz, there's whole moments. There's something about the spritz that is very joyful. I wanted to create that. I didn't want to create a brand that was a lesser version of an alcohol brand. That was the first step: finding the formulator, finding someone to help us develop this drink, to educate us a little bit. So I started asking everyone I knew.

DANNY: Who was that? Who did you end up going with?

MÉLANIE: He prefers to remain private, because he works with a lot of beverage brands, but it's someone who lives in New York and who walked into the meeting and said, ‘I believe non-alcoholic aperitifs are the future of beverages,’ and so I knew I had to hire him. We started working together and it took us 37 iterations in 55 weeks to create. 

DANNY: Did you have funding at that point?

MÉLANIE: I did not have funding.

DANNY: Were using your own savings?

MÉLANIE: I was using my own savings. A few months later, I had someone join the team on a freelance basis, and I was very much directly consulting and then making Venmo payments to him for the first few weeks until we figured everything out. Then we ended up raising a friends-and-family round later in 2019.

DANNY: How do you know that this isn't just going to be a fad, the low-alcohol and no-alcohol sector? All the stats are showing that it's rising in popularity, that people are wanting it. But it's the same thing with CBD, how do you know that isn't a passing trend, and a year from now people will just abandon it?

MÉLANIE: I can't talk about CBD – I think there's a lot that we have to learn about it. Perhaps ‘no and low’ is a bit of a trend, but I feel and hope that better-for-you options are just more sustainable. If we really define sustainable as the ability to last, we want our bodies to last, we want experiences to last, and we want memories to last. With that in mind, and if you use this lens, it just makes a lot of sense to be drinking less.

I also think while it might feel a little bit trendy to be talking about sober curiosity right now – it's a bit of a buzzword – there's a lasting trend in that people are just more mindful now. Mindfulness is omnipresent in a lot of the things that we do: in spirituality, in food, in beverages. I think now it's shifting from the plate to the glass in a way that's interesting or more holistic. It might be that you want to start drinking Ghia at 10pm, because you had your mezcal with your friends, and you want to slowly cut yourself off for the night; or that you want to have Ghia on a Tuesday so that you’re only drinking alcohol a couple of nights of a week. It's something that is becoming much less binary than before, being sober, and that I really see as lasting for a long time. I also feel so much better, so I hope others will feel that way as well.

DANNY: The design that you guys have is obviously really unique and cool. I know you guys topped up a pretty well-known design agency out in California for that, right?

MÉLANIE: We worked with Willo Perron & Associates for the design. It's been a really fun and long process. We had so many iterations of it, but we really got to a place that I think made people smile during a time when it's hard to be so joyful and optimistic. We're very happy. 

DANNY: What about the launch? You guys launched right in the middle of a pandemic. Nobody could have predicted that. How did you navigate that as the founder and leader of the company? Did you have to postpone the launch a bit? Did it make you scared that, during a time when people were drinking more alcohol in lockdown, maybe people wouldn't want an alcohol-free drink?

MÉLANIE: Yes, for sure. Beyond that, we also had a lot of operational challenges that we had to push to launch. We were supposed to launch in restaurants only on 1 April. Obviously, all the restaurants in the world closed down two weeks before that. So that was very challenging, and it was also hard to think about how to lead during this time. I'm a first-time founder, but I realised when I called a few people for advice that no one had the answer. The uncertainty at this moment in time was just too big. 

Then we started having a lot of operational challenges. Our bottles got stuck in Italy, our factory started making hand sanitizer, so we couldn't produce, some of our extracts got stuck in the different places where they were coming from… We couldn't develop our second formula, because a specific spice that we'd been sourcing for a long time came from Wuhan. I mean, these were all things you couldn't even invent! When that happens, you can't react to what's out of your control. So what we said is, we have this time, and we want to be very intentional about the way that we use it. Do we feel like this is what we want to do with our lives? Do we feel like this product is needed out in the world? Meanwhile, we were seeing alcohol sales spike, because people were drinking themselves into oblivion, trying to pass time at home, and a lot of people were losing their jobs. We thought, yes, more than ever. We need to be able to bring some joy and some comfort, some disco to people in their homes without booze or without added sugar. So we kept working.

It was one hurdle after the other, and the launch was complicated, because the revised launch date was actually on Blackout Tuesday, during Black Lives Matter protests. When that all started happening, it was a moment of pause. Obviously, that was so much bigger than us, and it's a meaningful conversation that needs to happen. We're in the middle of a historical movement! We did another reset, really thinking about how to build the right foundations for our business, and learn from the people that have come before us. So we shifted the date again to a bit later, but it was hard. A lot of press was only covering black-owned businesses, and rightly so – it was about time. Eventually we just said, you know what, it's OK. It won't be the splashy launch that everyone had dreamed up, and it will be a slow ramp up, but if one by one we can make a difference with customers this summer, that's what we want to do. 

We couldn't get into a warehouse because of Covid, and we couldn't possibly launch in a warehouse that we hadn't been able to train in, so we started making all of the boxes ourselves, and self-distributing. I wrote 1,200 thank you notes in the first week to send to people. I think we built a first cohort of customers that feels really strongly about the brand, and our repeat rate has been enormous. Whatever we can control, we want to be making a difference, and then the pandemic, well, hopefully it goes away very soon.

DANNY: Yeah, hopefully. Has it changed your actual business model, though? Or the way that you want to sell the bottles? You mentioned you wanted to launch in collaboration with some restaurants, but is it now purely DTC? 

MÉLANIE: We are digital first. We're not purely DTC, in that we've also been trying to support the restaurant community. No one is doing well right now, but the hospitality industry is obviously suffering more than most, so we're allowing them to sell Ghia by the bottle. People can go on our stockist page, and they can look at their nearby restaurants. If the restaurant sells groceries or other things – it's a business model that a lot of people have pivoted to – they'll also be able to buy a bottle of Ghia. 

We're selling it to restaurants wholesale, which is a lower price than we would usually sell for on premise. We are also extending the same payment terms that alcohol brands are, even though we are a very small business, and are giving them free product to help them reopen. We're really trying to build these relationships and support them. But, you know, I'm not a digital person. I'm a very offline person, and so I dream of the days when we can just go and sit at a bar and order a Ghia. We're eagerly waiting for that to happen, but we've had to learn, we've had to rush to build up our site. I have to learn about Google Ads now. I have no idea how those work. So we're taking it day by day,

DANNY: How big is your team right now?

MÉLANIE: Three people, including myself.

DANNY: Tiny.

MÉLANIE: It's very tiny. We have a lot of freelancers that are helping us, which is great, and honestly everyone feels like they've given 100% of their energy to the team, so I couldn't be more grateful for them.

DANNY: Did you have enough runway to sustain the delays that you had to go through?

MÉLANIE: We're spending very low and thankfully we've had a good launch. We haven't had to raise more money, but we probably will very soon.

DANNY: You thinking you might go down the VC route?

MÉLANIE: Not for this year.

DANNY: She says very carefully.

MÉLANIE: Yeah, well, there's a lot of interest because it's a growing category, but it's also such an uncertain time to be raising capital. I want to build a very healthy business. I feel so lucky that we didn't have the financial pressure of a VC and having to provide VC returns during the first few months of our launch. We called all of our investors when the pandemic hit for advice. I was able to very transparently tell them all of the issues that we were running into, and the risks of the business, and ask what to do. I feel like that would have been a very different situation if I had a VC to report to and that was expecting 20 times return in X number of years. 

DANNY: How do you guys intend to stand out from the crowd of your competitors? It's not super, super crowded, the specific sector that you're in – millennial-focused low- or no-alcohol beverages – but guys like Haus and Kin, other cool Instagram-friendly brands, do you see them as competition? Or are you going down a different route?

MÉLANIE: Yeah, I think actually quite different. Just because we're non-alcoholic doesn't make us the same. All of these brands are standing out because they have built a lot of personality. Haus has an ABV of 15%, it's grape based, and it originates in Sonoma County. Helena and Woody are incredible. And then, you know, Kin is a lot more functional and it tastes very different. We're a Mediterranean aperitivo. It's very bitter – it doesn't taste like anything else that's really on the market right now. I really see our competition, or I hope our competition is with Campari or Aperol. If you're looking for a bitter, or a drink to enjoy before dinner, and are wanting to have something that is either no alcohol or low ABV, Ghia is for you. I think that's kind of how the decision tree happens. Fingers crossed.

DANNY: You're doing something pretty cool that a lot of other brands are starting to experiment in, which is communicating via text messaging. What is that for? And who would use that? And why is it so effective? Or is it just like a fun thing to do?

MÉLANIE: It's sort of started as a fun thing to do, mainly because we're not digital experts. We wanted to try different things, and that was a very cheap way of communicating. I think we pay $20 per month to have a text message line. It's actually a personal number, it's not even a company number, because we wanted it to have a full set of digits.

DANNY: Is that hooked up to your phone? 

MÉLANIE: Yeah, it is. It's hooked up to two team members’ phones, and so we cover the time zones, but I answer a number of text messages for sure. Mainly we wanted people to be able to get super-speedy customer service; to be able to ask how Ghia tastes, how to make it, and to help them set the mood at home. We'll send you playlists. We spent an inordinate amount of time – I would say an unreasonable amount of time – on our playlists. It's another way of connecting when you're indoors. So far it's been working. I think we've exchanged 1,800 text messages since we launched six weeks ago. 

DANNY: That's a lot of time, though, taken up by your team of three.

MÉLANIE: Yes, definitely.

DANNY: What about some of the big lessons you've learned? You've gone through some major hurdles in the launch that have meant you've had to delay it twice. What have you learned during this period?

MÉLANIE: So much, but I still don't think we have all of the insights yet. We're so new, we're six weeks old. Generally, we had an intuition that customer service was not like a call centre, it was a revenue centre. It was really a key tenet of the business, and a core part of marketing. We've really invested in that, as you mentioned, with the text messaging and the emails. I think that's really made a difference for people in a time when they need to feel supported, and aligned with the brands that they purchase from, as people's purchasing powers have also decreased. We're just incredibly thankful to people who are buying a non-alcoholic aperitif online. Like it's a bit far fetched, if you think about it. 

Everyone who's trusted us since the launch, and had a question or anything, we're really investing the time to make them feel special, because they really are.

DANNY: Have you smoothed out your supply chain issues?

MÉLANIE: Yes, thankfully, very much so.

DANNY: It sounds like it was a bit tough there. I mean, you have a spice coming from Wuhan; you have bottles in Italy.

MÉLANIE: The spice from Wuhan was for another product that is going to come out next year, and we have actually removed it from the formula. In terms of this specific one, everything was more expensive because it was harder to make, and generally there was a lot of uncertainty around when we would be able to make the next batch of our product because of the hand sanitizer. It seems like there's plenty of hand sanitizer in the United States now, so we can make some Ghia again, so we're good and we feel good.

DANNY: What about social media marketing? Do you guys dump a lot of money into Instagram ads and targeted social ads?

MÉLANIE: We have just been testing right now. We're building our audience, so we have not spent a lot of money. I don't personally believe that it's a good way of introducing your brand to people. So we've invested in marketing that is a lot more word-of-mouth-focused. We're rolling out an ambassador programme, we are texting and chatting with customers, and I think it's obviously always a blend of these things. We are prospecting and we are retargeting, but it's very small right now.

DANNY: Do you wish you would have done anything differently?

MÉLANIE: Being so uneducated about digital marketing, I really wish that I had learned a little bit more before about it, but that just comes from my experience. I used to work at Dig Inn in hospitality, and then I worked in retail at Glossier. Having to pivot your first company's business to be entirely digital, that was really scary. I wish that I had been able to learn and build a bit more of that skill set before the launch. Thankfully, we had done a lot of community building offline while we could, so I think that that definitely helped a lot. We had involved hundreds of people in our recipe development, and so we had a number of people that were very much cheering for us when we launched and that was very special.

DANNY: In terms of what's next, you mentioned, you're working on a new product as well right now?

MÉLANIE: I think we will be building some products around the original flavour of Ghia, and we are also exploring the potential of new flavours but nothing confirmed right now. There will definitely be a new product launch next year though, that we're quite excited about.

DANNY: Mélanie Masarin there from Ghia. As mentioned at the top of the show, we've got a brand-new podcast out called Workshop. It's all about useful business advice and insights to help you grow your own brand. This week's episode was all about nailing your brand's tone of voice. Here's a bit of what you might have missed.

AMIRAH JIWA: Your business' tone of voice is essentially its personality, how it sounds to people across all of your comms and messaging. It determines how you speak to customers online, the messaging on your packaging, or in your products, UX, and all your captions on social media. A distinctive tone of voice that's deployed consistently helps reinforce all other aspects of your brand, and it helps you build an emotional connection with your customers. I spoke to two communications managers, one a massive company and the other a small startup that recently launched on Kickstarter. They both emphasised a successful brand voice is actually one that sounds human.

‘It's always really important when you first set out to build that brand voice, that you think about it as a human. What companies can get wrong when they're building a brand voice for the very first time, is thinking that it's a non human voice.

‘You know you see a nice brand once, are you going to remember it tomorrow? No, but if you think about your own personal life, do you remember that really compelling conversation you've had? Yes. Do you then tell that story to a friend? Yes, probably. So I think words and conversations for us as humans are so important, and for a brand to think like a human. It's run by humans, so why shouldn't it think like humans and behave like humans?’

DANNY: You can search for Courier Workshop on your favourite podcast player to subscribe, or just head to our website couriermedia.co. And that's it for this week. As always, if you've got any questions or feedback about anything at all, you can reach me at daniel@couriermedia.co. I'm Daniel Giacopelli. The Courier Weekly is back again next week.

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