How Georgian Bay plans to get back in the spotlight

The brand's Gin Smash and Vodka Smash helped spark the RTD boom in Canada. Now it's planning to grow by innovating again.

Georgian Bay Spirit Co

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When Denzil Wadds and Tim Keenleyside launched Georgian Bay Spirit Co. in 2013, the ready-to-drink bev alcohol space was not what it is today.

The duo started out making craft gin and vodka. But in 2016, in what was then a rare move for a spirits company, it entered the craft cocktails-in-a-can space with the launch of Gin Smash and Vodka Smash, helping to kick-start a category that has grown increasingly crowded with global behemoth-backed labels as well as younger craft startups.

The launch of Gin Smash helped propel the Collingwood-based distillery into the spotlight, says Wadds. In 2016, the brand projected selling 16,000 cases of Smash. It sold 72,000 cases that year.

Johnheadshot“I could have sold 172,000,” says Wadds. “We were out of stock every weekend. It was the most-requested product at the LCBO’s call center.”

Now the tenth-largest RTD brand in Canada – having sold nearly 50 million cans of Smash to date – the company is making plans for future growth, hiring Cristina Mitchell as a head of sales, which will free up head of marketing John Robinson (pictured left), a former AB-InBev and Diageo marketer, to focus on innovation and brand building.

Robinson has run both the marketing and sales department for the last three years. But the company’s growth necessitated a greater investment in talent, including three additional positions it’s looking to fill in the marketing department.

Mitchell’s arrival will allow Robinson to “step away from that [sales] role and dig his teeth into the marketing role,” he says. “He’s also running the innovation team, which as you know, in this business, if you’re not innovating, you’re dead.”

Georgian Bay George Amphibious CarInnovation will be one of the future growth drivers at the Georgian Bay Spirit Co., says Wadds. In addition to launching new flavours, its goal is to create new categories of products. For example, it recently launched Peach and Citrus Half Smash, drinks containing only 2.5% alcohol, with the goal of tapping into growing demand for low-alcohol and alcohol-free options.

Beyond innovation, the company sees a “ton of potential” in Western Canada, where consumers share an affinity for cottage country and the outdoors – and where the brand holds under 1% share of volume, compared to roughly 5% in Ontario. It also has plans to push further into the larger U.S. market, where it has been taking a conservative approach to growing sales and share, according to Wadds.

“We anticipate doubling the size of the company in the next couple of years, for sure, both from a volume perspective and a revenue perspective,” he says. “But I don’t have any specific target. We want to build a wicked company. It’s a lifestyle company. We may end up making t-shirts one day; we might make potato chips.”

Achieving that growth will require a greater investment in marketing. Until now, Robinson says the brand has taken a more “functional approach” focused on sales generation. But with his focus now exclusively on marketing, he says there are plans for more above-the-line work and integrated marketing campaigns.

“We’ve always been able to punch above our weight,” he says. “But Georgian Bay as a geographic reference point doesn’t actually translate very far. If you go to Ottawa, you go to Windsor, suddenly, Georgian Bay becomes this mythical thing that maybe they’ve seen on a map or maybe it’s known as the sixth Great Lake. So, from day one, we’ve never relied on Georgian Bay as a name. It’s been more about this idea of a lifestyle.”

Georgian Bay Spirit of the Air Float PlanePart of its marketing strategy will focus on leveraging platforms and properties that are unique to the brand, such as a branded float plane (dudded “The Spirit of the Air”). Once it can hire a brand manager, digital manager and events and sponsorship lead, it will also work to build a stronger online community and following – which it simply hasn’t had the bandwidth to do in the past.

And, as it expands, it will continue to think about how to “act and be local in a local environment,” Robinson says. For example, it remains mindful of the difference between consumer occasions in eastern and western Canada, and leans into messaging that speaks to those local audiences in its communications.

Georgian Bay Spirit Co. doesn’t work directly with a creative or media agency. Instead, it typically works with freelancers, though Robinson would like to build the capabilities needed to handle the bulk of the work internally.