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Dancing the rumba

By Fiona Rotherham

Friday 23rd June 2006

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42 Below founder Geoff Ross was on holiday in Tahiti when he decided to try a new drink, as you do. He liked the spicy taste of the locally made dark rum so much he decided it was too good just to be sitting in Tahiti and offered to help the manufacturer take it to the world.

Similarly, when he was in Fiji he discovered a white rum made at a little still up in the hills. He reckoned 42 Below couldn't make a white rum that tasted better but what it could do well is sell that liquor worldwide.

Tahiti Dark rum is launching June 1 in both full-strength and ready-to-drink forms while the white rum - 7 Tiki - will follow in August.

Leveraging the brand by distributing other premium liquor and moving into the ready-to-drink market (worth more than A$2 billion in retail sales in Australia alone) are all ways to try to maintain the seven-year-old company's phenomenal growth. 42 Below won the number-one spot in the Fast50 with revenue growth of 2,116% over a three-year period (2003-2005). The listed company is yet to turn a profit because the strategy is one of growth, growth and more growth, rather than paying out dividends.

Ross's vision has always been to create a global brand and the way he tried to make that less daunting for his sales team was the mantra of selling their vodka (and gin for the last two years) into the best bars in the best cities worldwide.

Company spokesperson Angela Barnett, who until recently was working out of New York, says that vision has been achieved. Exports account for 60% of production and the company is now selling into 16 countries including those best cities - London, Paris, New York and the like. And the company's even confident of selling vodka into Russia by July; the Russian Minister of Vodka has already had a shot or two and apparently given 42 Below vodka the thumbs up.

The big push has been into the US, Barnett says, and 50% of the vodka now goes there. "When we first went there two years ago we were knocking on distributors' doors saying, 'please take us'. A year later we had people knocking on doors and they said 'come back when you are larger'. Now we've had one of the largest distributors [Charmer Distribution] knock on our door saying 'we've been watching you and like what you're doing' - that with little marketing money we've created a brand people are talking about."

42 Below has also sold its product into Colombia despite getting a severe ticking off by the Colombian Embassy over an advertising poster that alluded to pure, white driven snow coming from Colombia. "We apologised for that and graffitied the posters but now our guys are selling 42 Below there. These things go around in circles," Barnett says.

Initially the brand grew in New Zealand because people liked its cheeky nature and the humour of its advertising but the company worried whether that humour would translate in other countries. "We were confident but we weren't sure that we could take that brand and that it would apply in any country around the world and what we have discovered is we can do that ... the people that like 42 Below, there are people like that in every country. They respect a company that goes against the grain a little bit in its branding," Barnett says.

The company scored with a viral marketing campaign that started a few months ago with an email of five 42 Below advertise-ments made for the London market. Barnett has been tracking the email's progress and says it's done the rounds in London, Europe, the US and Australia.

That sort of free advertising is worth its weight in gold. Ironically, the ad campaign hasn't run in London yet because the company didn't have the money to do so; it has been saving up and hopes to run it this year. "This email is already doing the job for us. Probably if we'd tried to push that email out ourselves it might not have had legs. The fact that it came from someone else adds to the magic."

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