Boeing Could Learn Something From Donald Trump and Sidney Frank

Making a good product isn't enough anymore, it's all about the branding. Just ask President Trump.

Boeing Could Learn Something From Donald Trump and Sidney Frank
The 737 MAX, Donald Trump and Grey Goose Vodka Source: Wikimedia Commons

On April 15, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to describe how he would solve Boeing's problem with its 737 MAX airplanes. The president tweeted:

This got me thinking about how other companies have used branding to great success.

The case of Sidney Frank

Consider the case of Sidney Frank. Frank was born in 1919 to a poor family in Montville, Connecticut. In 1938, he entered Brown University, but Frank only had enough money for one year's tuition, and he was forced to drop out. Frank did, however, acquire something worthwhile during that year – a wealthy wife. Louise Rosenstiel was the daughter of Lewis Rosenstiel, who was the founder of Schenley Industries, one of America's largest liquor distillers and importers of spirits.

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Frank went to work for Schenley, and eventually rose to the position of president, but following Louise's death in 1973, Frank left and started his own company, the Sidney Frank Importing Company.

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A German "Digestif" Blows Up

The new company was less than a success, and Frank realized that he needed to find out what people were drinking in New York City's bars. At a bar in Yorkville, NY, he watched German immigrants downing a foul-tasting (in my opinion, you may beg to differ), 70-proof liqueur from Germany called Jagermeister. On a hunch, Frank secured the U.S. import rights and then ... nothing happened for ten long years.

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Jagermeister
Jagermeister
"If Sidney Frank can make that drink synonymous with 'party' – which he has – he can pretty much do anything."

Suddenly, in 1985, college students in the southern U.S. began downing Jagermeister, and Sidney Frank leaped into action. To hand out samples of the drink, he created a team of good-looking women called the "Jagerettes", and he erected billboards advertising Jagermeister with the slogan, "SO SMOOTH". Sales boomed.

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In a New York Magazine article, a liquor industry analyst at Liquid Intelligence named Ted Wright was quoted as saying of Jagermeister:

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"It's a liqueur with an unpronounceable name, it's drunk by older, blue-collar Germans as an after-dinner digestive aid. It's a drink that on a good day is an acquired taste. If Sidney Frank can make that drink synonymous with 'party' – which he has – he can pretty much do anything."

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Frank Takes On Absolut

Fast forward to 1996. Sidney Frank is now remarried, and he conducts most of his company's business while  lying in bed and wearing pajamas. However, when he wasn't in bed, Frank noticed that young people were lapping up a premium brand of vodka called Absolut, which was being sold at an outrageously high price.

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Rather than undercutting Absolut, Frank decided to create a new vodka that would cost even more than Absolut. Frank had noticed while on a trip to France that many French cognac distillers had been forced out of business due to falling demand. Frank convinced those distillers to turn their cognac distilleries into vodka distilleries.

"It's all about brand differentiation. If you're going to charge twice as much for a vodka, you need to give people a reason."

And, he used the French location to his advantage, comparing it to Russia or Scandinavia, where most vodkas were distilled, Frank said: "People are always looking for something new. It's all about brand differentiation. If you're going to charge twice as much for a vodka, you need to give people a reason."

Wright from Liquid Intelligence was quoted in the New York Magazine article as saying:

"Nietzsche explains that human beings are looking for the 'why' in their lives. ... we refer to this 'why' as the 'Great Story'. The Great Story must be enticing, memorable, easily repeatable and about what you want your brand to be about."

Frank bade that the Grey Goose story be about:
* Coming from France, which is perceived as a place having the best luxury goods
* Being crafted by French 'vodka artisans', not considering the fact that the week before they had been cognac artisans
* Using water from pristine French springs that is filtered through 'Champagne limestone' (I did a Google search for Champagne limestone and it only turned up Champagne-colored floor tiles and high-end tile lines
* Having a distinctive, carefully-designed bottle which is made of smoked glass and shows the silhouette of flying geese; Frank handed out to bars big 1.75-liter bottles that were displayed behind the bar and looked great
* Being shipped in wood crates just like fine wines, and not in cardboard boxes, which caught the eye of bartenders and reinforced the brand's high quality.

The perception became: since Grey Goose costs waaaay more than other vodkas, it must be better. Wright of Liquid Intelligence again quoted in the New York Magazine article weighed in:

"... you're talking about a grain-neutral spirit. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) definition is pretty narrow. At an elemental level, there is no difference [between Grey Goose and cheaper vodkas]. And anyway, you can't possibly taste it when it's in a Cosmopolitan. Grey Goose is about quality because Sidney Frank said it was about quality."

"Grey Goose is about quality because Sidney Frank said it was about quality."

Not only did Sidney Frank say it was about quality, he said it in all the right places. Frank placed ads for the vodka in the Wall Street Journal, which is read by America's movers and shakers. He used event marketing to get Grey Goose into the hottest U.S. nightclubs, and into the hands of the hottest people. This is called "influencing the influencers." In the classic marketing flowchart:
Influencers talk to Early Adopters, who talk to the Early Majority, who talk to the Late Majority, who talk to the Laggards.

The "momager"

On April 15, 2019, in an interview on the "CBS Sunday Morning" TV program, "momager" Kris Jenner, head of Kardashian/Jenner clan, revealed how much her social influencer daughters make for posting ads on their social media feeds.

"I mean, it's definitely six figures. And sometimes, if it's [Kim Kardashian], or if it's [Kylie Jenner], it depends on what it really is." "My daughters are constantly getting offers to post something for a company, or a brand, on social media. So they're – they have a fee for a post, or a fee for a story, a fee for Facebook, a fee for – you know – they have a fee schedule."

Jenner added that the price goes up "if it's something that you’re going to drink, or ingest, or put on your body."

Frank ultimately won his battle with Absolut when the characters on American TV show "Sex and the City" began requesting Grey Goose for their Cosmopolitans.

We work so hard to buy nice things. -- Cashier at a Dollar Tree store

What is a "nice thing?" Is it real or is it a marketing concept? For consumers, luxury means demanding the absolute highest quality because you can tell the difference. Cornell University economics professor Robert Frank (no relation to Sidney) describes an "expenditure cascade" where we all spend more in an effort to keep up with whoever is above us by one rung on a ladder.

Like all good ideas, Sidney Frank's have been appropriated. Absolut launched a new "superpremium" vodka called "Level", while at the same time, Stolichnaya launched it's new superpremium "Elit", which retails for $60 a bottle. Those names aren't accidental - "Level" and "Elit", as in, "Are you on this level?" Are you "elite?"

As for Sidney Frank, in 2004, he sold Grey Goose to Bacardi for $2 billion. He handed out bonuses exceeding $100,000 to each of the employees of Sidney Frank Importing, and he made a $120 million donation to Brown University so that other poor students like he had been wouldn't have to drop out for financial reasons. It is the single largest contribution in Brown's history and Brown University named its new Life Sciences building after Sidney Frank.

In October 2005, Frank donated £500,000 and a statue by sculptor Stephen Kettle to the Bletchley Park Trust to fund a new Science Center dedicated to code breaker Alan Turing. As a great admirer of British aircraft designer R. J. Mitchell, who designed the famous Spitfire, Frank commissioned a statue of Mitchell and funded a website dedicated to Mitchell's life: "RJ Mitchell - a life in aviation."

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