“What’s all the Buzz? How BuzzBallz is quickly capturing the RTD cocktail market”
Ready for RTD (and ready-to-go) cocktails? There’s plenty of buzz about the rapidly growing market…but who’ll be the “winners”, with brands and cocktails that truly stick in the marketplace? I’d say it’s the ones who are able to best serve relevant occasions while winning share of heart.
We’re here with Merrilee Kick, founder and president of Southern Champion, the makers of BuzzBallz to talk about just that! Her BuzzBallz are quickly taking the market by storm, and we’re excited to hear how they got here and where they’re going!
And if you’d like a sample, and/or hear more – join us at eBev in just 2 weeks in Las Vegas!
Merrilee, thanks so much for joining us today!
Merrilee, many successful entrepreneurs have started with a story much like yours – leaving an existing career behind to pursue a great idea. In this case, I always want to know: What motivated you take the plunge? What gave you the courage to do this in what has historically been a male dominated industry?…And when there were challenges (as I’m sure there were), what kept you “in the game”, as my friend Dennis O’Malley would say?
In my case, I was a high school teacher with 2 teenage boys to raise, and I was about to get a divorce. I had to make some money or else I feared living under a bridge somewhere with no money. It’s not the lifestyle I wanted, so I was also getting my MBA to better myself. One day, while grading student’s papers by the pool and having a cocktail (yea teachers drink!) I thought that I probably shouldn’t have a glass container out by the pool. I had a round snowball candle next to me, and I thought that it would be pretty cool to have a round ball shaped party ball.
Then the more I thought about it, I thought if I could make a round ball out of plastic that was pool/beach safe that would be neat. And if I could make it strong enough to give me a little buzz, but not so much liquid that would fill me up or make me have to run to the bathroom all the time, that would be good. Then I took it further into making them single serve, buy them “by the ball” mix and match type of thing…. that would be good too. I didn’t really know where I was going with it, but I used it as my MBA thesis project, developed the business plan, and then decided it was something I should try to do. I didn’t have any money, and yes, I was told NO by every bank, and every distributor.
So in my case, I had to make money, and I thought – what makes money in good times and bad? Drugs? Sex? Booze? Two are illegal, so I chose booze, and here we are 9 years later.
What a great story – and I’m sure our friends at Women of the Vine & Spirits are incredibly impressed by your path and would love to see you continue to succeed!
Thank you – there are a lot of really awesome Women based organizations out there, I belong to C200, Women’s President’s Organization, EY Organizations and Women of the Vine & Spirits…. there are a lot of groups. The cause is worthy. But bottom ilne, it doesn’t matter if you are a girl or boy, or your organizations…. it is about YOUR character, and your ability to get things done, and make a profit. It is constant work, dedication, passion, and you have to have a solid skill level too. Then, you need a stellar team.
Like many of us in the industry, it sounds like you saw great opportunity in pursuing the market for RTD cocktails. What made you skip right over basic packaging (and naming), and go right for something like BuzzBallz?
Ballz that get you Buzzed! It’s a joke but in marketing it is very important for people to remember your brand name. The shape is a ball, the content is a buzz, so the brand name BuzzBallz fit, and is very rememberable. The colors are part of the branding as well – we made the colors match what you’d think the contents would be, so red for strawberry daiqueri, green for margarita, yellow for lemon… I tried to get some of the American plastic manufacturers to help me in my prototype but they all said I was too small of business for them, and they were not interested. So I went to China, found a producer, and they made my product for a couple of years. Then I went to China to figure out how to do it myself. Had some machinery made, and then now I make the plastic containers myself.
When you are small, you have to do a LOT of things by yourself because you cannot afford to have someone else do it, and you also do not have the TIME to wait while they prioritize you behind their bigger orders. So, as a result, we are vertically integrated now, make our own packaging, and screen print the containers, fill/batch it, and then package and ship it to Distributors.
Who would you define as the target market for BuzzBallz, and in what ways has this brand/position helped you to reach them?
The target market (I thought) would be college kids binge drinking, but that is not the case. It’s overwhelmingly women are 63% of our buyers, and they’re all ages! All ethnicities. I think the portability of the drinks is critical, they are cute little things, and they are tasty as well. They’re made with juice and booze, and they are not a flavored malt beverage like so many products on the market. They’re packaged in a unique container, and they can see inside the container most of the time. They like that they can buy them by the ball, not having to buy a 4 or 6 pack. They can mix and match their favorites.
It’s interesting. Adult Beverages are a 53 billion dollar industry. Of that, 12% is Spirits; 64% is Beer, 22% is Wine, and 1% is RTDs (Ready-To-Drink cocktails). I’m in the 1% piece, and this category is outpacing all the other categories. RTDs are growing at 20% year over year. It’s incredible. Beer is mostly declining – the part that is growing is craft beer only. Of that 1% market share, BuzzBallz family of ready to drink cocktails is the market leader in the USA with a whopping 23% of that category owned by us. We are growing at 83% year over year in this category as compared to last year, beating out major brands like Jose Cuervo, Malibu, Kahlua, ChiChis, Club Cocktails, etc. It’s pretty amazing growth.
I know BullzBallz does great work in social media across the various platforms. And I’ve read that you folks like to swag with the best of them (and that you keep a light, sexy, tongue-in-cheek tone). Have you found any particular formula results in the greatest UGC creation? Sending swag, personal engagement…both?
We have an awesome marketing team. They have really funny swag ideas, things that are useful and fun, and there is plenty that gets to tradeshows, tastings, or events we help sponsor. Social media has really ramped up this last year, and we have made major investments in getting really good people that know what they are doing in not only social media, but marketing planning, and events. Our attention to detail and beautiful packaging designs is award worthy! Our swag is usually hilariously funny, I remember one spring break we handed out custom BuzzBallz Condoms with funny sayings on them for the college students (over 21 years old). We give out Cell Phone swag, glasses, pens, sunglasses, you name it.
But I do not think one thing is better than the other, it all just depends on the context and audience.
Finally, I see you’ve already begun to innovate on your packaging AND what’s in the bottle. You’ve now got the BuzzBallz Biggie, BuzzBallz Chillers (wine based), and BuzzTallz (classic wine cocktails). Are you seeing the broadening of consumers demographics (as I suspect was intended) by adding wine-based lines to the brand? And if so, what does that look like?
Yes, we created the small BuzzBallz, then the BIGGIES (which are about 1.75Liters and 3 Liters) and then now we have created the BuzzTallz, which are slim-can plastic containers that we created. We make those too. They have a little less alcohol in them and we designed them for the Chain Stores. We dominate in the independent stores, but the chains had a hard time merchandising our product. Because BuzzBallz were small, the employees were stealing them and drinking them on break in the bathroom – a problem for the chain and us.
So we wanted to make something especially for them, single serve or 4 pack options, wine or spirit options, in a slimcan that they could merchandise better. The BIGGIES are fun, and are a giant party ball.
I think there is a whole wide world of people that have never heard of BuzzBallz, and so there is just MORE demographic we could sell our product to, and if they don’t see it while grocery shopping, they won’t buy it. Now is our opportunity to at least show it to them, and see if they will take a chance on buying something new. Once they taste it, they’ll be hooked. They taste great!
Merrilee, thank you so much for sharing your incredible story with us today. We wish you continued success with your company and are so excited to meet your team at eBev in Las Vegas in just 2weeks.
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