Join Founder and CEO of ForceBrands and PINATA Josh Wand in 10-minute conversations with leaders across the consumer brand universe. The series of fireside-like chats, originally shared on his LinkedIn, feature some of the industry’s most game-changing thought leaders.
Watch the video to catch up with beverage industry executive Jeff Popkin. Read the full interview transcribed below.
Josh Wand: I believe it’s been seven, eight years since we met. It might be a little bit longer.
Jeff Popkin: We met in 2011.
JW: Holy smokes, so it was 2011? That’s the year?
JP: How come I remember that and you don’t? This is such a one-way love affair.
JW: I remember when we met, you had flown into town and we just instantly kind of hit it off. And one of the things that I was so enamored by was just your approach to life, your style of leadership, the way you think about humans first, and I really connect with thought leaders who lead with their heart first, and who really care about the human beings that they work with. And I’d love to hear a little bit more about what it was like when you decided to take on this role to build the Mast-Jägermeister platform in the U.S. Tell me a little bit about like, how you went about doing that and doing it with such integrity.
JP: Listen, one of the reasons I love you is you give me too many compliments, you know, but honestly, it’s one of those things that I’ve had the really good fortune, I’d say, I always say, I’d rather be lucky than good. You know, I’ve had the really good fortune to work with brands that I can truly fall in love with, you know that really speak to you and that’s one of the beautiful things about the beverage business is you really can fall in love with your work. And people, you know I say it all the time, I really believe this, you know if you can fall in love with your work and with the brands that you’re working on, that’s where it all starts. But we’re really not in the beverage business. We’re in the people business, you know, because people are where the magic happens, where you really can bring things to life. And for me and for my journey in kind of the beverage space, it starts with falling in love with the brand you’re working with and it’s funny you mentioned Jägermeister, as I was looking at the Jägermeister openings, the Sidney Frank Importing Company, I remember the recruiter calling me and saying, and it was another recruiter, unfortunately.
It wasn’t ForceBrands. It was another recruiter with Spencer Stuart who called me and said, we got this thing at Sidney Frank, you know, we think you should look at it and I was just in the throes of accepting a cannabis position with a great group. A great outfit that’s still doing really well in the cannabis space. And I was just about to accept that job and they came in and I said, man, Sidney Frank Importing Company, I don’t know anything about importing. I’ve never worked in the spirits business. They said, well, the lead brand is Jägermeister and I was like, Jägermeister? And truly, as you know, back in college at University of Texas at Arlington, I drank Jägermeister. I love the brand. I’ve always loved the brand. I’ve been intrigued by it. It’s just one of those things that it is a brand was so much character. So I engaged immediately, like, What’s the story on Jägermeister? Where’s that brand been? What’s going on? And so I wound up meeting with the global CEO Micahel Volke, who’s a great guy, really a heartful guy, and then I met the family. It’s a family-owned company, third generation. Really heart forward, you know, I had just come off a Red Bull experience where you know Red Bull, great brand. I’m actually sitting here drinking a sugar-free Red Bull, trying to channel my Josh Wand energy, I gotta get my energy level up.
JW: You got plenty of that.
JP: So the Red Bull experience, the brand is amazing. But, you know, the Austrians were a little bit more, less heartful I think. I don’t mean that to be a criticism, just, you know, just a little colder than I’m accustomed to. And so when I went to meet the Jägermeister family, I kind of gave him my speech of hey look, if you’re looking for, you know, German culture in the U.S. hire a German, but if you’re looking for American culture steeped in German history, and German heritage, man I can get that done for you. I love this brand. I love everything about it. And they were very much heart forward and they continue to be you know, five and a half years later they’re still you know, full a heart. Full of heart for the people, full of heart for the brand. But the story of Jägermeister, you know, to me is unique. It’s a German liqueur and it competes in the liqueur space in the U.S., but it hardly acts like a liqueur. You know, liqueurs are like Bailey’s and, you know, Disaronno and great brands, but they’re not like really party brands like Jägermeister. Jägermeister’s a nightlife party brand. So when I first came into Sidney Frank, you know, such an iconic company, Grey Goose story, all this stuff, you know, such incredible history of success. It’s a little intimidating. I did my normal thing of people-first, of coming in and getting to know the people looking into their eyes and understanding what their journey’s been, which is what I have such a passion for because I really believe people fit, you know. It’s your job as a leader to figure out where they fit.
JW: Tell me a little bit more about this, you know, pulling a brand like Jägermeister, which was a staple in the Sidney Frank company with Grey Goose with Gekkeikan Sake, with JC, they had this whole portfolio and then all of a sudden you take this Jägermeister, a massive global brand, but probably declining in the U.S. a little bit and then you say, We’re going to stand up this whole new business, and we’re gonna maintain the integrity of what’s already been created. We’re gonna breathe life into that. We’re gonna do partnerships with the NBA, and we’re going to come up with this whole new campaign. But then, while we’re doing that, and we’re babysitting that brand, and making sure it comes to life, we also have to create this hyper-growth machine in partner with one of the most famous celebrities in the world, which turned out to be in partnership with Kenny Austin the fastest-growing tequila in the history of tequilas, correct?
JP: That is correct. That is correct.
JW: So when you’re doing that and you have this kind of culture from Austrian Jäger, and then you’re saying but wait a minute, we’re gonna go faster than anyone else has gone in craft, in any new spirits launch. How do you look at culture there? How do you think about the people that were there before that you bring on board and then the type of psyche or the type of personalities you need to say, grow, grow, grow, grow, grow, this is all about scale, during the pandemic? You did all of this with Teremana basically when the world was shut down for a year. I want to hear a little bit more about how you lead with growth for new, maintenance and growth for old, and how do you keep everyone connected? Because that is a fast-moving ship. And it’s a big one, too.
JP: The first three and a half years, exclusively focused on Jägermeister and the people, getting the people right. There are so many people inside of Sidney Frank, so many talented people, legacy Sidney Frank people that really wanted to be a part of the future. And also assessing like where can we bring in some new thinking, some fresh thinking. And we really, you know, looking at our marketing when I first came in, it was kind of ice cold shots for Jägermeister, so we wanted to go with more always-on type media and get Jägermeister back out there in the mainstream and least build the platform to be able to tell the story of Jägermeister. It’s a beautiful story. And I mean, how many spirits bottles have a cross on them? How many spirits bottles, you look at the old backstory of Jägermeister, it’s incredible. And it’s a pretty romantic story, I think from my perspective, at least, and how we tell that story and how we get it out for Jägermeister is what leads us back to growth because there has been a decline for Jägermeister. The peak, 2008, when Jäger bombs were flying and Jägermeister was crushing it. Then the whole Four Loko thing happened with alcohol and beverage consumption, or in caffeine. So you had to pump the brakes. I was actually at Red Bull at that time. It was a tap the brakes moment, so that was some headwind for the Jägermeister brand. But the brand never really put roots down, Josh. I mean, Jägermeister was just kind of, it went to glory in the U.S. as kind of a party brand under the genius of Sidney Frank and cold equipment. So we wanted to really introduce the brand that 56 natural botanicals that make up this brand, the cold macerated one-year oak barrel, you know, with German oak barrels, aging, so this brand has so much quality in German perfection, truly, like German perfection built into the liquid of Jägermeister that makes it such a beautiful brand and we wanted to tell that story.
So we’ve built a marketing platform, which is kind of NHL, official shot of the NHL, which is always on so we’re always communicating to consumers. And then we’re kind of right now building out some super exciting stuff, which I wish I could talk about. We can talk a little bit, we’ve partnered with NIVA (National Independent Venue Association), made $1,000,056 donation to NIVA and we’ve partnered with them and we’ve signed some amplification. We’ve signed a really authentic, much like Jägermeister, a really authentic and cool celebrity who’s going to help us amplify that in the music space. And that campaign is coming soon. And that’s kind of our really purpose-driven content of man, if you want to be a part of what post-COVID looks like, you know with the music scene opening up and all these venues that have been shut down for so long and struggling, then come with us on that journey. Those are the goosebump moments in life that we want to unleash. I think it’s going to be a boomtown post-COVID.