Tito’s Right-Hand Woman

In a male-dominated industry, Tito’s VP of Brand Marketing Nicole Portwood has made a name for herself. She’s worked in spirits marketing for more than 15 years, on brands like Jack Daniel’s, Grey Goose and Bombay Sapphire before coming to Fifth Generation in Austin, Texas. I recently spoke to Nicole about what it’s like to work with a maverick like Tito, as well as her experience in the beverage alcohol industry.

Beverage Wholesaler: You’ve had a unique route to the beverage alcohol industry. How did you first get involved with spirits?

Nicole Portwood: My educational background is in theater and philosophy. But that serves me very well – philosophy opens you up to creative thinking and theater provides an understanding of human motivation. As a brand marketer that’s what we need, since it helps us understand what makes people tick, what makes them excited and what makes them purchase.

I was initially recruited by an agency to work on Brown-Forman and I just fell in love with the industry. There’s something so social and fun about it. Even when the agency wanted to rotate me to a different brand, I said no because I couldn’t imagine working in another industry. I went to work for another firm on Grey Goose when it was with Sidney Frank, and stayed on through the Bacardi transition.

When I moved to Austin part-time and was still working out of New York, Tito found me. What put him over the edge to hire me is when he found out I own and operate a theater in Austin with a childhood friend, so he knew I had interests outside the business – that I was a real person with real passion. That’s true of almost everyone who works for this company; they’re the most passionate, engaged, well-rounded people I know.

BW: How did your background prepare you to work with a non-traditional boss like Tito Beveridge?

NP: He’s a visionary. Some people find having a leader who’s not into the tactical stuff frustrating. But he’s empowered the people in this company to realize his vision using their own talent, which is a special thing to me. In other companies, you’re beholden to spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations. While we’re certainly a business and need to sell cases, his approach to inspiring people is unique – he’s a big part of why we’re so passionate and loyal to this day.

BW: Is it the culture that really differentiates Fifth Generation from some other suppliers you’ve worked with?

NP: Absolutely. And it comes down to that independent, scrappy spirit. We’re a single brand company – we only make one thing, so it’s not like we can divert profits or take marketing support from something else, or push distribution for one brand off the success of another. As a marketer, it keeps me honest. I’m not going back and forth from one brand perspective to another. Being a private company is also part of that differentiation. We don’t have shareholders and Boards of Directors. We have one man who trusts the leaders he’s put in place.

BW: In this industry where the top ten brands rarely changes from year to year, how have you managed to grow the brand so quickly?

NP: The growth trajectory we’ve had is both a challenge and an opportunity that excites me every day. It’s forced me to rethink how we manage the business and it’s not something I’ve experienced before. There aren’t usually huge variances in sales for spirits brands – a few percent from year to year is small from a major supplier’s perspective. We went from a small brand barely available outside Texas to a fully distributed, national brand available in 100 countries, in a span of seven years.

The challenge has been to scale our brand voice and the one-to-one connections we have with our fans. It was simpler to accomplish when there were fewer of them, and we need to retain those human connections because that’s what made us successful.

As we’ve grown, it’s my responsibility to honor the people who have been cheering us on. Tito’s energy and charisma is what began the word-of-mouth engine and created our evangelists. They’re the ones who buy a cocktail or a bottle off the shelf, so we need to honor them, provide value for them and delight them.

BW: Tito’s hasn’t hit the wall the other craft spirit and beer brands have, when they lose fans as they scale. Fighting off acquisition offers certainly helps that, but what do you attribute it to?

NP: A big part of that is the non-profit work that we do, which is a huge initiative for the company. We have an entire division devoted to philanthropy and we’re doing things to make our communities better. We don’t just write checks to national non-profits, we’re also doing smaller, community-based projects. We’re trying to meet people and be a resource for them in their mission to make the world a better place.

BW: What programs and relationships have you developed to work with the middle tier as the brand grows?

NP: We’re definitely not a hands-off suppliers. We work with distributors on program development and provide tools and solutions so they can stay on brand message. We want to meet them in the field and coalesce our efforts with regional and national programming. We do collaborative planning on advertising, which is a rarity among spirit brands. We respect the perspective of local teams, because sitting here in Austin, it’s tough to understand what will resonate culturally with people in different markets. That’s where our distributors can lend expertise.

BW: What do you expect for the brand in the next few years?

NP: Continued growth. We’re not showing any signs of stopping, and I expect we’ll continue to fill distribution gaps. They’re shrinking, but they’re still there. We’ll also see our multiple size distribution grow, as we build the business story to sell facings on all sizes to retail locations.

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