The pirate on the inside: in conversation with Our/Vodka's Åsa Caap

Our/Vodka is looking to solve the age old problem of how a business with global ambitions creates genuine meaning and relevance at a local level. Åsa Caap is CEO and co-founder of Our/Vodka, a business operating as pirate within the navy that is Pernod Ricard. We chat with Åsa about the insights that led to the idea, being the outsiders on the inside, and their similarities with Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer.

It’s early days, but how is the business doing?

We have five distilleries up and running, and we have three more currently being built. We have Berlin, Amsterdam and London, Detroit and Los Angeles, and we are working on New York, Miami and Houston. Berlin has been open for three years, and we broke even there this year, which is according to plan. So we are doing really well there, which is a good indicator for us, and then we are just about started in all the other cities. Everything is more or less happening the way that we hoped.

Take us back to the genesis of the idea?

I was working as Global Innovation Director for Absolut. It’s fantastic because you work with the best trend forecasters there is, and you get exposed to all these emerging trends - it’s like a candy store for somebody like me. The key trend at the time, six years ago, was the local and craft movement. This trend was emerging and the signs were it was coming on strong. For a brand like Absolut, which is produced in a little village here in Sweden but also exported as a big global brand, it wasn’t a trend we could delve into or develop ideas for. We would have to put all the local insights aside and work on other areas.

That must have been quite frustrating. What gave you the encouragement to persevere?

I felt frustrated on two levels, firstly because an idea of trying to do something both global and local spoke to me as a person, but also because it became apparent that it was a trend that wasn’t going away. There were local brands of course, and the craft movement was becoming huge, especially in the US, but there was nothing that was interconnected globally. The global brands that had attempted to tap into the trend would often go wrong by neglecting the local part, and that is the tricky part. The assumption of traditional global brand building was also that people are supposed to perceive the brand the same way wherever in the world it is experienced, but we wanted to do something different.

What was your solution? What was the model you proposed for Our/Vodka?

The model for Our/Vodka was for us the parent company to make the capital investment, build the distilleries and enable the sharing of knowledge, but then we would make regional partnerships with local entrepreneurs who would run the distilleries in each city for us. We would then share the profits with them so they are rewarded for their own investment of time and labour.

I became obsessed that no one was doing this and I couldn’t get rid of the idea.

I showed it to my boss, who thought it was a great idea, but told me it wasn’t applicable for Absolut and it wasn’t in my role to develop new brands. I then became obsessed by the fact that no one was doing this and I couldn’t get rid of the idea. I started working on the project in my free time and then presented it to two other entrepreneurs and they became as excited about the project as I was so we began working on it together from my house, in our free time. I had no money to pay them, but it was just the joy, we had the feeling of finding treasure and we couldn’t let go. It was just passion driven, completely.

Did you consider setting it up on your own? How did Our/Vodka end up in the Pernod Ricard portfolio?

We found investors who were willing to invest in Our/Vodka, but I felt it was right to first give Pernod Ricard the opportunity to invest. If it wasn’t for Pernod Ricard I would never have been exposed to all this trend material in the first place. It took two years to convince them of the idea, but then it’s a complex business and building distilleries is not something you learn overnight. The legal aspects of producing and selling alcohol are also complicated, so there were huge benefits to having access to Pernod Ricard and their expertise in certain areas.

How have you looked to create an Our/Vodka identity and culture inside Pernod Ricard?

We have our own corner of the building here, and we've really made it our own. Creating this space that looks and feels very different to the rest of Pernod Ricard has been crucial for us being clear on our own identity, but also for our small team to stick together and really be the outsiders on the inside. If I could start over, and our investors agree, I would have pulled Our/Vodka out earlier to work more on the side of the parent company, but being here and part of a wider network has also brought us the benefits mentioned.

Business model aside, what are some of the other conventions you’ve broken with? The bottle is very different to that of other vodkas?

We couldn’t understand why people would need such a big bottle of vodka. We produce 35ml bottles rather than the traditional 70ml size. It’s been problematic for us though, because the industry is very traditional. The trade ask when we are releasing our larger bottle and we have to tell them we are not. Whenever we ask their opinion though they say " We like it, it's so different". That’s how people are! The guy who designed the bottle had never designed a product in his life but it’s turned out well for us. The intention was to have a very low-key bottle, but it has become, in its own way, very iconic.

How are you building awareness? What is Our/Vodka's idea of marketing?

There is no marketing really, or the whole thing is marketing. We’re building the brand and the story as we go, so I see us as story-doers. What people get interested in is how it works, why the partners are involved, that they are real people with different backgrounds that are all connected, that I built this together with my co-founders on our free time from my living room, and that it’s for real.

There is no big marketing button,
this is built the other way around

My manager at Pernod Ricard once asked me if we can speed the process up if they doubled the budget. It was tempting of course, but then what would I do with the money? That is not the way this brand works. There is no big marketing button, this is built the other way around. That’s why I believe when it’s successful it will be more grounded and solid than those using the traditional model.

Our/London city partners, Neil Chivers and Clive Watson.

Our/London city partners, Neil Chivers and Clive Watson.

The Our/London Distillery/Venue in Hackney.

The Our/London Distillery/Venue in Hackney.

Do you have any other activations planned if you’re not launching traditional comms?

We are filming a documentary, that’s the only investment that we have made from a global perspective. We’ve had many requests for filmmakers, but everybody who wanted to make a documentary on us has always wanted to stage something, and that was just not us. The last request we turned down, which was hard and stupid maybe. We decided we would film the documentary on our own because it’s important for us that it is genuine and real.

What advice would you give to other pirates within larger organisations?

A start-up is not a smaller version of a big company, it’s a different breed. There are so many smart and talented people here at Pernod Ricard that could be interested in working for Our/Vodka, but you really need a purpose fit team. The skills needed for a corporate job and a start-up are very different. You need people who are up for a challenge because their job description will change daily. You also need to set the rules straight with the parent company from the beginning. You need a long term commitment from them about the end goal, with flexibility around how you get there. There’s no straight road. If you’re a challenger brand, there is no handbook. You’re breaking new ground so you can’t ask because nobody’s been there before, that’s the whole thing.

There’s a real sense here that it’s what you do on the inside, what is intrinsic is what’s important, does that ring true? 

Completely. Somebody showed me the sportswear commercial featuring Michael Phelps, the swimmer. It’s beautiful. How hard he trains and how hard he works to win all these gold medals. The quote and essence of the film is 'it’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light'. Somebody said they thought about us when they heard this and I watched it and fell in love with that quote. Look – I get goose bumps thinking about it. It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light. I guess that’s true.