Liquid Agency doesn’t usually take college students as clients. But when Scott Gardner, Liquid Agency’s CEO got a call from a Santa Clara University undergrad who wanted help bringing a new beverage product to market, Gardner couldn’t refuse. “I started a business in college,” says Gardner, “and I love entrepreneurs.” Gardner offered the student and his two business partners, all college mates, the opportunity to participate in Liquid’s streamlined brand development solution for start-ups and small companies, Liquid Express. The result of the collaboration is Ficks, a first-in-its-category cocktail fortifier that’s hitting the shelves of bars, restaurants, and retailers including Urban Outfitters. So how did three college kids create and launch an innovative beverage product, an appealing brand, and a wholly new product category? We’ll tell you.

1. Follow your dream.
Ron Alvarado, Mike Williamson, and Matthew McDonald weren’t planning to create “the world’s first cocktail fortifier,” as their company’s new website pegs it. They were just looking for a better way to balance two basic aspects of college life: partying and studying. Wouldn’t it be great if there were such a thing as an alcoholic drink that contained essential nutrients, which would counteract alcohol’s negative effects and help you feel alert the next day? For most people, that idea would have fizzled out like last night’s gin and tonic. But for these three budding entrepreneurs, it gained momentum, and eventually it brought them to Liquid Agency.

 

2. Know your market.
“We kind of had to burst their bubble,” Gardner recalls ruefully of an early meeting with Alvarado and his partners. Gardner had already introduced his young clients to one of the creative minds behind Skyy Vodka, who’d offered some discouraging advice: there was no way a vitamin-fortified alcoholic beverage would win FDA approval. After hearing this, Alvarado and his partners went back to the drawing board. Over a period of months, during which they graduated from college and found jobs, they came up with a revised concept: a cocktail mixer that would contain familiar flavorings plus a proprietary blend of health-enhancing nutrients, but no alcohol. The three partners invested some of their own earnings and developed a prototype blend, then went back to Liquid with a sample. Unfortunately, our market research brought more bad news: “The cocktail mixer market was insanely oversaturated,” says John Baston, Associate Producer at Liquid Agency. Gardner told his young clients, “Unless you have $10 million to invest in your launch, you won’t be successful in this market.”

 

3. Find your niche.
Despite the setbacks, Alvarado and his partners were determined to find a solution. That solution came from the sky, quite literally, while Gardner was flying to a meeting with Dennis Hahn, EVP of Brand Experience at Liquid, and the two started talking about the challenges faced by the young entrepreneurs. Hahn, who also happens to be a passionate mixologist, hit on the idea of creating a whole new product category. Instead of doing yet another spin on a margarita mixer, he suggested formulating the product as a universal additive, which could flavor and enhance any drink mixture. This concept would greatly expand the potential of the idea, and create the opportunity for people to invent their own cocktails using the healthy blend as an ingredient. Gardner and Hahn quickly scheduled a half-day collaborative work session with their clients and Liquid’s strategists and designers. By the end of the session the whole team reached consensus on positioning the product as a “cocktail fortifier”—creating a new category in the beverage market.

 

4. Agree on a name.
Alvarado, Williamson, and McDonald focused their energy on finding the perfect ingredient mix for the new cocktail fortifier. They tested formula after formula, and eventually came up with a winning trio of flavors and ingredients: lemon, lime, and ginger, all fortified with electrolytes, amino acids, B vitamins, and health-enhancing nutrients like milk thistle and dandelion extracts. At the same time, Liquid started the branding process with a naming exercise. From  a list of about 200 possible names, Ficks rose to the top, because of its play on the word “fix,” as in to “fix a drink,” suggesting the product could improve a cocktail because it contains healthy ingredients that counteract the negative effects of alcohol. The idea of  a healthier cocktail aligned nicely with the concept of “cocktail fortifier.” The team felt that “fix” could connote a “habit,” but in this case a “healthy habit.” Everyone agreed it sounded “authentic” and had a nice “vintage quality.” Coming up with a name is not always easy, but working collaboratively with our clients, we ended up with a name that is original, memorable, and imbued with meaning.

 

5. Develop a brand.
Once we made sure that we could register the name, we started the process of developing the Ficks brand identity. Liquid explored a variety of alternative directions, and settled on a style inspired by the apothecary tradition of the turn of the century. We crafted a logotype using custom typography recalling vintage signage. We also helped select the distinctive amber bottles in which the product is packaged, which remind us of medicinal containers you might find in an apothecary shop, and designed a packaging system and website. The visual style across all of the materials is informed by hot industry trends, such as speakeasy-themed drinking establishments and hand-crafted cocktails with honest ingredients. The end result is a branding solution that has helped Ficks get plenty of attention and immediate credibility in the industry—as well as quite a few design awards, including a logo design award in the Silicon Valley ADDY competition and a packaging design award from Graphic Design USA.

 

6. Celebrate with a toast.
With continuing support from Liquid, the Ficks crew launched an Indiegogo campaign to crowd-fund a first run of bottles. Since achieving their funding goals, Alvarado and his partners have taken Ficks into full production mode, and now bottles are starting to show up in bars and restaurants, on Amazon, and in brick-and-mortar retailers. In fact, we’re excited to announce that Ficks is now available for sale at Urban Outfitters. We invite you to try it and we’ve included a link below. Ficks is still a small company, but with marketing and distribution expanding from the Bay Area across the country, we expect Ficks will continue to grow. We applaud the courage and determination of these three young entrepreneurs, and we’ll raise a glass filled with the liquor of your choice (and a healthy portion of Ficks, of course) and toast to their success so far, while wishing their dreams continue to come true. Cheers!

 

1 Comment

  1. Scott Gardner

    I loved reading this story because more than anything we helped some wonderful passionate entrepreneurs see their dream become a reality. I love the product too. The Ficks revolution is just starting.

    May 20, 2014

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