‘Influencers’ and the Australian Distilling scene Pt 1

I’m not an influencer, just so you know.

I remember last year when Instagram removed the number of likes each posting had from view, you could hear the wailing around the world as all those would be ‘influencers’ saw a potential source of gravy taken away – how could they get all those goodies without showing how many likes they got?

Personally I find it so much more relaxing now.

I’ve been fortunate though to be in the right time and place to be writing about craft spirits, especially Australian ones, back when they were just starting to boom.

Over the years I’ve earned the trust and respect of the industry by being independent, paying my way, offering thoughtful (hopefully) insights and never asking for favours. Through my hospitality, business and tourism background I have brought that long experience to bear when sharing the stories and craft of distillers and now have the honour of being invited to judge craft spirits competitions.

But I’ve seen the rise of people who have self-appointed themselves to be arbiters of what’s good, what get’s noticed and getting into a position that isn’t healthy for the distilling industry or consumer.

Now Australia’s libel laws are notorious, so you’ll excuse me if I choose not to name names, or retain a lawyer for a lawsuit, but I do have a few points to make in the interests of seeing the industry evolve into a more mature state.

No one is going to bit the hand that feeds them.

With so many distillers in Australia, most with minuscule market share and often no marketing budget besides their social media account, they are not going to say no to someone who highlights their products on to their followers.  This is quite understandable.

The issue arises when for some reason those with large following (presumably actual real followers) see themselves in somehow a position of real world influence in the industry.

Then there is also the subject of various awards with varying quality handing out gongs that may, or may not, be deserved.  In researching this piece I struggled to get any distiller to go on the record, either to call out an award program that does not meet standards of expertise or intention – this will be the subject of a future article.

Back to influencers.

There is no such thing as free.  Each bottle given to me for review is that much less revenue for that producer. I respect each sample as best I can and always disclose when the product has been given. (As an aside, not everything that comes my way gets a review, if it needs work then I pass back that feedback off line rather than trash their brand online.)  I never ask for a product, and most of the time I pay my way.

But as one Melbourne based distiller put it:

In the old days you’d just find a movie star who you reckoned would be a good fit and pay them to be photographed drinking your product (which, as it happens, is still really effective and works for many brands today).

The biggest thing holding us back from engaging more is the fact that there’s really no method for measuring the impact an influencer has on sales. Our business, along with those of many of our peers, is growing organically at double figures per month (albeit off a very low base).

We’re either releasing new products, or taking on new distributors or doing something that will get us out there, so without getting into the vulgarity of referral links we can’t even tell if giving a free bottle of product to someone is a worthwhile investment in promoting our brand. EVERYONE claims that giving them a bottle, gratis, will do great things for us, but we’re actually $35+ out-of-pocket each time.

So between proper bartenders who might present our product in the kind of way we’d like and random 20-somethings who flash an Instagram profile with 12k followers, we could be down thousands of dollars very quickly if we just handed out freebies willy-nilly.

Quite.

A small Western Australia producer observed:

Distilleries, like any business, want as much publicity as possible so there is great advantage to work with influencers. The influencers get the know the whole market and so can assist to get people to drink local. We’re only 1% of the market apparently as an industry. Lots of influencers are asking for payment to promote product. Therefore not a balanced opinion only commercial.

So for many distillers it’s a business decision. You need to reach an audience and build you profile in an economic effective way, but where is the accountability?

How do you track a paid post for your product and link it to actual sales, or are you happy just to get some exposure?

Then there is the issue of what the influencers actually says or does.  Does a pretty cocktail or the right hashtags drive sales, and do what they say actually align to what the distiller is on about and aiming to achieve?

That’s a lot of trust to give your brand expression in the hands of someone who might be a self taught cocktail enthusiast or have decided that your spirit category is going to be the social media segment that they want to get ‘insta-famous’ for at your expense.

As one distiller said:

We’re aware of a number of “influencers” who make a point of only promoting products and brands that they, personally, enjoy and recommend to others. This is, obviously, the gold standard of “influencer” for us since we take pride in what we make and we have a lot of respect for other producers who make good stuff that we enjoy ourselves….. We’re also aware of influencers who’ll accept a free bottle of whatever is going and post a pic for their XX,000 followers.

That might (might!) do good things for sales in the short term, but it doesn’t really do much in terms of educating consumers about how to drink better.

To my mind the modern Australian craft distilling industry has evolved almost at the same time as social media and the notion of first bloggers, then later ‘influencers’ came along too. So it’s natural that some form of symbiotic relationship evolved. But is it time for some more discrimination on the part of distillers as to who they align with and give power to?

Just because someone has lots of followers doesn’t give them the right to make or break a brand, or decide what is/isn’t a particular style of spirit.

There are upsides, in case you think I’m having a rant, the recent awful bushfires have spurred lots of social media driven fundraising responses to raise money both for affected distillers, such as Community Spirit, or leveraging the industry to fundraise for the wider community such as the Aussie Spirit Auction.

If we look to the USA which has a head start on all this to Australia, last year I visited several distilleries in California and approached them before hand to arrange a personal visit and offer an article (unpaid) about them, mainly to make my trip that much more interesting since I was there.

Nearly all of them had a vetting process to ensure I was worth their time and could be trusted to articulate accurately my experience of their spirits. I had to submit examples of my work, social handle etc and the was vetted much like a journalist either directly with them or through the people who managed their PR/marketing.

I thought this fair enough and in turn I was treated with respect and generosity, and we engaged as professionals.

Not some spirit fan person who takes up their time and spirits in return for some social love for which the distiller has to profess much gratitude- which is embarrassing to see all round and too common here. After all, who really needs who here?

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