Ere Partanen on bringing the Finnish Long Drink to America, partnering with celebrities, and the power in ground-level marketing
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It all started at a party in 2014.
My friend Sakari Manninen and I had come from Finland to America for a study abroad program, and the very first night we hit it off with an American entrepreneur named Evan Burns.
Soon thereafter we added Mikael Taipale, another native Finn, to our friend group.
It was the beginning of a lifelong adventure for us all.
A Finnish tradition
After our undergrad exchange programs, we Finns went back to Finland to get our Masters in Finance and Evan dedicated himself to growing his business in the US. But we remained close and eventually brought Evan to Finland, introducing him to all of our traditions. This included the drinking of long drinks, the national drink of Finland.
And from the first sip of a long drink, Evan was hooked.
As Sakari, Mikael, and I finished up our degrees, Evan kept returning to Finland to visit us (and drink long drinks).
Over the years, an idea formulated between the four of us: what if we brought long drinks to America? We were excited about this prospect, convinced Americans would love it, and knew there was nothing like it sold in the US.
In 2018, we did it. We launched the Finnish Long Drink in America. Three years post-launch, we’re now one of the fastest-growing alcohol companies in the US, having grown 470% yearly.
Where did the Finnish Long Drink originate?
Long drinks can be traced back to the 1952 Summer Games in Finland. Back then, the country was still gaining its footing after the devastation of World War II and the government was worried about serving drinks quickly enough to all the tourists coming to the Summer Games.
To solve this problem, the government commissioned the creation of a simple, refreshing new liquor drink they dubbed “long drink,” now a staple part of Finnish culture.
Traditionally known as a citrus soda with a liquor kick, our Finnish Long Drink comes in four different versions: our original citrus-flavored Long Drink Traditional, our Long Drink Zero, our Long Drink Strong, and our flavor varietal Long Drink Cranberry.
Bringing the National Drink of Finland to America
During our launch phase, Sakari and I quit our jobs in Finland and started putting the production, distribution, and marketing operations together with Evan. Mikael stayed on at his full-time job and slowly took over our finance operations.
We decided on a small launch in New York, focusing on Manhattan and the Hamptons. Until recently, we’ve been a very regional player, hyper-focusing our marketing strategy on the specific areas of the country where we’ve launched. Because most Americans don’t know anything about our Long Drink, our priority has been to familiarize them with it as thoroughly as we can.
In the last nine months, we’ve expanded our distribution to a total of fifteen states, our latest additions being California, Florida, and Illinois, meaning our footprint has expanded significantly over a short period.
Educating Americans about the Finnish Long Drink
We split our marketing strategies between ground, online, and PR, but the vast majority of our budget has been spent on ground-level marketing. This refers to tasting events, customer education, and point-of-sale materials.
We want our customers to experience the Finnish Long Drink, and to do that we need to explain its history and create opportunities for people to try it. All of our American friends who fell in love with The Long Drink only did so because they tried it.
Because The Long Drink represents a new category of drinks, sharing the experience of The Long Drink with American consumers is vital for our company to thrive, and we put a lot of effort, energy, and money into giving consumers those memorable experiences.
Accelerated growth in America
Our exponential growth has been primarily driven by getting people to try the product and watching them fall in love with the uniqueness of the taste and story behind it. We see our fans wanting to share the product with their friends, and this is creating demand that has resulted in our sell-through rates being among the best in our peer group.
As of now, The Finnish Long Drink is one of the fastest-growing alcohol companies in America, growing at an unprecedented 470% per year. While all four of us founders were certain Americans would adore the long drink, we had no idea it would catch on this quickly.
In addition to the targeted marketing events we held, we built a creative marketing campaign that was picked up by Forbes, the New York Times and several others publications, which enabled us to reach millions of people we wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.
Building connections and partnerships
Our local, ground-level marketing efforts paid off, not only in how the average American responded to the Long Drink but also in garnering the attention of several influential celebrities who have now become our business partners.
A few weeks after the Long Drink launched in NYC, actor Miles Teller (known for The Spectacular Now, Whiplash and The Divergent Series) was visiting New York and dropped by a liquor store in the Lower East Side where we happened to be doing one of the very first Long Drink tastings in the country. Miles loved the drink and began telling his friends at home in LA about it.
Miles eventually became an owner in the company and has helped to increase our brand awareness by telling the story of the Long Drink, building key partnerships and evolving our business development and creative strategy.
Partnerships fueling partnerships
Entirely because of his friendship with Miles, DJ Kygo was introduced to the Long Drink in 2019 when the actor asked him to DJ his wedding in Hawaii.
Loving the taste of our Long Drink, Kygo then shared it with his friends, among them golfer Rickie Fowler. Both men were smitten with our product and in time, they signed on as two additional co-owners of the company.
Up till now, we’ve utilized our celebrity partners internally rather than nationally. Miles has been hugely helpful with his involvement in our business development, joining meetings with distributors to attract attention within the crowded distributor portfolios.
Partnering with such highly recognizable people has certainly increased awareness for the brand. Now that our product footprint finally covers more of the US we’ll start building national campaigns around our celebrity partners, and we already have a few exciting things in the works.
Five tips on growing a new business
The first thing I’ll say is that growing a business is a gamble, and you’ve got to believe in what you’re building.
We knew we had a stellar product with the Long Drink, having all grown up drinking it, but figuring out how to introduce Americans to a drink they knew nothing about was no easy task. It took a lot of hard work, research, time, passion, and energy to get the Finnish Long Drink off the ground, and it’s still an evolving process.
Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the journey:
- Be passionate about what you’re trying to get people to buy.
You want people to share in your excitement for your product so that they want to share it with their friends. Our 470% YOY growth has been the result of regional marketing efforts, ones that get people passionate about our drink and ready to talk about it with others.
- Make sure your product has a story behind it.
Whether that story is tied to a particular culture or tradition, like our Finnish Long Drink, or whether it’s a simple but compelling origin story, make sure it has one. Use your brand story to stand out from the rest and connect with consumers.
- Build connections and partnerships authentically.
Be smart about your partnerships. Consider how high-profile people who are interested in your product can be part of your brand’s journey and the story, like Miles Teller, Kygo, and Rickie Fowler have been to ours.
- If you have a product that needs to be experienced to be understood, focus on educating consumers by providing them the experience.
Emphasize ground-level marketing by figuring out how to get your product to the people you want to know about it. Show up at the events, meet your customers, and tell them your story in person.
- Invest yourself in your brand.
Regardless of whether your product is a part of your personal culture or history, expect to invest yourself in it for it to succeed. This means making sacrifices like quitting your job, taking a leap of faith, showing up at your ground-level events, and being heavily involved in your brand’s journey and overall growth.
Looking ahead: the future of the Finnish Long Drink
Spending the last three years working with my best friends to share the Finnish Long Drink with America has been nothing short of a dream. It’s also been full of unique challenges, specifically the challenge of alcohol regulation in the US, but I couldn’t ask for better business partners to navigate the highs and the lows with.
Currently, we have a distribution agreement with SGWS, the biggest distributor in the US, so we’re well-positioned to expand in the major ways we want to over the next few years.
My goal with the Finnish Long Drink is to continue working to build a new category of alcohol in the US. We’re looking forward to expanding our US footprint even further, launching new products as we go.
Our ultimate goal is to share the taste of Finland with as many people in America as we can.