With heritage in farming, Ben Branson took the initiative to continue his family’s 300 year old legacy with the creation of Seedlip: the world’s first non-alcoholic spirits brand. At just a year old, the complex adult drinks have seen immense growth. Building a disruptive brand is not unfamiliar to Ben, however, as he carried more than a decade’s worth of experience as an innovation consultant prior to starting Seedlip. We catch up with Ben to chat about branding simplicity, appropriately communicating the quality of that brand, and his unexpected encounter with a book dated back to 1651 that laid the foundation for the idea of Seedlip.
Prior to founding Seedlip, you had been working in the agency world for a little over a decade. Can you share a bit about that journey leading up to this point, and why you finally decided to venture out to create your own brand? Half of my family are in farming, the other half in brand design. I did my first work experience at a brand design agency when I was 14, and then pursued this as a career when I left school. I was very fortunate to work for some fantastic agencies on both established iconic brands like Absolut, Glenmorangie, Farrow & Ball and Nike and newer challenger brands like Innocent, Savse and Perkier. I guess in short, I fancied being on the other side of the table and combining my family’s farming heritage with my knowledge of brands to create something relevant for today.
So what are some takeaways from your experience with working both on others’ brands and on your own? I’m sure having been on both sides of the table gives you a great perspective on what really works and what doesn’t. I most certainly now have a new appreciation for what it’s like being on the other side! My experience so far says:
Brands need to get better at writing briefs.
Agencies need to get better at asking the right commercial questions their work needs to answer.
Brands need to take more creative risk.
Agencies need to help them to.
The alcohol industry is an ambitious one to disrupt – given the amount of time it’s been around – but you’ve managed to do so remarkably. What gap did you see in the market that Seedlip could potentially fill, and where did you begin with the process of bringing the idea to life? The idea was initially nothing to do with a gap or a business. It was actually me looking into old herbs and what used to be grown in people’s gardens. This led me down a bit of a rabbit warren to finding a book written in 1651 called The Art of Distillation that documented lots of herbal remedies. Some were non-alcoholic and used copper stills. I thought it might be quite fun to buy a little still and have a go. That moment of distilling mint from my garden in my kitchen, using an ancient technique and producing a liquid that smelt and tasted of the plant, set off a whole domino effect of then unearthing the opportunity to solve the ‘what to drink when you’re not drinking’ dilemma, seeing the gaping hole for a high quality adult drink that wasn’t sweet, fruity or childish and the chance to create something no one had ever done before.
The Art of Distillation seems to have had a heavy influence on Seedlip’s background. Do you think you would be on the career path you’re on now, had you not stumbled across this book? In short. No. I had wanted to do something of my own since 2008 but didn’t know what it was and never tried to force it so finding the book in 2013, in hindsight, has so far, most certainly been 5 years worth waiting for!
It seems you’re a big believer in allowing your product to naturally communicate its quality, rather than feeling the need to declare everything on its behalf. I’d love to learn more about how this strategy is used at Seedlip. I think it was ad man legend Bill Bernbach who used the tennis ball analogy; if I throw you six tennis balls, you’ll likely drop all of them, if I throw you one at a time, you’ll likely catch all of them. People are busy, with busy brains and so simplicity is extremely important to us. The right message at the right time in the right way, we think is fundamental to explaining something new and therefore we are rigorous with what we say when and how and to who. Less is more, and allowing people if they wish to learn more about Seedlip are key ways we have found to communicate what Seedlip is all about.
“The right message at the right time in the right way, we think is fundamental to explaining something new and therefore we are rigorous with what we say when and how and to who.
What have been some of the toughest challenges in these first years of business? How are you finding it best to simplify these challenges? We are still only 10x months old!
The biggest challenge by far has been being a total novice to all this compounded by choosing to give it a go initially as a one man band!
The second biggest challenge has been the unknown… I had no idea it would go like this, that 10x months in we would be where we are.
This has been a shock and overwhelmingly surreal! The simplest, single biggest lesson learnt is that there is so much I need to learn.
I’ve found that starting with this very simple truth is extremely useful and actually quite liberating.
“The simplest, single biggest lesson learnt is that there is so much I need to learn … starting with this very simple truth is extremely useful and actually quite liberating.
Tell us about some milestones you’ve hit along the way! What do you attribute most of these successes to? Here are nine.
1. Putting the first cases of Seedlip in the back of my car and taking them to Selfridges.
2. Being invited to Buckingham Palace.
3. Ordering the Seedlip cocktail at The Savoy
4. My first employee
5. Meeting Tom Kerridge
6. Hand picking peas from our farm that go into our second product
7. Having an amazing team of people and not having to do everything myself
8. All of the emails we receive from people we don’t know who have discovered Seedlip
9. Our first bottles getting on a boat to the US
I put it down to luck and timing, my two best friends!
So outstanding, congratulations! I understand you hired Seedlip’s first employee back in 2015. How many are on board now, and as founder, what do your current roles look like as compared to what they were when you first started? For the first three months of our launch till Feb ‘16 it was just me full time and the incredible help of 55 other people involved in some way shape or form from the label printer to the bookkeeper. We are now 8 full time, 3 part time and two to join in the next 6 weeks! Surreal.
My role now is focused around the creative direction and culture of the business, no longer labeling bottles and delivering them!
What’s in store for Seedlip in the next five to ten years? I’ve got no idea! We are just starting to look at what the next 18 months looks like. Ha. I do know that within the next ten years we want achieve our mission of changing the way the world drinks!