Matt Ward’s philosophy is simple: “To grow your brand, you need to engage your consumer with product tastings.”

As Vice President of Brand Strategy at Penelope™ Bourbon, Matt was laser-focused on the brand’s efforts to connect with consumers, generate trial and grow sales. He met Penelope founders Michael Paladini and Daniel Polise at a trade show as the brand was beginning to take off. They realized they shared a passion for the brand, as well a philosophy for growing it. The rest is history.

Now Managing Director of the Sales Enablement Business Unit with Luxco, Matt explains that Penelope’s growth strategy from Day One focused on sampling. (Matt prefers the term “tasting” or, better yet, “making connections with the consumer.”)

“Tasting is an invaluable tool as you build the brand,” said Matt. “For consumers, it allows them to learn about and experience the product before committing their hard-earned dollars to it. For retailers, tasting helps break down barriers by taking the guesswork out of their investment as well.”

However, for a brand that got its start at the onset of the Pandemic, reaching consumers and retailers was an early challenge. With limited on-and off-premise customer interaction in 2020, the team looked to social media to build brand awareness.

Virtual tastings with consumers and influencers became a highly effective tool for growing the brand, with several participants actually joining the Penelope team to become Penelope tasters themselves. Finding and leveraging people who shared a passion for Penelope Bourbon helped the brand continue to scale up their sampling/tasting program as the world emerged from the Pandemic.

“As the Penelope brand grew, we knew we needed to find engaging people – very specific educators who could connect with the consumer,” added Matt. “People have a lot of questions, and they want to understand the brand; but you have about 90 seconds to make an impression. The type of people we put in front of the consumer is critical. If our people are passionate, they will get consumers excited.”

Penelope’s tasting program has evolved into five key components:

  • Small-scale events
    (tastings/dinner pairings)
  • Regional and national events
    (booths, speaking engagements)
  • Retailer tastings
    (in-store sampling)
  • Market work with distributors
  • Field brand education with consumers and retailers

Activation requires a tremendous amount of time and effort, which is why the entire Penelope staff participates, as needed, in the sampling program.

“Everyone on the Penelope team does tastings – it’s the No. 1 job requirement,” explained Matt.

“That’s the best way to understand what the consumer really wants.”

The team also works with third-party firms and independent contractors – particularly in states where laws require it. Anyone representing Penelope products
must go through a rigorous training program to ensure they have what it takes to be successful and effective. Additionally, Matt and his team will “secret shop” third-party tasting events to ensure they meet expectations. And for all tasting activities, tasters are required to provide recaps, so Matt and his team can gather intelligence for future events.

The sampling program includes proprietary technology to help measure the impact of tasting activities. Additionally, the look and feel of the programs is kept consistent, so the impact of a given activity can be accurately measured and reliably predicted. Such business intelligence allows the team to effectively allocate resources and maximize return on investment, while growing the brand.

In 2023 Matt and his four-member sales enablement team were tapped to replicate Penelope’s sampling program across several Luxco brands. The team started by visiting the Luxco distilleries and immersing themselves in those products. Once the team gained a full understanding of the various Luxco brands, they tweaked the tasting-program methodology to adapt to each. Matt now considers his team an extension of each brand’s sales team, helping them to further enable growth.

When asked about the process of adapting the process to Luxco brands, Matt had this to say:

“These are well-established and elegantly developed brands, so there is no challenge whatsoever. We are one team, and these are phenomenal products. Consumers are thirsty for knowledge and experiences. We are thrilled to help Luxco brands deliver both to their target customers.

The team hit the ground running in 2023, at one point conducting 33 Luxco sampling events in just 21 days. Things will only get busier in 2024 for Matt and his team, as the size and scope of the program are certain to grow. But Matt keeps it all in perspective:

“It comes down to spending time with our consumer. Our tasting program and our sales enablement teams have created countless connections to help us win customers, retailers, managers, bar owners, you name it. This is all due to Danny and Michael’s vision. They knew they had to get to the consumer, and they knew to do it with smart, passionate people and to conduct it in a new, more effective, way. Sharing this process with other Luxco brands is a win-win for all of us.”