The Spirit of Women, with Nicola Nice
Episode 84: Episode 137: The Spirit of Women, with Nicola Nice
When Nicola Nice, CEO, Pomp & Whimsy, noticed the lack of liquor brands targeted towards women, compared to men, she founded Pomp & Whimsy – bringing Victorian-era gin to the modern day with a touch of femininity. On this episode, Nicola talks about the history of gin, how she started her business, and how to create a distinct voice as a brand. Nicola also shares her career path that lead her from academia to spirits, and discusses the importance of following a passion.
00:13 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Network Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host Maricella Herrera. Hi.
00:22 Maricella Herrera: Hi.
00:22 KW: So Maricella.
00:24 MH: Yes.
00:25 KW: Gin.
00:26 MH: So I cannot stop thinking about that and how much I need to drink and... And it's not in a bad way I need a drink. It's in a...
00:36 KW: Well, you're at a point in your life where you really can appreciate the finer elements...
00:44 MH: I can.
00:44 KW: Of a well, a finely distilled alcoholic beverage.
00:50 MH: Spirit.
00:51 KW: Yes spirits and cocktail concoction and Pomp & Whimsy is far and away one of our faves.
00:57 MH: Yeah, Pomp & Whimsy is absolutely great and delicious and I was very excited to be talking to Nicola today who is our guest in this episode. She is the founder of Pomp & Whimsy and I think has done an amazing job, both with her gin, with her brand and with how she is growing her company.
01:21 KW: Yeah, so. I get excited for two big things. One, the spirits industry is traditionally male-dominated. So really love to see women and all under-represented populations coming in and driving innovation and crafting new things within the industry. It's just exciting to see. And then secondly, because of who was driving this industry traditionally, so much of the marketing really felt off point. It didn't resonate with me. And we talked about this within financial services and many other industries where women aren't seen as the consumer even though we make the majority of purchasing decisions, and are the chief entertainment officer of our families. So when you start to see the diversity that's happening within an industry and the new spirits and drinks that are coming out of that, and then on top of that, the marketing and the messaging that really speaks to you, the packaging, it gets me excited.
02:28 MH: Yeah, it's fascinating. I didn't know a lot about the liquor industry, or the spirit industry, and having that conversation with Nicola really was super interesting. We talk a lot about what's happening in that world, what the history has been, how women have been erased from that history, which I had no idea but I am not surprised. And in the way that brands, and she is brand builder, she is a researcher and sees herself mostly as a brand builder and she has so much knowledge about and it's... It was really great to talk to her about it.
03:07 KW: Yeah, we previously on the podcast, many of you may remember, if you don't, it's fine. Check it out.
03:14 MH: Go back.
03:15 KW: We had Clara Marin who was the founder of Catskill Provisions. And It's just... So I think we need to do an event just around women-owned distilleries.
03:27 MH: I'd love that.
03:28 KW: It would be cool. We do try to do that a lot with the products that we buy, as a company, that we bring into our summit in our events as much as we can, supporting local businesses, both supporting businesses, founded by women and minorities, and really looking to build that economy. All of us have been making a lot of asks of our listeners, these days. But here's one more for you, which is all of us who spend money in any way, shape, or form, have that power to make very intentional decisions about where we spend the money. Is it a local business versus a large company? Or is that business aligned with your values, are you supporting others who may be under-represented or have more barriers to their success and growth as business owners, and leaders? There's so many questions you can ask yourself and there are questions that you can tie back to what you care about and what you value. But just thinking about how we spend our money. What we order when we're in restaurants. If I see Catskills provisions or if I see Pomp & Whimsy or anything in a bar or a restaurant, I always order them. I wanna give them the props, I wanna support them. And so there's a lot of great sites out there to check out and know which brands and businesses align with your values. My ask of you is to take a few minutes to think about that and next time you pull out that credit card, and pull out your wallet be very intentional about where that money is going.
05:00 MH: Yeah, and it's the holiday season. I mean, come on. Now, is when, I... You will be shopping to shop...
05:06 KW: Responsibly.
05:08 MH: Yeah, shop responsibly, shop with your values.
05:10 KW: Excellent, alright, well, let's get to your conversation with Nicola and I can't wait to hear it.
05:26 MH: Hi Nicola, I'm so happy to be here with you today to chat a little bit about your career. And I have to say your Gin is absolutely delicious. We used to have it for happy hour at our old office, and it's not only beautiful bottle, it's pink. But it's also amazing.
05:49 Nicola: Thank you.
05:49 MH: I'm a fan.
05:50 Nicola: Yeah, it sounds like you've run out, and need to restock the office.
05:55 MH: Yeah we have, we like our happy hours. Let's just leave it at that.
05:58 Nicola: Happy Hours are important.
06:00 MH: So can you start off just by telling me a little bit about your career path and how you got here?
06:08 Nicola: Yeah. So, I'm a sociologist by training, so I've spent the last 20 years really, in the business of market research and brand consulting, so I've really spent my life talking to consumers and understanding how they connect with brands, understanding their needs, wants, and desires when it comes to specifically things like personal care, and fashion and liquor and I've always specialized in and advocated for the female consumer.
06:41 MH: As you should.
06:42 Nicola: And [chuckle] over the last eight to 10 years, I started doing more and more work in the spirits industry, and one of the things that always struck me given the different categories and industries that I've worked in, is how underrepresented women are in the brand landscape when it comes to spirits. Alcohol in particular. So I always ask this question of people, and I'll ask it of you even though you're the interviewer. How many spirits brands can you name that are actively targeted towards a female consumer?
07:19 MH: That is hard. Well yours. [chuckle] I guess a few others that are usually not many, to be honest, and the ones that I can think of off the top of my head, I don't know, I'm going Real House Wives here, but you know skinny girl margarita.
07:40 Nicola: Right.
07:40 MH: And very specifically not appealing to the whole female audience I would say.
07:48 Nicola: Exactly. So I think even people in the industry can rarely get to three when I ask them that question. And if you turn the question around and you ask how many spirit brands can you name that are actively targeted towards men, or named after men, I think we can probably roll off five, 10 just named after men just like that.
08:10 MH: Yeah.
08:11 Nicola: So this kind of... As a woman, this bothered me. I would sit around in meetings and I would hear descriptions of women as consumers, that sounded very outdated to me. Things like women don't drink spirits, women drink wine or women have their drinks ordered for them by men or women don't drink as much as men. So they're not worth focusing on actively. And obviously, this irritated me, but also I saw it as a huge opportunity, and there's always been this kind of unspoken law if you like, in spirits branding that you don't target spirit brands towards women, that women find it condescending, that men don't like to order them and bartenders don't like to serve them. And my argument to that is, well sure, don't make brands that are condescending towards anyone, right. And so, to me, it seemed like it's not that it can't be done, it's just that it hasn't been done well. So I set out to create a spirit brand that was not made in reference to men at all, but was simply focused on what women told me was missing from their current experiences when it comes to liquor. So that's how Pomp & Whimsy really got started, that was two years ago.
09:32 MH: I'm a little bit a dumbfounded, it's just, it's incredible to me about the idea of not... And I know it's true, but about industry thinking of women don't drink spirits. I should invite them to the Ellevate office, on a happy hour and they'll see they do, we do.
09:50 Nicola: Right.
09:51 MH: What did you find that women were looking for in your research?
09:56 Nicola: Yeah, good question. So I talk to women about what kind of... In particular I was interested in white spirits because I think that... I think whiskey is its own a category, and I think that there are a lot of women that are adopting whiskey. I think they say that 30% of whisky drinkers are female, which is fantastic, which is not what you might think, right. So...
10:18 MH: I did not know that.
10:20 Nicola: But I would find from just kind of the average women that I was talking to that in general there's a preference for white spirit among women, and I was really frustrated with the whole flavoured vodka thing. Those products are nasty, they are full of artificial flavourings, and sweeteners, and things like that. And plus they're just... Do you think a cupcake vodka has ever touched a cupcake in it's life? And, I wanted to... These are the kind of products that were marketed at us essentially. And so I wanted to understand if I was going to create a flavor experience for women, what would that look like?
11:06 Nicola: So I started to... As I said, I'm a researcher by training, so I started to go across the country and gather different groups of women in different places to talk to them about their flavour needs and their relationships with brands and so on. And they would describe this idea to me of a white spirit that was very lightly infused with botanicals and florals. And it sounds lovely, it sounds feminine, and it sounds like a fragrance. And I would say to them, "Well, you know what you're describing is gin. That's what gin is. Gin is botanicals, infused into a neutral spirit base." And people would say, "No. I don't like gin. Gin is my uncle's drink. Gin tastes like Christmas trees. I've had a bad experience with it." And I realized that there's this cognitive dissonance, at least in this country, between what gin sounds like when you describe the idea to someone, and how it actually tastes. So with Pomp & Whimsy, what I set out to do was to create what I think people have in their mind when you describe the idea of gin to them.
12:14 MH: Okay.
12:15 Nicola: So...
12:17 MH: It is botanical, it is, yes, it is... Tasting your gin, I know when you were describing what people were describing to you, that is exactly what it tastes like.
12:27 Nicola: Right.
12:28 MH: It is that experience.
12:28 Nicola: Good. Yeah.
12:30 MH: Which is, I thought you were talking about your specific gin right now as you were describing it, versus in general, which was... You nailed it.
12:39 Nicola: Yeah, thank you. [chuckle]
12:40 MH: Have you... I'm curious because as you said, in this particular country, I know in other places, and I'm from El Salvador, I lived a long time in Mexico and my brother is in Finland, so I've been around these places in the past, probably a year. And every one of these have... Gin has now become a very popular, very kind of hip...
13:08 Nicola: That's right.
13:08 MH: Thing. Trendy, there is... I hadn't thought about it, to be honest, in the past, gin was something you would drink.
13:18 Nicola: Yeah.
13:19 MH: Like your uncle would drink.
13:19 Nicola: Right with tonic and... Yeah.
13:21 MH: Right but it was fascinating to me. Have you seen this here?
13:27 Nicola: Oh yeah, absolutely, yeah. Gin is having a revival globally. With us, what we wanted to do was go back to a time when gin was very popular with women. So gin does not have the nickname mothers ruin for nothing, right? We know that at some point, it's been very popular with women. And so we, in our research, we went back to the '1800s, to understand during that the post-gin craze what the kind of gin was that people were drinking. It's like, well if women are drinking gin in their numbers, what was it like back then? And what we discovered is that the way people were drinking gin, the retailers would add sugar, and rose water and other flavourings to make, just to make the spirit more palatable so that people could drink it.
14:22 Nicola: And even if you were buying the dry gin and literally all dry gin is un-sweetened, un-diluted, unflavoured. You were taking it home and you were adding bitters, and sugar to it. So you could say this was the birth of the first ever cocktail. That's how people used to drink gin. So they were called gin cordials and there was a whole industry around gin cordials which essentially disappeared when the London gin makers formed a cartel, and really kind of squeezed everybody else out and created dry gin, London dry gin as the only style to be accepted. And that's what began to be exported. And we really wanted to go back to that gin cordial, the sipping gin and update it for a modern palate. So, that's what Pomp & Whimsy is. It's an infused gin edging cordial of the style of the 1800s.
15:17 MH: I love that. I didn't know that history and to be honest, I kinda want a cocktail.
15:24 Nicola: Yeah. [chuckle] It's nearly lunch time.
15:27 MH: It's surely time after the podcast. I love this conversation about spirits, but I do wanna go back a little bit to your background because I know that you were in research and working quite a bit with public sector institutions which is quite a big change from going from that to brand building on more fashion and...
15:53 Nicola: Right.
15:54 MH: That type of thing. How did that happen?
15:58 Nicola: Yeah, yeah, if you trace a path of my career as I... After I left the university, I did a PhD, so I did a PhD in sociology of science, and at that time I also worked with the European Commission and the UK government. Understanding how consumers respond to science and looking at public participation in science policy and things like that. From there, I guess I became a little frustrated at the pace of academia.
16:38 Nicola: Compared to what you see around you in the corporate environment. So, much as I enjoyed research, I guess I've always been a little bit of an impatient person and I also wanted to see how my insights could be applied, frankly, in just a more creative and fun way. So I started to get interested in advertising and innovation and wanted to transfer my research skills from helping policy to helping new idea generation and so on. So I had a little bit of a detour via management consulting, which gave me some of the business learning that I needed, and then transferred it into market research. So even though it kind of seems like a strange journey, the common thread has always been research and insights. So just understanding people and then applying those understandings to policy or to a new product development or to communications. And now to gin. Yeah.
17:51 MH: That's my favorite. Do you have any advice for women, anyone really. But I know a lot of the people who listen to our podcast are either thinking of their own career, transitioning to something that's closer to their passion or something different. Do you have any advice for anyone who's looking to change?
18:13 Nicola: I would say that it is absolutely critically important to follow your passion, and if you are stuck in something that you do not feel passionate about, then I don't think you're doing yourself a favor and you're not doing the people around you a favor either. And it's hard to take a risk, it's hard when you built something up. With Pomp & Whimsy I had to go back to scratch again, and working from my home and I had to put a lot of my own funding into the business and so on. But I tell you what, I live, sleep, eat and breathe this now. And I feel so passionately and strongly about what we're doing and how we are disrupting this industry and we're bringing back respect to women, as drinkers, we're retelling the history of the cocktail from the perspective of women and it's just... That in itself is so rewarding, creating that connection. So I would say it's... There's no such thing as failure, right? There's only experiences that you can learn from. So...
19:25 MH: I love that.
19:26 Nicola: Yeah.
19:26 MH: I completely agree, and I really can see that you are passionate about what you're doing, which is always, to me it's, I would say the number one thing. What was the hardest part of building Pomp & Whimsy?
19:42 Nicola: I mean there's been a few things. I think that when you're a start-up... So we're entering into our third year now and I think that's a really important year for a start-up, if you either fail in the beginning, or you fail in the third year, and I think if we can get through this year, then we know that we're gonna be on that big trajectory of growth. But in that first year, things can feel very stop and start, so you can have times where it feels like nothing is happening, and then suddenly everything happens and then it stops again and... So that's definitely challenging. I've gotta tell you that fundraising is tough, and that takes a lot of energy and a lot of time finding the right partners with the right money, you know, as well. It's not just about money, it's about finding like-minded people who can help you in areas of the business that you may not be able to help yourself, or not have the experience and expertise.
20:45 MH: Did you find people did not... When you were fundraising specifically, did you find people were not understanding your vision or what you were trying to do?
20:53 Nicola: No, no, no, the opposite actually.
20:56 MH: Really?
20:57 Nicola: Yeah, I think it doesn't matter who I talk to, whether I talk to consumers, or I talk to people in the industry, or I talk to investors. Everybody can see that this is an opportunity that has to be done. And it just so happens that in the last two years we have had women really starting to galvanize again. I think this opportunity happens for us once every 25 years and we're here now, the door is open, it's time to kick it down and show everybody what we've got. And so it's not been hard to find people to buy into the vision and the idea. The difficult thing is that with liquor in particular, because of the way the industry is structured, it takes a really long time to start to get product on shelf and then start making money from it. So you can have the sell through and you can have all of the awareness and the great PR and so on, but if you're not turning product on a shelf it can just take a little bit of time to kinda get that investor confidence that you're gonna have the revenues that they need.
22:05 Nicola: So, there's been, for us, there's been different stages of fundraising, we are coming to the end of a second stage and there will be a third, and probably a forth. Yeah.
22:19 MH: So for you, getting out there, getting your name and your brand out there. What has been working? How do you do it? And I'm curious of two things: One, what do you think people care about brands? And this is something that, it's a discussion I've been having internally with our team about both brands being very authentic and sort of taking a very specific stance to who they are as a brand, and if that makes someone more likely to follow that brand and to be an advocate for that brand or not. And then the other side of my question which is unrelated is more about how do you get the word out in particularly the liquor space? 'Cause to me, it would sound a little bit harder considering there are so many kind of very established and kind of tight end niche brands already there.
23:16 Nicola: Yeah and the liquor industry is very layered as well. Because of, for legal reasons. So to answer your first question, absolutely, consumers now really identify with brands that are either mission-focused, and/or they have some transparency and a story behind them, and in particular, if that story is represented by real people with real convictions and real beliefs, they're much more likely to get behind them. Then suddenly Johnny Walker's saying, "Oh we're gonna be Jane Walker for a month."
23:53 MH: I wrote down Jane Walker on my little piece of paper.
23:56 Nicola: Right, yeah. I mean there is no... The sad thing about that story is that actually Diageo is a company which owns the Johnny Walker brand is incredibly diverse and they are one of the leading companies in the industry, in terms of promoting diversity and so on internally. I think they are yet to catch up externally. But having said that, the Johnny Walker brand has had some really great women involved in the story. And so really the sad thing about that example was not the intention, it was the execution. I think that it was just a little bit of an oversight to think that women would feel more comfortable coming into the old boys club of whiskey if we just change the name and the packaging. And in contrast to where we are and what we're doing, which is we are a female-owned organization with a mission to empower women, to give women respectability when it comes to liquor, to retell the history of the cocktail from a woman's point of view, because women have been written out of this history, like they've been written out of every other piece of history. And so, there are real practical things that we can do to do that and to show that, whether it is through the events that we hold, whether it is through our digital campaigns, whether it is through our partnerships. For example, our partnerships with Ellevate, right?
25:34 MH: Yeah we love you guys.
25:36 Nicola: Yeah, so wherever we have the opportunity to promote and support women being given more respect in other industries and other endeavors, it's completely natural for us to be there and to partner as well. So, that side of things has actually been really easy to do. Because there are so few brands in the space that are women owned. So if you have an organization like Ellevate that's looking to partner with a liquor brand, where do you go? You have a few that you're working with, but it's not like you can call up anybody and get that. The number one rule as a brand, is that you can't be all things to all people, right?
26:19 MH: Right.
26:19 Nicola: So you really do have to pick who your audience is and you have to create a positioning that speaks directly to that audience's needs. And you will pick up peripheral audiences through that as well, like we have. It's not like we actively exclude men, for example. And I haven't met a man yet that doesn't like Pomp & Whimsy. When we first launched Pomp & Whimsy, we really had a much softer focus and it was really more just about inspiring women and creating moments for them, and elevating their experiences and so on. And then the me too movement happened and the election happened and we realized that women were looking to us to provide a bit more of a point of view and more leadership on that. And at the same time, we also realized... Yeah, you know what, we have been wronged as consumers, and we have been wronged as women in the history of this industry and someone needs to change that. So I wouldn't say that we've gone... It's not like we've become militant.
27:35 MH: Right.
27:36 Nicola: But I think we are unapologetic about what we stand for, and I think that where we have come up against critique, it's been from people who don't understand what we're trying to do and they think, "Oh, they just made something for women. They're trying to gender liquor." And it's not really about gendering so much as it is understanding your audience and creating something for them. And I really, I'm tired as a woman of being told what to do, I'm tired of being told that I should... That I like pink and fruity drinks, I'm tired of being told that if I want to be taken seriously as a drinker, I should embrace whiskey, I'm tired of telling women any of this. We should all be free to have choices to engage with liquor in the way that we want to in a responsible way. And so I think really, all I'm trying to do here is just give women more choice, so that when I ask that question, "How many spirit brands can you name aimed women?", people are not scratching their heads, you know.
28:46 MH: I love it.
28:47 Nicola: Listing them. Yeah.
28:49 MH: Yeah, I mean exactly we... I'm with you. Also tired of everyone telling us what we should or shouldn't do, should or shouldn't drink, should or shouldn't think. Which is why I'm so passionate about Ellevate. But it's inspiring, it's really refreshing to hear that coming from a consumer brand, especially in a very different industry.
29:12 Nicola: Yeah, no, it's funny 'cause I often get men coming up to me at the after events and so on, kind of saying, "I really love Pomp & Whimsy, and I really enjoy it. I didn't realize that you were really for women, and now I feel like maybe I can't drink it." Or "Have you ever thought about marketing towards men, as well?" And my response to all of them, to them is that's not my problem. If you are not secure enough in your masculinity that you can consume this, that's your issue not mine. And if you feel uncomfortable, get your wife to drink it, get your wife to buy it for you.
29:52 MH: I want to clap. I want to just... Yeah.
29:57 Nicola: Yeah, I mean Jack Daniels doesn't care whether I feel comfortable buying Jack Daniels or not.
30:04 MH: Right.
30:06 Nicola: We are no more exclusive to men than Jack Daniels would say they are to women.
30:10 MH: Yeah, absolutely.
30:10 Nicola: Yeah.
30:10 MH: So what's next for Pomp & Whimsy?
30:15 Nicola: What's next is... So we just launched in New York a few months ago, so we're excited to start building the brand here. And doing more events and partnerships and getting the word out about Pomp & Whimsy in New York. We also launched in Nevada. So interestingly, there's quite a strong philanthropic scene in Nevada, in Vegas, that is really embracing women's empowerment at the moment. So...
30:46 MH: I'm thinking a lot about Vegas, I'm not gonna lie, for a chapter.
30:48 Nicola: Yeah, yeah. So California, Nevada, New York. You're gonna be seeing more of us locally in all of these markets. And then this year we'll be working on our next skew, so that's exciting.
31:03 MH: Really? That is very exciting.
31:05 Nicola: Yes we actually have three more products under the Pomp & Whimsy brand in the pipeline, so we're gonna be working on number two to release in 2020.
31:14 MH: Can't wait. Can't wait to hear that. Thank you. And thank you so much for coming in.
31:22 Nicola: Yeah, thank you.
31:22 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also don't forget to follow us on Twitter @EllevateNtwk, that's Ellevate Network. And become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com. That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E network.com And special thanks to our producer, Catherine Heller, she rocks. And to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much, and join us next week.
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