If you’re going to take a market seriously, you need people on the ground, speaking the language
Bucks without the fizz:
How AU Vodka plans to conquer the world
Co-founders Charlie Morgan and Jackson Quinn on standing out, social media marketing and cracking America.
The chemistry swots among you may find it fitting that this year’s fastest-growing company is named after the chemical symbol for every winner’s favourite element, gold.
GX winner AU Vodka has dazzled the drinks industry with its signature gold bottles – concealing often startlingly-coloured spirits – and its highly effective social media and influencer marketing.
Co-founders and managing directors Charlie Morgan and Jackson Quinn had the idea in 2015, when they were 19 and 21 respectively. Noticing that their friends were all receiving clear premium vodkas in clear bottles for their birthdays, they saw a market gap for something with more visual impact.
“We were super young and naive. We thought it was easily achievable to overtake [leading premium vodka brand] Grey Goose in the UK market. That is a really ambitious task, but in hindsight it was a great attitude to have,” says Morgan.
In 2016, they sold 2,000 bottles, but despite rave customer reviews and prestige listings in Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, growth was slow for the first few years. Then two things happened that set the duo on their path to exponential expansion.
The first was when they contacted DJ Charlie Sloth on Instagram and asked if he wanted a free bottle. This was as much strategy as serendipity. Morgan and Jackson had set out with the belief that social media and ecommerce were a great way to build a business, even though these were in their infancy in the beverages sector. In particular, they saw the potential for influencers to drive brand awareness and engagement.
With Sloth, who loved AU Vodka so much that he invested in the company, their persistent efforts on social media paid off. He introduced them to his extensive contact book of rappers and influencers, which is what led to their second breakthrough moment – a collaboration with rapper Fredo in 2019 to create their first flavoured vodka, black grape.
Morgan and Quinn spent all of their remaining annual marketing budget on the launch campaign, which included a professional photoshoot. “It was a game-changing moment and gave us a huge platform. Fredo had a quarter-of-a-million likes on that photo. Our followers grew on social media and we managed to get a listing in Costco off the back of that exposure, giving us nationwide distribution for the first time,” says Quinn.
Although pubs were shut, AU Vodka was perfectly placed to grow during the early Covid lockdowns, with 90% of sales coming from social, ecommerce and wholesale distribution.
And grow it did – with a string of stunning influencer collaborations, new flavours like bestseller blue raspberry and brand extensions like ice lollies, turnover rose from £706,000 in the six months to April 2020 to £38.4m over the following 12 months, reaching £43.9m in 2021-2.
The channel mix has evolved, with on-trade sales tracking towards 20%, but AU Vodka’s focus on digital remains as strong as ever: Morgan says ecommerce represents 15% of sales but 80-90% of its marketing budget.
Quinn and Morgan point out that while their brand recognition now sits at 80% in the UK, they don’t intend to sit on their laurels: their big focus over the next year is to crack America.
They plan to replicate their social influencer marketing approach – for example, tattooing a bottle onto US YouTuber-turned-boxer Jake Paul’s arm ahead of a much-publicised fight with Tommy Fury in February – but recognise that this requires hiring the right people Stateside.
“If you’re going to take a market seriously, you need people on the ground, speaking the language. They still need to understand our concept, but it needs an American twist. It’s important to jump on [influencers] when they are on the up, and maybe
someone who lives in Swansea or London won’t know who the next big artist to come out of Georgia is, compared with someone who lives in Atlanta,” Morgan explains.
After America, the world. Quinn says that their north star is to become a truly global brand, while Morgan still has his golden sights on a certain Grey Goose: “They sell 48 million bottles a year, we sell just under three million. There is a massive scope for us.”