Sweet scams from the FT bar

The publishing event of 2014 will likely be the appearance of the autobiography of James Espey OBE, SA’s most famous liquor pioneer, thinly disguised as a self-help study guide for business school swots. With frauds and imposters without any formal qualifications cashing in at the UCT Business School as visiting professors this season, books like Making Your Marque: 100 tips to build your personal brand and succeed in business start to look like a holy grail. For when it comes to success, James shoots out the lights. Chairman of Chivas. Inventor of Keepers of the Quaich. It doesn’t end.

A perhaps even more outrageous collection of scallywags, remittance men and pirates than the UCT business school faculty are global liquor marketers and for many years, James was a case study in a class of his own. In last week’s Weekend Financial Times there is the seasonal freebee on the Caribbean, penned by Telegraph travel writer Nigel Tisdall (“Nigel Tisdall was a guest of Virgin Holidays and The Colony Club) posted off from Blighty to Barbados to write about rum. The feature is illustrated by a picturesque Malibu tin shack (below) looking very Hoga Hoga. The only problem is that Malibu was invented in Bellville and has bugger all to do with reggae, jerk chicken or ganja.

photo 75 Sweet scams from the FT bar

The FT feature may be called “the true spirit of Barbados – and its rum industry heritage” but James spills the black beans.

The True Origin of Malibu

The idea for Malibu came from the United States, where there was a failed brand called Coco Ribe, which had a coconut rum flavour. The Head of Marketing for IDV South Africa purchased a bottle of Coco Ribe on one of his trips to the USA, took it home with him and then created a brand called Coco Rico, in a white then hand-painted bottle with distinctive graphics.

At that time, the late 1970s, South Africa was one of the pariah nations of the world because of apartheid; the future President Mandela – that wonderful world statesman – was still languishing in prison. We were convinced Coco Rico had a good future, but for all the obvious reasons there was a lot of opposition in London and else- where. So we renamed it Malibu, imported the initial consignment from South Africa, used the same packaging and bottled it in Harlow Essex. We did not research it and we told no one where it came from. However, we had an internal problem – negative colleagues to deal with.

In order to convince them that Malibu was worthy of serious con- sideration, I flew to Boston, to meet the great Ted Levitt, who was lecturing on the subject of Marketing at Harvard Business School. I invited him and his wife to join us for a weekend in the Bahamas where we were having our first ever global new product conference. Levitt liked the Malibu idea and, as he was the moderator at our conference, doubting Thomases were muted in their objections and then agreed that we should launch the brand.

We launched through night clubs and selected bottle stores and bars with an advertising and marketing campaign using the headline: ‘It comes from Paradise and tastes like Heaven.’

It was an immediate success and today is owned by Pernod Ricard, with sales approaching 4 million cases per annum.

From the beginning, people thought it was a Caribbean drink and, as it happens, today there is a large Malibu distillery in Barbados, which is now its formal home. A strange turn around! 

We’re negotiating with James to launch Making your Marque in SA at the Pendock Wine Gallery @ Taj when a real Baja rum, Mount Gay, is introduced to the SA spirit scene by importer Edward Snell. It threatens to be the party of the year and the best bash of the Cape Town, World Design Capital year festivities.