Comment: Distilling a fighting spirit

Damola Timeyin sheds light on the inequalities within the alcohol market and shares the brands – including his own – looking to diversify the industry one cocktail at a time.

Damola Timeyin is a brand and marketing expert, author and the co-founder of alcohol brand Spearhead Spirits Group.

Alcohol's central role in our collective culture is reflected in the sheer scale of an industry worth an estimated $1.4 trillion globally. And, yet, despite its diverse consumer base, participation in the alcohol industry – from the bars to the boardrooms – is far from representative.  

This imbalance raises the question: why can't everyone, regardless of race or gender, take the leap from being alcohol consumers to business owners? 

‘Ideas are worthless, execution is everything’ is a common business truism. The glaring omission in this statement is that the bridge between idea and execution is very expensive to build, especially in the capital-intensive alcohol industry. It's notoriously hard for marginalized founders to access funding, so turning ideas into execution can be challenging. It's more challenging still as a business transitions from start up to scale up, competing with incumbent alcohol brands that have multimillion-pound marketing budgets.

Many people work in their field prior to starting their own brand. The experience, expertise and network built in that time proves to be a key factor for success. So, it isn't surprising that so many alcohol brand CEOs are a direct representation of an industry workforce that's overwhelmingly white and male. 

I co-founded Spearhead Spirits Group after observing that, in bar after bar, every continent other than Africa was represented in the spirits category. There were no household names to be seen from the world's second-largest and second-most-populous continent. 

Like other black-owned spirits brands such as Cabby's Rum, Las Olas and Equiano, we've succeeded by testing alternative routes to market. We launched outside of our home market, sold direct to customers, addressed under-served audiences and accessed capital and resources from outside of the alcohol industry. In doing so, we created a blueprint for others to utilize.

Despite the challenges, there's reason to be cautiously optimistic. Over the past two years, society has gone through a period of self-reflection and acknowledged the challenges we face when it comes to diversity, inclusion and equity. We're seeing lots of programs emerge that are focused on leveling the playing field for diverse business owners. 

It's heartening to see interventions from the biggest names in the alcohol business, but it's just as encouraging to see the community take matters into its own hands. Take the founder of whiskey brand Uncle Nearest, Fawn Weaver, who launched a $50 million fund that will invest in minority-led spirit brands.

Only time will tell if the efforts of the industry and individuals will turn the tanker that is the alcohol business. But what I do know is that the solution to more diverse participation and ownership in the industry won't come from a single silver bullet, but from both industry outsiders and industry incumbents working together to create a sector that reflects its consumers. 

This article was first published in Courier issue 46, April/May 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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