Biere Benin

In not just an embrace,, but an actual celebration of Failure, the ‘Think (Here) Blog’ has sponsored this week as ‘FAILweek’.

“The first week of February is ‘#FAILweek’ where entrepreneurs and bloggers of all industries, experience levels, and from every corner of the globe come together to celebrate their past failures.”

While I have explored, dissected, analysed, reflected and illustrated a wide range of failure over the past half decade of blogging on the topic, aside from a few personal anecdotes, I haven’t actually delved that deeply into my own plenty-choose-from-contrary-to-outward-appearances failures.

FAILweek’s first mentions ‘entrepreneurs’ which are indeed a vein rich with failure gold. As I now have taken leave of corporate life starting my own ventures, the FAILweek call to action made me reflect on one of my earliest entrepreneurial initiatives…a complete failure.

Biere Benin. Biere Benin is the local beer from Togo, West Africa. As it happens, I took a year off from university to go live in Togo working as a travel writer. One of my many exotic discoveries was the local beer. Biere Benin. It was truly a revelation and delicacy.

When I returned to the USA in 1981, I undertook to see if one could import Biere Benin. Exotic imports were trendy (see below under ‘Trends’). Any exporting would be a help to a developing country like Togo. I approached a few distributors and they were encouraging and interested. So I developed a business and marketing plan and worked with the brewery to adapt the product packaging for the US import requirements. The opportunity seemed prime…

  • Quality – First and foremost, start with a quality product. Sure, the mystique among the ex-pats in Togo was how great this Biere Benin was, but maybe the sun-baked throats would have loved any malt beverage. I was most convinced when I introduced the beer to visiting travel writers. A big part of my job was hosting journalists on assignment visits. These were seasoned hacks who had tasted local brews the world over and were paid to be critical in their reviews. Every one confirmed that BB was one of the best they had sampled in their many travels (“German tourists prefer is to German beer” from one of my press trips).
  • Trends – The hot thing in the beer market was exotic imports. Beers from China, Poland, Mexico were just entering the market. The ‘yuppie’ demographic was willing to spend its increasing discretionary income on a premium for imports which provide new experiences and reflected the cosmopolitan style.
  • Slogan – My college roommate and master word craftsman, Marc Scapicchio gave me a brilliant slogan for the campaign: “Rich enough of the connoisseur’s palate, bold enough to slake the African thirst.” Secret weapon.

After over a year of work, with no real money to invest as a college student, I had lined up a tentative order for a container load of product by one of New England’s top distributors. And then…it all crumbled. So what happened?

  • Quality Perceptions – In the mid-eighties campaigns on the problems of disease and famine rose culminating in the historic Live Aid event. While this trend raised awareness of a terrible plight as well as millions of charitable donations, it nonetheless tainted ‘brand Africa’ as a dirty, squalid place. Not the kind of place where you would want to buy your refreshing beverage.
  • Trend Shifts – By the time I was able to manage the negotiation and repackaging (delayed by the limited funds and nothing like the Internet but telexes and postal mail), the beer winds had shifted. By the mid-eighties, the new trend was micro-breweries from around the country. Imports from other US state rather than other world countries. In fact, the local brew Sam Adams beer had just been introduced.
  • Anchor Customers – While it is all very good targeting a growing and lucrative segment (‘yuppie connoisseurs’), most imported beers have a mainstay that introduces people to the product and provides a regular outlet regardless of retail trends – ethnic restaurants. Tsingtao got started in Chinese restaurants, Corona in Mexican, Tiger in India, etc. The thing was that there just weren’t any ‘African’ restaurants to provide a dependable outlet for sales.

I lost the deal with United Distributors as they were overwhelmed by the growth for mainstream exports like Corona and were reading the new trends for micro-breweries. Turning adversity to advantage is all about lessons and growth as the silver lining. I learned enormous lessons about the practicalities of getting a product to market that goes far beyond the spreadsheets and segmentation of a clever plan. I was proud to have tried, and was pleased to have not really lost much except my pride and my dream, but in their place I gleaned invaluable business lesson and insight they can’t teach you in schools and a fond memories of a noble venture.