Unless you are selling direct to the consumer, your consumer brand lives or dies on the basis of chain and box store authorizations. Without access to the marketplace you simply can’t grow your brand.
Especially when your brand is unknown and has no sales track record to speak of, it is difficult to get the so-called gatekeepers to let you in. They understandably want to play it safe. But none want to play it safer than the assistant gatekeepers. These folks are still bucking for a promotion to top gatekeeper. They can’t take chances with your new brand or their careers. So an interesting thing happens: They can say “no” but they can’t say “yes.”
We found this out time and again the hard way when building the Barefoot brand. Dealing with an assistant was a necessity because we couldn’t get to the decision maker directly. Remember, even if the assistant likes your brand, they can’t sell it to their boss as well as you can, but they can cast it in negative terms, thus eliminating its chance of being authorized.
In Denmark sales people have an expression that we think really sums it up, “Make sure you are dealing with the real giraffe!” The implication is that the real giraffe has the longest neck and stands out above the other jungle animals. In this case, it is the ultimate decision maker.
We were actually turned down time and again by one assistant who convinced us that he was the decision maker. Then, we met his boss at a fundraiser. He loved our brand and wanted to know why it wasn’t in his stores.
Some assistants can only say no, but they may lead you to believe they can say yes and waste a lot of your precious time. The inference that they can say yes gives them the appearance of authority and power, but the only decision they are capable of making is refusal. So, if they don’t reject your proposal, they demonstrate no power. Some top decision makers rely heavily on their assistants to weed out and hone down the myriad of proposals they receive. The problem is they may miss some real opportunities.
When our brand was new, we were happy to get any appointment and have any representative review our proposals. We hoped that if they weren’t the right person to make the decision, they would set us on the right path. After learning the hard way that assistants can hurt you but may be unable to help you, we weren’t so eager to present to assistants any longer. Instead, we would spend weeks just researching who was the ultimate decision maker and often spent months waiting to get an appointment with them. It was well worth the research and wait!
The larger the corporation the more filtering power the assistants tend to have. They see themselves as protecting their bosses. The temptation, when you are forced to go through an assistant, is to give them the entire package they will presumably forward to their boss. The problem is that you aren’t there to answer questions and demonstrate integrity. In our experience, these deals usually went nowhere. Ultimately, when we finally did get to see Mr. Big, he was likely to say, “Oh yes, we looked at that before and passed.”
So spend the time, do the research, and be patient. Sometimes it’s better not to leave your fate in the hands of an assistant. Spend the time to sit down with and present your proposal to the “real giraffe.”
Who Are We.
Having built and sold a bestselling national brand, we appreciate the value of brands and everything it takes to make them successful. Companies are valued by their brand equity. Achieving and maximizing brand equity requires tremendous respect for all your customers, from your wholesaler to your end user.
Starting in our laundry room with no money and no knowledge of the industry, we built the famous Barefoot Wine brand. We learned a lot they don’t teach in school and much of it the hard way. Although our success was in consumer products, our real world experience will be helpful to anyone looking for information and advice about brands.
We have written the New York Times Bestselling Business Book, The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand, which chronicles the history of the famous brand from its inception through its acquisition. Our book is now required reading in schools of entrepreneurship across the country. We hope this book will provide inspiration and encouragement for all those contemplating starting a brand or wanting to improve their existing brand.
Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey
-Barefoot Wine Founders