How This Startup Spirits Brand Turned a Nightmare Scenario Into Its Best Year Yet

Ghost Tequila went from 70% on-premise sales to 90% retail in a matter of months

billboard that says perfectly spicy 2020 needs a kick in the glass next to tequila bottle and fruits
Ghost Tequila

By and large, the pandemic has hit small businesses the hardest. In the alcohol industry, that’s evidenced by the closures of breweries and craft distilleries around the country and the risk of many more shuttered businesses by 2021. In Texas, for example, two-thirds of the Texas Craft Brewers’ Guild say they’re not sure they can make it past the end of the year if things continue as they are.

But for brands that don’t rely heavily on taproom sales or occupy categories of significant growth in the alcohol industry, the pandemic created a unique opportunity.

Four-year-old startup Ghost Tequila was able to quickly expand its ecommerce and retail business to account for the loss of on-premise sales at bars and restaurants. In the process, the brand has found that there are a lot of thirsty people out there looking to get their cocktails at home during the pandemic. On top of that, the brand found new ways to advertise strategically, picking up where others had pulled back, strengthening connections within the industry and taking advantage of discounts on billboard space.

In the middle of an economic crisis, Ghost is now seeing record sales.

At the beginning of 2020, Ghost Tequila saw more than 70% of its business from its on-premise category. When shutdowns began sweeping the country in mid-March, CEO and founder Chris Moran was understandably worried. “I was saying to myself, ‘Oh shit, is this the end?'” he said.

But there was—and is—an arguably bigger crisis happening in the service industry. Shutdowns left restaurant workers out of work with no end in sight, worried about whether they could make rent. A bartender by trade, Moran first focused on a way to extend some aid to restaurant workers through a cocktail challenge. Bartenders were encouraged to submit cocktail recipes using Ghost Tequila for a nationwide challenge, which Ghost paid them for, increasing the rate as the competition progressed. As fans voted for their favorites, Ghost donated $1 to the Restaurant Workers’ Covid-19 Relief Fund for every vote cast.

“We like to say it wasn’t about the cocktail,” said Moran. “But, ultimately, there were two goals there. First of all, raise money for bartenders and restaurant staff. And then, obviously, build brand awareness for ourselves.”

Within a few days, Ghost had more than 100 bartenders across the nation participating in the challenge, all broadcasting their cocktail tutorials out to their online networks and promoting the brand in the process. The challenge raised more than $30,000.

The challenge served as a strong jumping off point for Ghost as it looked to adjust its strategy for the pandemic era.

“Really grabbing the industry crowd and having 100 of these bartenders promoting this and us pushing that out there, we hit a million-plus people with that,” said Moran. “I think that that was a great base for us to start.”

From there, the Ghost team continued to focus on brand awareness, refining its identity to be a little less “frat guy-ish” and more focused on the product’s quality, according to Moran. The 2020 campaign, created by Akseizer Design Group, is all about kicking this year “in the glass,” a play on both the spiciness of the spirit and the apocalyptic nightmare we’re all living through.

The team also shifted their ad spend from in-person activations to more paid digital, direct mail, radio and out of home. That included more than 350 billboards across Texas and New England, which Ghost got at a discounted rate as advertisers cut back.

@klundster Kathryn Lundstrom is Adweek's breaking news reporter based in Austin.