It’s rare people will be as frank about the inspiration for their business as Mark Kavanagh is.
The 23-year-old Enniscorthy native founded Wexbury, a strawberry-infused spirit that is trying to bottle the spirit of a Wexford summer, while doing an MBA in UCD’s Smurfit School of Business.
In eighteen months, Wexbury has gone from an idea to a pink vodka that is stocked in pubs and bars, Dunnes Stores and SuperValu, and has sold 7,500 bottles to date.
But rather than having a passion for the product, Kavanagh had an idea for a brand’s marketing strategy – the commercialisation of a genuinely authentic story.
Like many other teenagers, he sold Wexford strawberries at the side of the road as a summer job, using an old tool shed his father had given him as a base.
Up against established vendors with more sophisticated set-ups, his point of differentiation came from whiteboard signs placed along the road, which Kavanagh scribbled various slogans on – “support the small man” and “100 per cent orgasmic strawberries”.
The punny signs were then picked up by local media and online sites, bringing hype and customers to the teenager’s stall.
The signs and the media coverage doubled Kavanagh’s sales, in his retelling, and led him to expand to two stalls. He kept the business going for another six summers until he left home for college.
In the summer of 2020, with a degree in marketing and a pandemic largely shutting down the economy, Kavanagh chose to set up his own company rather than look for a job.
A quick Google search showed the graduate three sectors that have historically continued to prosper through a recession – tobacco, chocolate and alcohol.
With the prosperity of alcohol assured, he thought back to the strawberry-infused vodka he used to make after a day’s grind at the roadside in Wexford.
“It was not the product but the marketing potential of what we could do with it,” Kavanagh told The Currency podcast.
“Whereas an awful lot of food companies start with a product – their great-aunt’s recipe that everyone loves, and they just have to figure out how to market and sell it – I understood, at that time, the resonance of me selling strawberries. There is authenticity behind that and it can transition into a really authentic category in the Irish marketplace.”
Kavanagh is first and foremost a marketer and what he saw from that initial point was an opportunity to own the alcoholic and proverbial “Spirit of Wexford”, a phrase he has since patented.
“Wexford strawberries is a category that has so much awareness but yet so many people couldn’t associate direct businesses within that category.
“They know there are loads of farms and different companies, anybody can put Wexford strawberries into anything but where we are trying to get to is that when you think about your strawberries, you think about Wexbury.”
It’s been a relatively easy sell for Kavanagh to get the brand stocked in bars and pubs across Wexford where, because of its cerise hue, it works well in cocktails.
Vodka is the number one spirit sold in Ireland, with 31.5 per cent market share, yet what has surprised Kavanagh the most is Wexbury’s popularity with men.
“It’s been one of the hardest things for me to grasp in our whole journey, men prefer drinking Wexbury to women.
“Men will go into bars and get a Wexbury on ice and sip away on it and I just never saw it coming,” Kavanagh said.
“I thought they would have it and enjoy it and go back to Guinness, but now all of a sudden, lads will have three Wexburys rather than pints after a match, because they are concerned about the calories, it’s fitting a very different space than I thought it would have done.”
Like any small drinks brand, the goal for Wexbury is to export. It’s where the volume, the money and the people are, and to do that, Wexbury is focusing on building up credibility in the Irish market through its supermarket listings, live events and bar presence.
“Our first year, the goal was: get established in Wexford, and then after that, we can gear up for bigger things,” Kavanagh said.
The challenge of course is that Wexford strawberries have almost no brand or nostalgic recognition outside of Ireland but Kavanagh’s marketing synapses have been connecting the dots since the inception of the brand.
“The primary and secondary messages of the brand have to be really constructed to sell internationally because they don’t know what Wexford strawberries are, but that is fine too. The authenticity will still be there, it’s just the structure – how it will be presented – that will change.”
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