How Two CPG Executives Leveraged Insight To Shake Up The Vodka Industry

Cecilia Nysing

Building a loyal following is the holy grail for every consumer brand in the world. I’m always amazed by how new brands can emerge—none more so than in the spirits sector with all of its ferociousness. A brand I’ve been tracking with interest is Frankly Organic Vodka, a company that prides itself on ingredient transparency and philanthropic mission to give back 1 percent of revenue to animal welfare through their Frankly Fido program. 

I recently met with Philip and Kristen Risk, the cofounders of Austin, Texas-based Frankly, to discuss how they’ve grown an award-winning, 100% handcrafted organic vodka that has achieved a remarkable 971% growth despite launching during a tumultuous economic period.

Philip Risk, Frankly’s cofounder and CEO is an Indiana native with a passion for ethical business excellence, founding Sublime Marketing Group in 2006 and holding numerous sales and marketing roles in companies including Samsonite, General Electric, Con Edison Solutions, NorthPole, and Bay Travel Gear. Kristen Risk, Cofounder & SVP Marketing Communications was born in Connecticut but grew up overseas including in Italy, going on to work in both corporate and startup companies including Samsonite and American Tourister. Both bring a hands-on attitude to their new business. 

Philip: “Although I fulfill the role of CEO, keep in mind, we’re a small business! So that also includes marketing, product development, packaging, pricing—as a young startup we all kind of do a little bit of everything.” 

Kristen: “My responsibilities lie in public relations, advertising, and philanthropy while working closely with our marketing department to create cohesive marketing plans and strategies.”

The idea for Frankly emerged from extensive research in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) space and spirits industry—leading to the conclusion that ingredient transparency was a rarity. Both founders found it unsettling not knowing exactly what was in the beverages they were ingesting. 

Philip: “We were looking for something a little bit more exciting and we’ve always kind of had a healthy lifestyle and are very conscious about what we eat. My wife’s Italian, so everything’s handmade from scratch, no artificial colors or anything. We had left New England and moved to Arizona, and it’s a different lifestyle when you get out there. We were running marathons and working out, using organic produce and eventually became really involved with functional ingredients.”

Frankly is the first spirit brand in the world to include ingredients, along with nutritional content, on their label. All of their ingredients are sourced from small farmers who employ sustainable agriculture practices and avoid the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides. This has led to Frankly winning multiple awards—including at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition and New York World Wine and Spirits Competition.

Philip: “We were looking at the beverage space after spending almost two years researching the market, and found a unique product opportunity that was not being met. Currently there are no product label requirements in the industry, marking a huge, missed opportunity to be transparent with consumers. Just as with the food we eat, consumers are more educated than ever and want to know what they are putting in their bodies.  It just kind of snowballed from there!” 

Developing the end product led to a unique approach to the production process. 

Philip: “When you look at the vodka space, about 70 percent of that is original and then about 30 percent flavor. 10 years ago there was this huge influx of flavored vodkas to the point where it got, quite frankly, a little silly. So when we were looking at developing the world’s first functional spirit, we looked at the beverage space and said, ‘what are the top flavors year over year?’ What we’ve done is created layers, with real fruits, real roots, and real botanicals to create deep flavors.”

Kristen: “We actually started backward, I mean, we started with the actual flavorings that we had anticipated or thought we wanted, so we started with fruit juices. We began to work with a woman who started the first cold press juices, a prestigious retail store in Arizona, and she helped us develop the juices itself, and then we started putting in functional ingredients. We did a lot of taste testing for around eight months and narrowed it down to four flavors themselves. We did that for almost nine months, and then we hired a new master distiller – he understood how to properly scale up vodka production!” 

Both founders feel their branding has been a significant factor in this success—following a serendipitous name change halfway through.

Kristen: “We hired a boutique branding company out of San Diego, California, specializing in the organic space. It was a process of really going back and forth and having them provide different iterations of fonts, and how our brand name looked—but there is somewhat of a story there! Our name originally was called Frank, but we were forced to change the name. We changed the name to Frankly, which actually is ‘to live frankly’ or ‘to live honestly.’ It really makes more sense for us because previously many people were saying, what is it, ‘Frank Sinatra’ or so on!” 

Philip: “We really wanted to set ourselves apart in how we branded and ultimately marketed the product. We had people walking into stores to see if our label would draw their attention to our product, just like we did with the focus groups on the tasting. I’m a big proponent of the product having to be the best product.”

Since the brand’s inception in 2018, Kristen and Philip, have rapidly expanded their reach from 13 states in 2020 to 45 states in 2021—including a forthcoming nationwide rollout in Whole Foods. This has come as a result of a lot of hard work. 

Kristen: “You’re like, wow, how does that happen? I mean, we are both experienced professionals, but this is beyond your wildest dreams at this point. It’s grit and grinds every day. I really love it.” 

Philip: “It’s funny, when we started, we thought we were going to roll it right out, but we quickly learned there were challenges to distribution and regulation that differed by state. Legality challenges coupled with the shrinkage of distributors over the last few years due to M&As made the waters even murkier. Years ago there were many distributors, whereas now there’s really three. So, they have a lot more power in terms of being able to pick the brands to work with—and then you had a huge influx of small craft brands. We had this great product and adequate funding, ready to launch. We, fortunately, found one in Arizona, and we launched in Texas and Arizona initially. In Texas, none of the big guys wanted to talk to us. Eventually, we had all of the distributors knocking on our doors. Our resilience has been the key to our success!” 

Despite being a small startup, Frankly is also committed to giving something back as much as possible.  

Kristen: “We give back one percent <of revenue> to animal welfare organizations in many different forms, whether it’s through legislation or shelters.

Philip: “It was important for us to showcase our philanthropy and transparency messaging across the board, and it really allowed us to get the attention of the big national chains. We went from 5 to 21 employees now. We run this business like a Fortune 500 because that’s the background that we came from. The procedures, the processes and always thinking about how we can make the business run smoother across all aspects—whether that’s production, sales, procedures or marketing has led to even more success.” 

Marketing leaders and entrepreneurs can learn a lot from Frankly’s growth due to focusing on consumer and market insight to develop their product. Their success has come from a lot of attention to detail and also looking to work to the highest standards despite their relatively small size. Developing a product that would help them leverage their key differentiators of wellness and transparency, and pursuing a philanthropic mission at its core—including supporting small producers and farmers—is also key. I wish them the best of luck and will watch their continued growth with interest.

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