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Neal Cohen Of Tip Top Proper Cocktails: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand

You need money, but you don’t necessarily need an excess of money. The more money you raise, the more obligations follow.

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neal Cohen.

Neal Cohen is the Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Atlanta-based Tip Top Proper Cocktails.

An Atlanta native, Neal attended The University of Michigan, from which he graduated in 2006 with a degree in American culture. After graduation, Neal returned to Atlanta to work for a local radio station, where he hosted prime time shows and produced interviews and performances with musicians and other figures from Atlanta’s arts community. During his tenure at the station, he also began working with Superfly, an experience company that produced Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and Comedy Central’s Clusterfest. As Superfly’s Marketing Director, Neal helped build brands via visual identities, social media, and content creation. This intersection of music, food, and art would ultimately shape the core of his career path.

Neal also spent time working for a cocktail-related event series called Cocktail Magic; it was here that he met a number of superstars in the industry and first became interested in the beverage world. Since cocktails had always been fairly unattainable in festival settings, Neal and his childhood friend (and fellow music industry veteran) Yoni Reisman began developing the concept that would become Tip Top Proper Cocktails.

In addition to his responsibilities as Co-Founder of the company, Neal serves as the company’s CMO, where he focuses on branding, marketing, and sales for Tip Top. Drawing inspiration from the relationships he’s developed during his time in the beverage world, Neal enjoys working alongside the talented people that Tip Top has allowed him to meet. His hope is that consumers will see Tip Top as an embodiment of hospitality: a product that will help build genuine connections and create a space for deeper interactions between people.

When Neal isn’t working, he enjoys attending concerts and discovering new music, taking food excursions across Atlanta, being outdoors, and most of all — having dance parties on his front porch with his family.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and my primary passion growing up was music. Between growing up in the South and having a mother from Israel, I had a combination in my culinary world of Southern food, Kosher food, and a Mediterranean diet. I always had a keen interest in food in general, so music and food are what really propelled all of my interests and pursuits in life. Well, I’d be remiss to say if it wasn’t art as well.

I studied American culture and cultural anthropology in college. I was also a cheese monger at Zimmerman’s in Ann Arbor where I learned that all food has sociopolitical stories and narratives behind it. It is not simply what you unwrap from a package or what is being cooked in a home, but rather all the culture, politics, and social forces that come together to create food. That’s very much how I approach talking about music. When I was in the music festival industry, I focused on how that relates to people’s lives, building community, and the tribal nature of having a common interest — that’s also how I’ve treated general marketing and brand-building. When I came into the beverage world, in particular with Tip Top, I was looking at classic cocktails, the stories behind them, and all the associations that come with them as a key part of how we build things.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food or beverage brand you are leading?

Yoni, my business partner, and I were in the music festival business. While looking at the concessions programs in that space, we realized there was a gaping hole for beverage offerings, with only beer or wine being served. There weren’t really any cocktail programs available at these festivals. In having conversations with concessionaires, we determined that coming up with an efficient, single-serve quality cocktail was a means of solving that problem.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There’s plenty of mistakes, but not any that I find so funny or am too eager to share. I wish there was more there, because I enjoy funny stories.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food or beverage line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

While you need a high-quality product, you also need to pay great attention to your branding. My advice is to find great designers and really consider the messages you want to send to consumers. Ensuring that your designer has a clear understanding of your direction is vital to creating a brand that will resonate. Branding is definitely key. If you can’t capture someone’s attention to try what you’ve created, then it doesn’t matter how good what is in the can or in the package. Product wrapping is very important, and once it’s unwrapped and consumed, it needs to be of great quality so that people come back.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Firstly, it depends on whether or not you come from the industry. In my case, neither Yoni nor I came from the beverage industry, so our first step in creating our product was filled with research, research, research. This includes going online, buying and consuming books, and reaching out to people who are experts in the field. You’d be surprised at how many people are willing to talk to you and share their knowledge in a way that isn’t competitive, but rather in the spirit of the rising tide that raises all ships. We’ve learned so much from reaching out to experts, and when you find one you trust in an area that you need — hire them either in a position as a consultant or full time.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

You’ve got to have a lot of patience, put together a plan, and stay on top of it. Without putting a plan to paper, you don’t even have the opportunity to diverge from a plan. A plan, just like “rules”, is sort of made for breaking. At least you have some form of guardrails to stay within on a day-to-day and can understand when and why you want to go outside those rails.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Yes. It doesn’t mean that you must take everything the consultant says at face-value, because you must still trust your gut. You’ll always benefit from finding people that are more experienced than you in the field that you’re entering from a conversation with them, but you can decide if you’re willing to heed their advice or not.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

You need money, but you don’t necessarily need an excess of money. The more money you raise, the more obligations follow. That’s really a personal question to ask yourself based on what your assets are and what finances you have access to, to determine whether that’s bootstrapping or venture capital.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

I think just being open to developing all those relationships is key.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Well, you certainly need funding. In our case, we self-funded for proof-of-concept round, and we’ve been able to find friends and family funding to further propel the growth of the company once we determined that we could create something that people would buy and after buying it once, they would buy it again.
  2. Good people and partners. You need good people on your team that fill all the areas the company will need from production, sales and marketing, and building the strongest back-of-house for financial needs. You also need good partners. In our case we rely on good distributors, and we’ve chosen those that we can often trust — which aren’t always the biggest and most influential, but those that will be good partners who invest in our brand and understand the product.
  3. Great design because people taste with their eyes. If the design doesn’t immediately appeal to a consumer in that first encounter with your product, you’re likely not going to get to the point where they actually taste it and adopt it as a product that they must have.
  4. An audience. The best way to get to that is for your product to solve a problem for a specific audience. In our case, we saw that there were many occasions where people who ordinally enjoy a good cocktail, did not have that as a viable option. Creating an efficient, quality, convenient, and consistent cocktail brand for those people felt like we were truly solving a problem. Whether consumers are on an airplane, at a fast-casual restaurant, or at home, this product would be readily available at their leisure.
  5. A great product. Once you get past the hurdles of finding people that are intrigued by what you have to offer, you need to provide an excellent product that they will come back to. In our case, we worked with very talented bartender, Miles Macquarrie, of Kimball House in Atlanta, and he became our recipe developer. Allowing him to fine-tune our recipes is a continual process. Nothing is ever perfect, and we always look to improve our existing cocktails while providing room to innovate with new ones.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

It’s a combination of solving a problem, and in doing so, creating a brand that is quite visually appealing. People want to be associated with it — they want to wear the t-shirt and pull our 8-pack out of their bag when they get to the party to show their friends what they brought. Attracting those first adopters that are going to be the ones to bring it to the party is also very important.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We are always figuring out what our giving strategy is. We do work with a lot of different organizations and schools looking for donations for auctions and fundraisers. We’ve supported Save Our Stages to support music venues, and The Giving Kitchen that supports hospitality workers. For us at Tip Top, we believe what’s really core to who we are, is that we come from the entertainment field, and we touch on cocktail culture which is built on hospitality. We’ll continue to find ways to contribute meaningfully to those communities and organizations.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Personally, I’ve got an idea coming from a background in the social media space. The social media lifestyle that a lot of people live these days comes with a lot of depression and anxiety. We’ve had people close to us that we’ve lost because of their own battles with those mental health issues.

One idea that I have, is that a platform is created where people give anonymous compliments to each other. There’s so much trolling, and questioning of self-worth right now, but if there was a place you could go to a couple times a week and receive anonymous compliments that were personal, without necessarily knowing where they’re coming from, it could be a great way to understand how other people perceive your value in the world. Each day, if you got in the car with one of those compliments lingering in your head, maybe you’d be a bit gentler on the road, going to the grocery store, or in the workplace. We could understand each other a bit better and become more compassionate.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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