Small Business Stories goes behind-the-scenes with creators – like you – who are building brands in today’s dynamic marketplace.
In this installment, Kaylee Nedley, Co-Founder of Iconic Cocktail Co., gives us the inside scoop on what inspired her business and how she’s managed to build a strong brand over the past four years by staying focused on one core message. click here to view the full interview
Like most small business owners, Kaylee Nedley is amazingly resourceful. Within minutes of my arrival, she’s converted a small corner of the production kitchen that doubles as her office into a makeshift video set and managed to cobble together a quick-fix to level the iphone camera I’m using to film our interview.
It’s obvious she’s more than capable of meeting any challenge that comes her way, so I’m not surprised to learn that Kaylee and her partner Matt Farrow have grown Iconic Cocktail Co. over the past four years to the point where they’re ready to expand beyond Arizona.
Here, Kaylee shares their journey – from how they got their start, to the lessons learned along the way – and offers her advice for creating a strong brand foundation to grow from.
Tell us the story behind Iconic Cocktail Co.
I should start with the fact that Matt (Farrow), my fiancé, makes everything taste good and I make everything look good. That's the partnership we established since day one.
Matt was a bartender for about 20 years and he's just really talented when it comes to flavor profiles for cocktails – I call him a chef of cocktails. But it got to the point where I was encouraging him to not give away so many ideas to the bars he was working for.
We started what’s now Iconic Cocktail Co. at the tail end of 2015. We always wanted to run a business ourselves, and we wanted a bar, but that's a ton of overhead so we had to think backwards. We started with cocktail catering where we would design cocktails for weddings. At one of our first events Matt made this grenadine syrup that was just lovely and elevated, and I had the idea to put it in a bottle and teach people how to recreate the cocktail at home.
So, that first Christmas in 2015 we just started bottling up flavor concentrates and sold them like Girl Scout cookies to people we knew. That’s when we realized that we had something with this cocktail mixer – where we could be everywhere without having to be one specific place and without having a lot of overhead. We could operate in commercial kitchens and sell at markets which is what we still do to this day.
Where did the name Iconic Cocktail Co. come from?
So, the funny thing is, when we were thinking backwards from starting a bar, we thought maybe we could do a food truck instead and call it Iconic Soups. We were going to have signature soups and seasonal soups – just like we have signature mixers and seasonal mixers today.
In the end, we decided we could create a line of iconic things – using ‘iconic’ like a master brand – focusing on mixers now and coming back to soups later.
What’s the core idea that lives at the heart of your brand?
The number one truth of our brand, and something that we celebrate everyday with our customers is, we encourage creativity.
You see a lot of mixers on the shelf – like margarita mixer for example – you get it and you're thinking, “Well I can just make a margarita with it.”
Or, you go to a cocktail bar and you don't really know what you're getting because it’s made with 18 million ingredients! It tastes good but you don't think you can ever approach making it.
With Iconic it starts with a simple method. Our method is two ounces of spirit, one ounce of our mixer, and then a half ounce of tart – lemon, lime, or grapefruit juice. From there we really want you to be creative.
It's a plug and play ratio that we've tested out with all spirits, all mixtures, and all tarts and we know that no matter what you're going to do, it’s going to be good. We want you to add soda water, we want you to add bitters, we want you to play with your garnish.
We want to inspire people to get behind their home bar and try something else out.
Our motto is, “just add spirit” – not just in terms of alcohol, but also the spirit of creativity.
What values drive your brand? Can you give some examples of how they impact your business and your decision making?
Two of our top values are supporting local and making our products as natural as they can be. We want to use ingredients that are coming from our backyard any time we can.
Our seasonal ingredients, for example, are really a showcase of what’s in season in Arizona at any given time. Right now, we're in the dead of winter but this is when citrus season shines for us. So, we're running our Meyer Lemon Balm mixer. We’re using McClendon’s Select lemons. The story is that one day Bob from McClendon’s Select gave Matt a case of Meyer lemons and then the next day our friend from Brother’s Nature gave us some lemon balm. So, we decided to put them together. We like to say, “If life gives you Meyer lemons, you make Meyer Lemon Balm.” Our access and relationships with local farmers at the markets has really helped us develop our seasonal schedule.
If we're not getting an ingredient locally, we use local purveyors who are providing jobs and opportunities for Arizona. For example, we were getting the lime leaves we use for our Lime Leaf Tonic from California then we happened to run out and we found some at Lee Lee's Market in Mesa. So, we started a conversation with one of the owners of Lee Lee's International Supermarket and found out he was getting them locally and we could order directly from him.
What process did you go through to create the Iconic Cocktail Co. visual branding & packaging design? What challenges did you face? What tools or guidance did you use to overcome those challenges?
I just love the idea of a brand and what goes into it.
Everything you see has mostly been done by me. I got my degree in filmmaking and I was always teaching myself programs like Adobe Illustrator. When we needed a logo, I opened my computer and whipped together some ideas and the logo we chose is still our logo today. Our logo has the crossed lines, which is symbolic of Matt and I crossing paths. It’s probably not as professional as it could be but it’s definitely the roots of our business.
Our branding started off with Matt and me talking about what we wanted it to feel like. We came to the idea of it feeling like it was something that's always been around, which lead to the apothecary brand theme of the label.
We wanted a really easy branding system so we could add flavors on the fly. Our first labels had a blank space and I would use an old stamp press to hand stamp the flavor names on each label. We also left an area to write in the batch date because we wanted to celebrate the freshness of each bottle and to add a wow factor for our customers. And then we realized as we were growing that was negative timestamp for us.
We now have just one label and we print the different flavor names on it. It wasn't until last year that we actually had labels on a roll, and I didn't have to hand label every single bottle.
The glass bottle was intentional so we could showcase the natural beauty of our products. You can really see how the color of our Prickly Pear Sour changes from season to season depending on how much rainfall we get, and our Ginga Syrup has natural sediment at the bottom since we use whole-pressed ginger and don’t filter our ginger syrup. Every batch is unique, and our packaging allows that to come through.
What are your plans for 2020? What challenges are you facing?
This year all of our focus is going into the Iconic Cocktail brand and seeing what else we can do with it. Getting it outside of Arizona so we can celebrate Arizona with other states – whether that’s through Whole Foods or Sprouts or whatever it is – just putting Arizona on the map and showing what we can do here.
There are definitely challenges because being able to sell face-to-face to consumers
at the farmer's market allows us to elaborate on our message and answer questions. So, we need to figure out how we give customers the same experience when the mixer goes on the shelf and we walk away from it. Are they inspired when they read the bottle? Are they excited? Are we making the same connection that we get when we're at the farmer's markets?
I think it has a lot to do with getting people onto our website and offering a plethora of information when it comes to mixing at home, so we’re inspiring people to be creative. Things like the “how-to's” and our recipe page which is sorted in such a way where you can just select the season and all the cocktails that go with that season are available. Or you can select your base spirit and see what you can make.
Social media has been great for building our brand community. When people tag us in recipes, we always re-share them on our website so we can show what they’ve made and inspire others.
In the end, I trust that if we're authentic and true to ourselves people will get what Iconic Cocktail Co. is all about.
What’s the best brand advice you can give other small business owners?
Figure out your why – your truth – and always go back to that message.
Your product is not your brand message.
For us, our brand message is, “we encourage creativity,” and that's what we always come back to. How can we get people excited? How can we get people creative?
So, figure out that one line, that one sentence of what you're doing and why – a line that doesn't include the tangibles, but includes the goosebumps.
And finally, tell us….if you had to recommend one flavor for someone to start off with, what would it be?
At first, we only made Prickly Pear Sour two times per year, in February and September. And then we partnered with a local forager who's able to supply prickly pear year-round so just last year it became one of our signature lineup mixers.
Our Prickly Pear Sour is made from only three ingredients – Prickly Pear nectar that we get locally, lemons, and a very small amount of pure cane sugar. It’s our cleanest label. It only has 10 grams of sugar per ounce and a little goes a long way since we don't add water to the batch.
You can throw a splash of Prickly Pear Sour into a vodka soda or a gin and soda and it transforms it into this beautiful bright pink cocktail, and you get tons of flavor from it. You don't have to add the half ounce of tart because it's so tart on its own.
So, if you don't know what you're doing it's the perfect flavor to start off with. It's a taste of Arizona that I always recommend to anyone and everyone.
You can find Iconic Cocktail Co. at: