Grand Symbols Produce Great Expectations
Why traditions—and icons—matter
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.” — G.K. Chesterton, 1908
I’ve been thinking a lot about traditions lately. With the holiday season upon us—as we make the stretch from Thanksgiving to the New Year, it’s typically laden with traditions.
Family gatherings, favorite recipes, old decorations, traveling. Individually, these are actions we take that represent the customs we've chosen to maintain.
But in 2020, with the pandemic bearing down upon us, we've had to forgo some of those traditions. Particularly of the travel and extended family variety.
It’s a painful reminder that we’re not anywhere near being normal, and it forces us to wonder: what new traditions will come out of this?
We like to think that traditions are immutable customs that we’ve been repeating for generations, sacrosanct and impervious to the buffets of modern life. They’re not manmade like a piece of art, but they grow as a result of the things we do voluntarily rather than instinctively.
Our traditions are a matter of choices that we make along the way.
From the time of my parents’ births right up until I left for college (a timespan of about 40 years), they understood and participated in the weekly tradition of Sunday dinner with the family (parents, grandparents, etc.). When everyone in the family lived in the same town (or even on the same street!), this was simply how it was done.
Now, we’re scattered to various parts of the country and the frequent dining and visits aren’t a tradition. And it’s painful to the generation that knew nothing else.
To the next generation that never experienced these events, it’s not even a subconscious memory. All that remains are the stories we tell each other about our grandparents, our childhood, and other memories of what we did.
Symbols tell powerful stories
While we can’t necessarily keep every tradition alive, we do have artifacts that help remind us of where we came from and what was important to us.
A family portrait, grandmother’s china, grandfather’s pocket watch, or other mementos that were strongly associated with a person or event.
Each year after Thanksgiving, my family decorates our Christmas tree. And each year, decorations and boxes of ornaments seem to be more onerous (do they multiply while they’re hidden away eleven months a year in the storage area?). What was a purely joyous tradition now feels like a task.
Except there’s a spark of excitement that’s kept alive. It’s there in each of us, but it’s quickly coaxed first to a full flame, then to a roaring bonfire—thanks to the pure excitement and joy of our seven-year-old daughter.
She’s been looking forward to this with the same intensity as if it were Christmas morning. And the thing is, her cheerfulness exhilarates us in turn.
The very act of bringing home a tree and putting it in the stand (just some manual labor combined with a sense of balance and the ability to eyeball a plumb line) initiated her elation.
Not even the annual “let's find the dead bulb” portion of our festooning of the tree could slow her down.
“Pictures painted in childhood are painted in bright hues.” — Kate Douglas Wiggin, 1886
The tree itself is a symbol for everything about our Christmas. It means our family gathers around it, we unbox old ornaments and share memories, we drink hot cocoa and listen to Christmas songs on Spotify, all while working diligently to fill the tree — recalling that one time that we overloaded one side of the tree, causing it to tip over.
All of those memories are triggered by virtue of simply putting the tree in the living room.
Consider the symbols that humans instantly recognize and what they've meant over the years. The aquila was the golden standard carried by each Roman legion. The gold eagle not only represented each legion but the honor of Rome itself. If they lost a standard, it was considered a grave offense.
Royal Warrants are marks of excellence granted to companies that provide products and services to Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Prince of Wales. Grantees are entitled to display the royal arms on their products or places of business, thus demonstrating that they're highly sought-after brands.
The Nike swoosh, the Apple logo, and even audio logos such as Netflix’s “ta-DUM,” Law & Order’s “DUN-DUN,” or HBO’s ident are all powerful symbols. We know what's coming or what's expected when we see them.
The choices we make, the habits we form, the traditions we build are all connected to symbolism, whether we realize it or not.
To put it another way, everything communicates.
And as leaders tasked with communicating to our stakeholders, whether they’re employees, customers, investors, the public, or friends and family members, every word we utter and every setting we’re in will be scrutinized.
An iconic landmark lends its name
There's another icon that immediately brings to mind sophistication, pageantry, and centuries of tradition: Highclere Castle. Otherwise known as the mansion used in Downton Abbey.
The home and its estate have been used in a number of productions before (my favorite being Jeeves & Wooster with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, where it stood in for Totleigh Towers), and it is instantly recognizable.
Imagine my surprise then, when I received a note from the purveyors of Highclere Castle Gin. While I'm a gin drinker, I'm not a reviewer. But I had to know more about the choice of this symbol of luxury with respect to this spirit.
The background materials told me the estate is a visible link to history: over 1,000 acres of parkland surrounded by rolling hills and containing the finest occupied Victorian mansion in England. The 8th Earl of Carnarvon and Lady Carnarvon are part of a family that has lived in the home for more than 300 years.
But this isn't the case of taking a recognizable symbol like Highclere and simply slapping it on a bottle of gin. As it happens, the ingredients and the distillation process are authentically Highclere, as you’ll learn below.
In short, this product not only came with a symbol, it came with a story as well. A story that involves history and the modern era. In short, the kind of thing appropriate for Timeless & Timely.
So I reached out to Adam von Gootkin, a spirits entrepreneur who, together with the Earl and Lady Carnarvon, founded Highclere Castle Gin, to understand more about his vision.
The following are excerpts from our interview.
Timeless & Timely: What is it about gin that makes it so popular — not only in recent years, but as a timeless classic?
Adam von Gootkin: I think consumers are rediscovering that gin adds a level of sophistication to cocktails that vodka cannot. Vodka, of course is defined as flavorless, odorless alcohol molecules which when described like that hardly makes me think of a luxurious decadent flavor extravaganza.
Gin is both ancient while incorporating the beautiful botanical notes that lend themselves to a complex or simple cocktail and ultimately to a flavor experience that the more refined customer is seeking. With Highclere Castle Gin this is expressed in the liquified heritage and history of Highclere Castle, the hundreds of years of the highest quality of entertaining with gin and of course the integrating of the beautiful citrus and botanicals from the Highclere estate.
Before prohibition the cocktail concept was rather new. On the world stage there existed gin, scotch, rum, cognac and bourbon as more or less the only players in spirits. As the cocktail culture developed, gin took center stage in the ability to bring to life beautiful cocktails.
Gin had its origins as a medicinal drink, and later was used to mask the flavor of quinine, the antimalarial compound. Given this background, what has it been like selling gin during a global pandemic? What challenges did you face and how did you address them? Has 2020, beyond the obvious, brought any surprises to you as a founder?
In 2019 global demand for our gin was growing at a rate that we didn’t expect. We launched 25 US markets in addition to the UK, France and Switzerland. By the time the pandemic hit, we were just beginning our first spring cocktail gin and tonic season with plans to expand in Europe, Canada, US and Latin America. Obviously as the hospitality industry shut down as did many of our distributers, we were left with fantastic launch plans and no launches, strategies bereft of tactics.
We realized we needed an entirely new strategy to be expressed with nimble tactics. This resulted in plans to focus on core markets going deep with our key retailers and restaurants that were the best in their market and the greatest fit for Highclere Castle Gin. We have accomplished this and have learned much through this pivot.
My belief is if you can successfully survive a global shut down while protecting your team and the integrity of the brand and still be prepared to come out swinging that you are in fact a business with a reason to exist. Highclere Castle has survived a multitude of global calamities, struggles and challenges and yet will be here a hundred years from now. And so will Highclere Castle Gin.
What was your strategy to make the brand stand out?
In a world where the vast majority are concocted in marketing boardrooms, I find it rather easy to stand out when you have a true commitment to authenticity. Highclere Castle Gin is a spirit that redefines the gin category.
Through the commitment of sustainable farming, the protection of ancient botanical gardens, and the stories of Highclere’s exceptional level of hospitality and hosting many of the worlds most interesting people over gin cocktails we bring to life a brand that represents the noble aspiration of being the very best.
In terms of our marketing strategy, I believe that advertising in general is a tax you pay for not being creative. We are very social media- and PR-oriented to tell the soul of our brand’s story. Lady Carnarvon does the most amazing job from the castle and our team further amplifies the beauty and uniqueness of Highclere Castle Gin throughout the world.
When there are so many gimmicky marketing and branding efforts, just what is it about Highclere Castle Gin that makes it more authentic than others?
First, Highclere Castle is real place. A special place representing the best of British hospitality, lifestyle, customs, and traditions. It is both a working estate, a farm, a country home. There to provide beauty and pleasure to the public and memories and experience for special guests.
Highclere Castle Gin represents the style of country living and the pedigree of the eight generations of Earls of Carnarvons who have placed their hearts and souls into maintaining the standard. Lord and Lady Carnarvon are active partners in the business, both caring for the botanicals and taking a strong lead in the brand ambassadorship. Ultimately the castle and the estate are the brand’s home and people come from around the world to experience it.
Second, the most important thing about any spirit is the flavor. We invested over a year and a half on the recipe design. Neither time nor cost was our God. The mission, to create the finest gin that has ever been birthed from a copper still. Connoisseurs from around the world are spreading the world that it’s the first gin you can actually sip on the rocks and it’s brilliant in how it shines in cocktails.
Lastly, Highclere Castle Gin is distilled in England’s oldest gin distillery located above an ancient underground water source. It is hand crafted and distilled in England’s oldest copper gin still. We spent over four years developing the brand including the recipe, bottle design and finding the right partners to distribute it carefully and thoughtfully around the world.
As you can see, the bottle itself is iconic. And after tasting the gin myself, there's no gimmick about this. It's earned its place as a favorite in my home bar.
Let's call it one of the new traditions we're establishing over the holidays.
May the traditions you create and follow be surrounded by anticipation, expectation, and fulfillment.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Disclosure: I was provided one bottle of Highclere Castle Gin from the distributors.
See you back here on Friday. If you’re a paid subscriber, that is.