Business

11.22.13

The Appeal of Cinnabon Vodka and the Rise of Flavored Vodkas

A new alcohol combines two successful consumer trends: Cinnabon-licensed products and flavored vodkas.

Two great tastes that go together. Chocolate and peanut butter. Taco Bell tacos and Doritos. And now, Cinnabons and… . vodka?

Yes. This morning I had a chance to sample the combo.

I originally thought the pitch from Beam, the big spirits company, and Cinnabon would be about some gooey, unabashedly sweet cinnamon buns, smothered in hot icing, infused with alcohol. But it’s the other way around. The flavoring and essence of Cinnabon has been distilled into Beam’s Pinnacle Vodka.

The result is actually quite good. I had a Proustian moment when sniffing the liquor. The memories of a hundred business trips came roaring back as I recalled the unctuous Cinnabon aroma that wafts through airports. The sweetness cuts through the usual harshness of Vodka and leaves a cinnamon taste on the tongue. It’s even better when paired with some actual Cinnabons.

The collaboration between two large companies is the logical outgrowth of a few big trends. One is the rise of flavored vodkas, which are appealing, especially to younger (legal) drinkers. Pinnacle comes in 30 (!) flavors, including Cherry Lemonade, Cookie Dough, Pomegranate, Rainbow Sherbet, and Whipped (as in whipped cream). A second is the relentless expansion of Cinnabon, which has branched out from mall stands and airport kiosks to deals with Burger King and Taco Bell and to consumer packaged products. A third is the continued appeal of indulgence, even in this age of nutritional labeling and increasingly aggressive fat police.

The idea started with Beam. Sales of beer and soda are stagnant or declining. But sales of spirits have actually been growing nicely, as this study shows (PDF). That’s in part because outfits like Beam are rolling out new flavors and products to appeal to the desires of their customers. “People are very specific about what they desire. If they want blackberry, they won’t take blueberry,” said Bill Newlands, president for North America at Beam. Pinnacle is the leading flavored vodka brand in the U.S. And the parent company has enjoyed a nice run in the stock market, as shown by this two-year chart.

 Since customers already were taking up cookie dough-flavored vodka, it was natural to think of a Cinnabons-flavored version. “We had started to work on creating something in this zip code, and internally we said we need to have something that tastes like a Cinnabon,” said Newlands.

For Kat Cole, who started her career as a Hooters waitress (here’s a good Forbes profile), a vodka offered yet another brand extension. “We have over 70 products in consumer packaged goods,” she said. There’s Cinnabon-flavored International delight coffee creamer. Cinnabon-flavored coffee in K-cups. There is Kellogg’s Cinnabon cereal and Keebler Cinnabon cookies. “We are just now hitting $1 billion in total consumer product sales,” Cole said. Several years ago, Cinnabon relied almost exclusively on sales of fresh products at franchised stores. And those are still proliferating rapidly. There are 1,100 outlets in 58 countries, up from 860 last year. But the licensing and packaged-goods efforts have diversified the company’s revenue streams.

But it wasn’t a simple matter of mashing up some Cinnabons and jamming them into bottles. “We were very careful about how we got the bun in there,” said Newlands. Cole noted that “the first iteration was surprisingly delicious, but skewed a little red hot cinnamon,” said Cole. Over the course of 15 versions, the cinnamon flavor was continually toned down.

Like vodka generally, the 70-proof Pinnacle Cinnabon flavor, which sells for $12.99 per bottle, is not a particularly challenging spirit. And sure, this product—made from French vodka—is cloying in its sweetness. But that’s the point. Both Beam and Cinnabon are in the business of selling indulgences that should be enjoyed in moderation and they’re not shy about it.

Cole said that when she first came on board at Cinnabon there was a project aimed at reducing the stomach-impact of the 880-calorie Cinnabon classic. The problem was, the company already sold the Mini-bon, a 350 calorie alternative, and removing more calories would have meant putting in artificial sweeteners. So she killed the project.

Cinnabon and Beam aren’t expecting any awards from the fat police or nutritionists when the bottles hit the shelves on December 1. A 1.5-ounce shot packs 150 calories. And that’s ok. “We are sweets. We are sugar. We are fat. We are yumminess,” said Cole. “Do I want the American public eating a classic Cinnabon Classic every day? No way.” But having a Mini-bon three time a week is just fine. Just so, adults having a shot of a sweet shot of vodka every now and again, or mixing it in with warm cider, is perfectly acceptable. “We always say people should drink responsibly,” said Newlands.

Of course, for foodie sophisticates and self-respecting adults, there is something slightly transgressive about a vodka that is flavored like an airport cinnamon roll. I mean, it sounds like something that Homer Simpson might dream up. But that’s part of what the partners are counting on. As Cole put it: “Outside of being a good business opportunity, it’s fun to be in another segment where, when people show up, they say, ‘I really shouldn’t, but I will.’”