“It’s ok to fail”: Atom Labs on NPD

Rhodri Morgan speaks to Atom Labs global head of NPD, Rosie Milsom, about how the company aims to disrupt the spirits industry through trial and error, Covid-19's impact on the project, and A-B InBev's hands-off approach to ownership.

UK drinks company Atom Brands is the third arm of Atom Group, a consortium of drinks businesses that also includes online spirits retailer Master of Malt and sales network Maverick Drinks. 

In 2018, the group was bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev, marking another step on the company's journey from producing just 24 bottles of gin a week in 2012 to an estimated half-a-million bottles in total this year.

Last year, Atom Brands revealed Atom Labs, a new product development (NPD) platform tasked with developing spirit ranges based on customer feedback from Master of Malt data. 

The company can go from idea to execution in just six weeks, allowing it to test what works on Master of Malt before committing fully. Products that have already come off the Atom Labs assembly line include Jaffa Cake Gin and Burnt Ends, an American whiskey designed to pair with barbecued food. 

Rhodri Morgan: how does the Atom Labs project help you develop new products?

Rosie Milsom, global head of new product development for Atom Brands: We get a product live in phases of six weeks broken down into three two-week stages. Firstly, we have a 'development' stage where we come up with the concept, design the label, and make sure we have everything specced out properly. We then have a two-week 'coordinate' stage when we make sure we've got all the consumables we need on-site. Then, the last two weeks is the 'produce' phase where we go into production, get it bottled, labelled and live on Master of Malt. 

Take Jaffa Cake Gin this summer; we launched it on Master of Malt for a couple of weeks and it did quite well, got it out into some national press, and it got picked up by Boohoo and did even better.

We could do it quicker, but to be able to do everything properly we decided that this was the appropriate amount of time.

What have been your biggest learnings from trying ambitious projects as such a small team?

Full scales of economy is a big one. We learned the hard way that you should make sure that, even if something costs a little bit more in the first instance, it's probably worth doing. 

For instance, we bought a few thousand carry packs that held a bottle of Bathtub gin and four cans of tonic, to use at events. Then, Covid-19 hit and events didn't happen. We weren't able to pivot in that situation but that was a rare instance. 

Now, when we realise something isn't right, we're able to pivot very quickly and make that change without spending too much. That's why we decided to be agile rather than use the traditional 'waterfall' marketing technique.

We are not traditional, we do things really differently; quick and sometimes a little bit dirty, but that's okay. One of our big things is it's okay to fail: but do it fast and do it cheap.

Given the amount and variance of feedback you receive through the Master of Malt platform, is there a danger of being too reactive?

The way Labs works in the first instance is we don't actually give anything a marketing push for the first couple of weeks – we just let it be on Master of Malt and allow it to get a little bit of natural traction. 

Being part of the same company as Master of Malt means having full access to that data. But, you have to justify the data as well. We'll take note of one comment saying, 'I don't like this, this doesn't taste right,' but it has to be substantiated by something.

The point of Labs is to give people delicious drinks they didn't know they wanted and essentially we're building drinks for the consumer. In the future, we'll have a community where we openly ask people for feedback – you can do all the traditional marketing techniques, which are proven, but they take time and they're expensive. 

We found that we've got a really dedicated audience who really care about drinks and it'd be stupid not to utilise that.

How far can you go in bringing unusual products to market?

We obviously have the benefit of being part of Atom Group, which means we've got access to all the equipment and facilities, but we can do it on a really small scale. If we want to use something that was difficult to come by, there's a trade-off; how valuable is this going to be versus are we going to be able to scale it? Before any of that happens, we need to make sure people actually want it. 

We're here to bring wild and wacky drinks to people and just because something like a finger lime might be hard to get eight months of the year, it doesn't mean we won't use it; we'll find ways to make sure that we can scale it. There will be degrees of pain to be able to get over those hurdles but most of those things we can fix.

How do you manage your budget and workload between your small team?

It's a bit of a weird one because we use what we've already got – there's very little external spend that isn't already part of the business. The only thing would be labels, which don't cost very much. We're able to just do everything at a very low cost and actually, the Labs team go into the warehouse and always do the first batch of everything. 

Myself, Ben (Atom Labs MD), Lara (branding packaging designer), and Laura (marketing product owner) will go in and do the bottling and stick the labels on the first batch by hand if we have to. No one's too big for anything, there's no hierarchy. Everyone's in it together.

Were there any concerns after the A-B InBev acquisition?

There was maybe a bit of concern that we might be really tied in with loads of red tape, but that didn't happen at all. They believe in what we're doing and to a degree, we're left to our own devices. 

One of the really good things from my point of view has been education around the supply chain and sustainability, which is something they're really good at. Being able to pull on the resources within A-B InBev in terms of their procurement team, I think it's been really beneficial for Atom.

What products are you working on now?

We're taking a view on working on some carbon neutral and sustainability stuff in 2021, in two different products: one focused more towards the on-trade, and one focused towards consumers.

Main image credit: Atom Labs