Campesino Rum, a craft rum company based in Tennessee, was crowned the winner of WSWA’s 2021 Brand Battle! This unique brand is founded on transparency and authenticity, featuring the tag line “Unadulterated Straight Rum.”
Campesino Rum, founded by Hatton Smith II, who is just 27 years old, is taking the rum category by storm, bringing adventure and a new view of rum to the marketplace.
After the Brand Battle Championship, Smith talked with Michael Bilello, WSWA’s Senior Vice President of communications and marketing, as well as WSWA Access craft program manager, to learn more about the Campesino’s “wild” founding, future plans and experiences enjoyed thus far in the process.
MICHAEL BILELLO: Congratulations on your win! You faced stiff competition – all championship contenders presented unique and promising brands with incredible products. As you enjoy this victory and look ahead, how are you feeling about business opportunities and distribution partnerships?
HATTON SMITH II: It feels great! It feels like a lot of things I’ve thought about for the past two to three years are finally starting to come into place. It takes something like WSWA’s Brand Battle to give a brand like mine a chance. To ensure things continue to fall into place, I’m a big proponent of visualization and concentrating on a mission and a purpose. Campesino Rum has a purpose and it’s what I laid out for the judges during the competition.
Winning the rum category and now the championship will hopefully lead to the next step of national distribution and becoming a household brand.
MB: During your pitch, you spoke about how you got your unique start with rum – while living in a jungle! During this time, you were connected to the wildlife and the folks who lived there. Both are well represented in your brand. Can you speak about these experiences?
HS: When I left the U.S, I had no plan, no real money. I only had a one-way ticket to Panama. When I moved into the rum still, I realized that I could make more money making and selling alcohol than I could leading hikes. But I never thought I was going to turn it into a business. I never thought I’d get this far or even have the opportunity to be able to start something decent. Now, I have the ability to give back to where my inspiration for this brand come from. That’s what makes Campesino so different from other brands. The story of Campesino is so alive. The Brand Battle win is just another piece to our story. We are just getting started but I’m very excited to see what else comes about.
Starting this brand, I knew I had to just got for it and embrace the unknown, embrace fear – nature favors the bold. That’s something I learned in the jungle. I learned so many skills that have gotten me to this point – and it’s not the distilling skills or the business aspect, but it’s the interpersonal skills that build confidence, that build integrity. These skills are needed if you’re ever going to make it. The spirits business is so competitive. I mean, just look at the brands I competed against – it was tough!
MB: Can you speak about the process of making the rum in Panama and how that shaped your business model today?
HS: What I learned in Panama was the importance of creating products with integrity. Rum making there was completely different. But the juice was consistent. I kept very detailed notes about the entire distillation run. It really set back to what business looks like in a nutshell. We didn’t have internet, we didn’t have Wi-Fi. I was hand making and selling everything. It took all of the distractions away – it took social and digital media out of the way – and I was able to just make a good product, be honest about it, and if people wanted it and liked it, they would come back. I was catering to a very small population and so I was focused on that repeat customer. I knew I just needed to do the right things and do them really well – and do them better than everyone else.
As far as that transferring into Campesino and our products now, I took everything I learned, and it became part of my entrepreneurial DNA. When I moved back to the states, I started looking at all of the things that existed in this market. And I realized that none of these other brands were about integrity or transparency. There’s a lot of fugazi out there; a lot of big numbers and made-up stories.
Before my experience in Panama, I grew up in the coffee business. When I was younger, I saw this a shift in the coffee industry as brands promoted sustainability, transparency and fair trade. All of this is in my DNA and to not see it in the rum industry showed that there was an opportunity.
MB: Your rum making experience obviously started in a wild, unregulated environment. Now, you’re a part of a very regulated marketplace. Can you speak about the opportunities you have with Campesino?
HS: I think the biggest opportunity is physical, slow, controlled expansion. The word of mouth, viral effect that happens after you hit a tipping point. Our biggest opportunity is for everyone to hear this story and for everyone to take a second look at rum. I really do spend a ton of time in liquor stores doing tastings and on a daily basis I get shot down by people walking straight in the door who say, “Nope, I don’t like rum.” But I fight for that person. When a person tells me they don’t like rum, time after time show them that rum is not something that is fruity flavored, it’s not sweet, it’s not going to give you a horrible hangover. This is a quality made spirit. We are bringing authenticity and quality products to market to elevate rum.
MS: You’re a natural brand ambassador. You’re obviously very connected to the brand – especially with the digital marketing aspects. Tell us more about what inspires you to create content.
HS: This brand is so much a part of my life – it’s hard not to get fired up about it. It’s really the only thing I think about. I want to show the wonderful aspects of this spirit and the culture behind it, and I like telling stories, and I like being a part of them too. Being in our latest video was a really cool experience. Going forward, I want to bring the Campesino educational piece and bring it into film – almost like a travel show. I'd like to embrace storytelling videos about rum which would include agriculture, sustainability, and equality. I feel like if you can't connect to people one on one, the best way to do is via video.
MB: What does winning Brand Battle mean for you and your future plans?
HS: There is an opportunity for Campesino to lead a ‘rum revolution’ if we do the right things, including zero additives and transparency. We want to get into Florida next because it is the top rum market in the US. The biggest opportunity and the biggest volume potential we have is within Florida and I’m looking for a distribution partner that will give me a chance to show what I got. That’s why I am so thankful for Brand Battle and WSWA because it has given me a platform in front of distributors. Being the champion gives me a chance to go and do my thing. Winning Brand Battle is another testament to the fact that the hard work we are doing is paying off.