Tequila With a Modern Twist: The Story of Yeyo Tequila (Part 2)

yeyo tequila
By Ryan Kelley | 03.15.11

It’s halfway through my interview with Jon Bullinger, founder and owner of Yeyo Tequila, and the rain in Portland, Oregon, continues to fall relentlessly. Having already discussed how he created the flavor profile and shape of his tequila (in part 1 of this interview), it was time to address the curious four letter name – “YEYO”.

“A name has to be simple,” Jon says, “the shorter the better. You can remember it easier.” The name should also be easy to type, roll off the tongue, and have positive connotations with consumers. One possible name for the brand was “Diego.” “People know the name,” he explains, “it’s associated with sunny San Diego, and it’s easy to spell – there’s a connection between the consumer and the product as soon as they see it.”

But like most of the names on his initial list of 50 possibilities, Diego was already a registered trademark. There was one, however, that stood out. “’Yeyo’ actually means a lot of things. If you think of it in North America, it’s [slang for] cocaine … but if you go outside North America it means a lot of things. I had someone buy it at the liquor store just because of the name. She said ‘this means Mother’ [in Swahili] and she bought a bottle for that – the mother of tequila. I actually learned that right then.”

Before I can ask if he’s gotten any flak for the name, he continues telling me aspects of the name that he likes:” I thought it was clean,” he continues, “having two of the same letters – the ‘Y’s – you can do a lot graphically.” Connotation and meaning aside, the name is definitely unique. Jon points out “there is no tequila in the world that starts with a ‘Y.’ Yeyo is the only one. Go to ‘D’ or ‘A’ and there are two pages. Everyone is ‘Don’ or ‘Azul.’”

Being different and standing out from the crowd is a conscious effort. “I positioned myself away from traditional tequila and I’m starting my own category and it’s Yeyo, and I want to be number one in my own category – very different from everyone else.”

When we spoke almost a year ago, Yeyo was already making waves in Oregon, routinely coming in behind heavy hitters Patrón and Don Julio as a top-selling blanco. He focuses on both on-promise (bar and restaurants) and off-premise (liquor stores) accounts, but says he prioritizes liquor stores over the bars. “The money doesn’t come from restaurants and bars, it comes from liquor stores: 70-80 percent.” He breaks it down like this, “I can buy one shot in a restaurant and 25 shots in a liquor bottle – plus you take it home and share it with your friends and then they’re talking about it.” Jon still does work to ensure Yeyo Tequila is placed in bars and restaurants – in fact, some bars in Oregon have ousted Patrón for Yeyo – although he also admits there are some unique challenges. “The bar industry is really flakey … [One day] you have a bartender that loves your tequila and then they quit. The next bartender doesn’t like your tequila and that’s it. And unless you’re a giant it’s hard to get on a restaurant’s menu. [You end up] buying the restaurant’s menus – all stuff under the table – $500 to $1000 for a spot. I’d rather spend my time in the liquor store having tastings and having people try the tequila than spend any money in a bar or restaurant any day of the week.”

The comparison of Yeyo to Patrón comes up more than once in our conversation, but Jon makes it clear that his sights aren’t set on Patrón. “I don’t bag on Patrón, [the bartenders in Oregon] talk about it. I let them vent. Maybe because [Patrón is] mainstream and everywhere so it doesn’t make it as special [as Yeyo]. I don’t know what it is but I’ve heard it from a lot of bartenders in Oregon.” When Yeyo does invade a bar, it seems to dominate and slowly chip away at Patrón’s market. He gives me an example: “Couture down the street [doesn’t] sell Patrón anymore. They say: ‘we sell Yeyo, it’s the same price (per shot) and it’s twice as good.’ They have people try it, they like it and people eventually switch.” This has resulted in Yeyo doing very well in “little towns like Wheeler and Killer out in the middle of nowhere. People try it, like it, and then talk about it. [Bar Patróns become] Yeyo ambassadors – people who are a fan of the marketing and tequila – people who like that it’s got Beaverton, Oregon on the back … these people convince the bar to carry it and they convince their friends to drink it with them at the bar and that’s how we grow.”

This grassroots approach to selling tequila is similar in style to the way Jon designs his marketing campaigns. Press material, publicity photos, YouTube video advertisements, and even the fonts are all done “from scratch,” Jon says with pride, “I don’t copy anyone.” Beginning in 2009, Jon began producing a series of YouTube video commercials. “We began shooting it in August 2009 and then slowly released them. I spent only $4500 on all that, which is pretty cheap.” While he provides advice and input, Jon prefers to let his friends’ creativity go wild. “Everyone who works with me, I let them run with it. I say ‘you’re good at what you do so I’m not going to put any boundaries. Come up with a couple of things and we’ll see what happens.’”

Jon himself is also not afraid to get his hands dirty, and is determined to show people that tequila is not what they think it is. For Oregonians who purchase a case for a party or event, he and General Manager Alex Roosevelt will “go to your house and bartend and teach you how to make drinks with it and tell you about the tequila.” Jon speaks highly of his colleague Alex, who had been working in the bar industry for 13 years. One of the first times they did a party, Jon was amazed at his friend’s inherent talent. “Every other drink was amazing. He went from having never touched drinks before in his life to becoming…a mixologist. Just like that. When I mix a drink, he can tell me what’s missing. I can use the same ingredients as him, but it doesn’t come out the same.”

At these events, Jon’s focus is on reeling in the guests. “Say someone had a bad experience with Jose Cuervo [Especial] – they don’t want to touch tequila. They look at what we’re mixing and say ‘what’s in that?’ I tell them there’s tequila in there and they say, ‘really’?” He then convinces them to try it straight, and “they are surprised they like it.” When mixing the drinks, Jon and Alex often make tequila versions of classic drinks, such as mojitos and martinis. It’s all about changing people’s perceptions of tequila. “I don’t see why we have to use rum or vodka with these drinks.”

Yeyo is currently only available as a silver tequila for several reasons. “Marketing and [building] awareness of one is a lot of work,” Jon concedes. “And to get the right taste is a lot of work.” Jon is researching and experimenting with different woods, but doesn’t feel a need to rush the release of a reposado or añejo. “I have a lot of time,” he says, “and we’ll make sure it’s styled and correct and I’ll make sure a lot of people try it before it comes out.”

Instead of developing and marketing aged Yeyo, Jon is focused on expanding into other states. Last year he was planning to expand into California and had started to build buzz with a Yeyo California Facebook page. He wants to be cautious when moving south into California. “I know it is a huge spot so we’ll probably start in Sacramento and then we’ll slowly get bigger. There’s way too much demand. I don’t even have enough glass to supply even Sacramento. So it’s going to have to go slowly. We’ll grow.”

After following up with Jon last week, he tells me that California is temporarily off the radar. “After analyzing the market in California, we decided to remove it from the current roadmap.  While I personally love this place, we realized that in order to launch a product in states like California, Nevada and New York you need to have a very large budget in place (millions per state) to launch the product the right way.”

Instead, Jon is turning to smaller states, but his goal remains ambitious. “Yeyo is entering Arizona, New Mexico and Texas within the next 60-90 days.  These states do not need a mass amount of capital the big three require.  Yeyo must be in the top 5 selling tequilas in each market it is sold in before we expand again.  I have very high expectations for the Yeyo brand when I enter new states, Yeyo must outpace others in mindshare and sales.”

Our conversation wraps up with Jon discussing another idea he’s had for marketing Yeyo. The “Yeyo Lounge” is a bar where all the cocktails and food feature Yeyo. He would take a unique approach to the design, where people and faces are at the center of it, not bottles and logos. “I don’t agree with the way most bar structures are set up … the Yeyo bar will be pods built for one bartender in each pod.” This Benihana-style bar is on the backburner, however, as Oregon law does not allow owners of liquor brands to own or staff a bar in the state. The Yeyo-dominated food and drink concept, however, is still moving forward. Jon’s friends just opened YOLO Lounge in downtown Portand. It’s a sushi lounge and martini bar and features 5 Yeyo cocktails, 3 Yeyo food items, a Yeyo liquid nitrogen drink, and a YOLO/YEYO honey sauce sold by the bottle.

The coffee is now cold and the rain is still falling in Portland. Jon and I part ways and as I sit behind the steering wheel of my car listening to the rain pounding from above, I reflect on our discussion and am reminded of something Jon said. I don’t know why it popped into my head, but I write it down because it summarizes his attitude and is, perhaps, the secret to his success: “It’s all about what we can do next.”

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