by Jon Shakill
Stacy Ann Ferguson, most commonly known by her stage name Fergie, is an international pop icon turned entrepreneur extraordinaire. Famous for both her time spent as the sexy female member of the hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas, as well as her own solo releases, Fergie has turned her musical success into a business empire. Her ambition and drive for success only begins with her music career. And that’s no small feat, given that she’s the winner of 8 Grammys, 7 Billboard Music Awards, 4 ASCAP awards, and an American Music Award, to name a few, among her chart topping surplus of multi-platinum albums and string of top 10 hits.
Prior to Fergie joining the group The Black Eyed Peas, featuring artists known as will.i.am, apl.de.ap, and Taboo, they had already started to make a name for themselves within the hip-hop world, with 2 major-label album releases. But it wasn’t until the 2003 release of the album Elephunk, when Fergie made her debut with the group, that they catapulted themselves into international pop star status, with that album selling approximately 9 million records worldwide. The group was finally whole, as evidenced by great songs like “Where is the Love?,” “Let’s Get it Started,” “Hey Mama” and “Shut Up.” For anyone that’s heard these songs, it’s almost impossible to hold back from singing the lyrics after you read the titles.
And that was just the beginning of the success for the reborn group. The follow up album Monkey Business in 2005, with familiar songs like “Pump It,” “Don’t Phunk with My Heart,” and “My Humps,” sold over 10 million copies worldwide and reached #2 on the U.S. Billboard top 200 chart. After the success of Monkey Business, Fergie released her first solo album in 2006, aptly titled The Dutchess, selling more than eight million copies around the world. Amazingly, five of the album’s singles reached a top five position on the Billboard top 200 chart, with three of them reaching #1. Back with the group in 2009, the release of the album The E.N.D. finally landed Fergie and The Black Eyed Peas a #1 album on the U.S. charts. And the string of well known hit singles continued with “Boom Boom Pow,” “Meet Me Halfway,” “I Gotta Feeling” and more. The latest release from The Black Eyed Peas in 2011, titled The Beginning continued the iconic success of the group. With songs like “Just Can’t Get Enough” and “The Time (Dirty Bit),” the album reached #6 out of the top 200.
Many people might reasonably think that having an illustrious music career is enough, but not Fergie. For her, reaching celebrity, fame and fortune is taken as an opportunity for a wide array of business ventures, rather than a career ending pinnacle of success. Enter Voli Light Vodkas, where Fergie is not simply a brand ambassador, but an actual part owner of the company. In addition to recently launching her third fragrance line with Avon, working on her Fergie Footwear collections, having a cosmetics partnership with the company Wet n Wild, owning Ferguson Crest Wine, and being a part owner of the Miami Dolphins (phew!), Fergie finds time to work with and promote the innovative new vodka, Voli.
Voli Light Vodkas offer a selection of various flavored vodkas as well as an original, un-flavored light vodka. Purporting to offer up to 33% less calories than other flavored and traditional vodkas, Voli is an innovative new spirit that started as the brainchild of CEO and founder Adam Kamenstein. According to both Adam and Fergie, it was a match made in heaven that was brought together by fellow partner and brand ambassador, Armando Cristian Pérez, also known as the hip-hop star Pitbull. To them, the brand represents living a balanced life, for people that love to socialize and have a few drinks, but who also try to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It embodies the lifestyle that Fergie lives – always on the go, constantly juggling between professional commitments, trying to stay in shape and fit, and also making time to enjoy the company of friends over a few cocktails.
Voli Vodka serves as the crux of our discussion with Fergie, as well as CEO Adam Kamenstein, with some additional insights provided by Executive Vice President of Marketing, Erin Harris. Adam brings an impressive professional background to starting Voli, including starting a technology company, and time spent on Wall Street. That was before he earned a law degree and spent 10 years working as a District Attorney and Federal Prosecutor. Erin is known for her success in helping Sean “P Diddy” Combs and Ciroc Vodka increase their popularity, as well as having 10 years of marketing experience, prior to being drawn to the innovative approach of Voli.
In the following discussion, we were fortunate enough to take time out of Fergie’s ridiculously hectic schedule to get a few of her insights into Voli Vodka, her professional life, and a few brief glimpses into her personal life. I also get into more depth with CEO Adam Kamenstein, as we discuss the innovative vision behind Voli Vodka, with the added feature of hearing from marketing star Erin Harris. We start first with our discussion with Fergie:
Jon Shakill: What are you focusing on right now professionally and what can fans expect to see over the next year? Any new albums, songs, tours, or TV appearances planned?
Fergie: I never really stop. I’m devoting a lot of time to my fragrance business with Avon – funny enough, my third one, Viva, is about to launch now. I’m also working on my Fergie Footwear collections, as well as my cosmetics partnership with Wet n Wild. Additionally, I of course have my partnership with Voli Vodka, my Ferguson Crest Wine, and I’m also a limited owner of the Miami Dolphins, Go Fins! As for music, I’m always writing, and working on music, some of which I’m using in conjunction with my brands. We’re working on a special Dick Clark’s Rockin New Year’s eve in order to honor the passing of such a legend. I’m also still doing a lot of animation voiceovers, if you check out The Cleveland Show (the episode Jesus Walks), and the show Fanboy & Chum Chum, where I actually play my husband’s character’s nemesis, hehe.
Jon Shakill: How do you have enough time for everything?
Fergie: I try to juggle it all, it’s a balancing act. But I like to be very involved, I can’t help myself.
Jon Shakill: What drives you as an individual? What keeps you going and always reaching for more success?
Fergie: I’m naturally ambitious. I’m also a dreamer.
Jon Shakill: What is a personal highlight or a favorite moment in your career so far that you’d like to share with us?
Fergie: Performing with Mick Jagger and U2 at the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame was epic. So was getting to perform with Heart on American Idol.
Jon Shakill: Wow, those do sound like amazing moments. So tell us, how did you become an owner of Voli Vodka? Why Voli?
Fergie: I was introduced to the CEO of Voli, Adam Kamenstein, and we really hit it off. He let me sample all of the great flavors of the low calorie vodka drink and I was hooked. Plus I loved that it is all made in France, a place that I love. He threw in the fact that the drinks have electrolytes and I was floored. I always thought that this type of product was needed in the marketplace, and I wanted in, not just to be the face of the brand, but to be behind it. There’s no one else who makes a product like Voli Light Vodkas – even the bottle design is chic.
Jon Shakill: What else can you tell our readers about Voli Vodka?
Fergie: They just need to try it. You’d never believe that a low calorie vodka drink could taste this amazing. Try the Espresso Vanilla on ice or with your favorite after dinner coffee concoction.
Jon Shakill: What’s your favorite cocktail? I assume you love vodka, what about any other drinks?
Fergie: The Voli Green Garden is just heaven. Yes, vodka is great, especially when I splurge on some caviar to have with it. Sure, I love wine, like most people do, more so because my father and I have a vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, called Ferguson Crest. We bottle wine, which I’m quite proud of. You can check out the wine at Fergusoncrest.com.
Jon Shakill: Tell us something about your social life, what is a typical Friday or Saturday night like for Fergie? What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekends or when you have time off?
Fergie: Nothing is really typical in my life, but a lot of Saturday nights, my husband Josh Duhamel and I will go to evening mass, and then have a dinner date. I like to relax and listen to great music on my days off.
Jon Shakill: So we know you’re married, but let’s say you weren’t. What would Fergie look for in a man?
Fergie: I like a man’s man, and that’s what I’ve got!
Jon Shakill: Lastly, have you ever tried a cigar? Any thoughts?
Fergie: Yes, I’ve tried Cohibas, and they’re yummy!
Jon Shakill: We’ll I’m sure our readers will love that. We know how busy you are, so thank you for your time.
Fergie: Thanks Jon.
We now move to an in-depth discussion with the CEO and founder of Voli Vodka, Adam Kamenstein:
Jon Shakill: Adam, I understand that you were a Federal Prosecutor prior to starting Voli Vodka. How did you go from being a Prosecutor to starting your own spirits company?
Adam Kamenstein: I had been in business prior to my career in law. Out of college I started a technology company, and after that I worked on Wall St. for a couple years. The reason I went into law is because I wanted to do public service for a while. So I spent 3 years as a D.A. in New York, then about 7 years as a Federal Prosecutor in Los Angeles. I really had no intention of being a lawyer after that. I always wanted to get back into business and I was considering a few different opportunities. As it turned out, starting Voli Vodka was what I saw as the best opportunity for a variety of reasons.
Jon Shakill: So where did the idea for a low calorie vodka come from?
Adam Kamenstein: I was always the cook in the family, and as such I always wanted to do my own grocery shopping. Spending time at the market, I noticed that almost every single food and beverage option had a low calorie alternative- you name it, cookies, deli meats, sports drinks, and even beer. That’s when I realized that there really weren’t any low calorie spirits alternatives. That’s really where the seed of idea came from. That’s when I decided to test the validity of the idea. We did several focus groups and market research, and found that the concept resonated with consumers.
Jon Shakill: What is the process behind making a low calorie vodka? How is it different than regular vodka?
Adam Kamenstein: Well, we spent about 2 years developing the vodka initially. We went to Cognac, France where they’ve been creating spirits for hundreds of years and came up with something we loved. Specifically though, to create the low-calorie vodka requires a combination of factors. First, we use less sugar than most brands for our flavored vodkas. Secondly, most people who drink vodka tend to bury it under a mixer, which does two things: it adds an enormous amount of calories, and it lowers the alcohol content. So what we set out to do was deliver a flavored vodka that contains a lot less sugar, and can also be sipped straight with ice or in a martini glass, without the need to cover it up with mixers. This is also why the vodka is 60 proof (30% ABV). We also innovated the concept of fusion flavors. Rather than having just single flavors, we started mixing flavors together like orange-vanilla which tastes like a creamsicle, and is great on the rocks. So you can eliminate a lot of the high calorie mixers by drinking the Voli flavored vodkas.
Jon Shakill: So what about Voli Lyte, which is the original or un-flavored line of the Voli Light Vodkas, what’s the magic behind that?
Adam Kamenstein: The original has two components to it. The first thing is that there is a hint of natural citrus that’s infused into it, which we did because we found that it really rounds out the finish. The caloric savings comes primarily from the lower 60 proof as opposed to the typical vodka which is 80 proof. You get a 25% caloric savings across the board just by having the lower proof. This also helps to make the vodka more drinkable without having to add the high calorie mixers. Typically mixers would also bring the ABV down far below 60 proof.
Jon Shakill: Given that Voli Light Vodkas are a low calorie alternative, who is the primary consumer that you’re targeting with the brand?
Adam Kamenstein: Our consumers are about 60%- 40% or 55%-45% women to men. The one thing that distinguishes Voli from some of the other brands in our category, for example Skinny Girl, is that we have a very substantial amount of male consumers – including myself. We don’t pigeonhole ourselves to be just for women or just men. We really appeal to everyone who enjoys the social side of life, but also wants to have a “better-for-you” alternative. The type of people who enjoy living a fit and balanced life, that take care of their health, but also like to have a couple drinks and have a good time.
Jon Shakill: How long has the brand been in existence now, when did you found Voli?
Adam Kamenstein: I founded the brand in 2008, and then we spent about 2 years developing the branding and the liquid itself. In 2010 we had our soft launch, where we were available in a limited number of markets. Based on our success in 2010, we launched nationally throughout 2011. By the end of 2011 we were in 48 states across the US. We shipped about 70,000 cases in 2011, and we weren’t fully nationally for the whole year.
Jon Shakill: What has been the consumer response so far?
Adam Kamenstein: The consumer response so far has been fantastic. The idea of having a low calorie vodka alternative really permeates through popular culture. We’ve also been helped a lot by some of the chain restaurants that display the caloric content of their menu items. This is becoming popular by a combination of legislative mandates that force restaurants to show this, as well as other restaurants that do it out of a sense of social responsibility. This has made consumers very sensitive to the calories they’re taking in, especially at the point of purchase. This is becoming more and more popular on cocktail menus as well.
Jon Shakill: How did you bring on Fergie to represent the brand? I also know that the hip-hop star Pitbull is a brand representative, so how did you get both of them on board?
Adam Kamenstein: Pitbull came about because he had tried the brand and seen his friends drinking and enjoying the brand. We had a mutual contact that connected us, and as we learned more about Pitbull, we saw that he was perfect for the brand. He has a large female demographic, so it was a great way to appeal to women while also not pigeonholing us as a women only spirit. He was also perfect for reaching into the Hispanic market in a genuine way. He’s also an incredibly charismatic and hard working person, who is great to have as a business partner.
So the way that Fergie actually came about as a brand representative, is that Pitbull spoke to her about the brand at a Miami Dolphins football game. As you know, Fergie is a part owner of the Miami Dolphins. Fergie was immediately drawn to the brand because it captures exactly who she is as a person. She has an enormous amount of business opportunities presented to her, like Pitbull, and she’s very particular about what she chooses to be a part of. She needs to have a meaningful connection to what she chooses to be a part of. As we discussed earlier regarding the people that the brand attracts, the whole notion of living a balanced life, with the social side, the professional side, and the healthy fit side, captures who Fergie is to the core.
So the brand really resonated with her right from the start. Also, from my perspective, I never wanted to have just a paid face of the brand, I wanted whoever was coming in to truly be a business partner and believe in what Voli Vodka is about, and share a stake in the company and be an owner. As it turned out, when I spoke with Fergie, that’s exactly what she was looking for as well, to be an owner and really be involved rather than just a spokesperson.
I would also just add that Voli is not just another vodka, and not just another flavored vodka, it’s about revolutionizing the spirits industry and creating a totally new brand category. I think in a few years’ time, at most, you’re going to be able to walk into any grocery store spirits section, and you’re going to find a plethora of low calorie spirits that aren’t there today. People are going to expect to have that choice in their spirits purchasing decisions. We are at the forefront of pioneering a new spirits category entirely, which is going to grow over the next few years.
Jon Shakill: Thank you for the insights into your company Adam.
Adam Kamenstein: Of course, thanks for highlighting our brand.
I now turn to Voli marketing guru Erin Harris:
Jon Shakill: Erin, Give us some background on your career and where you were prior to Voli.
Erin Harris: The last company I was with was Ciroc Vodka. I was there from its infancy stage with Sean “Diddy” Combs, and that’s how I first started utilizing and developing celebrity relationships. For the 5 years that I was with Ciroc, they experienced exponential growth. A big part of that was maximizing the use of social media and viral marketing.
Jon Shakill: How did you get involved with Voli Vodka?
Erin Harris: I was recruited to join the team as the Executive Vice President of Marketing. It was partially the result of the marketing success I had with Ciroc, and that success becoming more well-known. I also had close to a decade of successful marketing experience overall. They sought me out to join the team and I agreed. I agreed because I loved the idea of working with something new that’s revolutionizing the industry, and it’s a great product. The idea of being at the forefront of a new category was really interesting to me from the beginning.
Jon Shakill: What’s your marketing vision for the company?
Erin Harris: Something that’s great about a light vodka is that it appeals to a very broad audience. Of course there are the women that are constantly worried about staying in shape, but there are also a lot of men that try to watch their calories and go to the gym. And for both men and women that watch their calories, there are many of them that enjoy having a few drinks and having a good time. At the end of the day, we want to focus on our brand being associated with a lifestyle. It’s about the people who want to look good and feel good, and who appreciate great quality. The people who love to socialize and have a great time, but who also maintain balance in their lives and try to stay healthy. So it’s more than the vodka itself, it’s about what the vodka represents to the people who enjoy it.
Jon Shakill: Erin, thanks for adding to the discussion, I appreciate your time.
Erin Harris: It was my pleasure.