The daring story behind the birth of Malibu Rum

Liqueur sales are on the rise again, driven by the at-home cocktail-making trend sparked the pandemic. And one of the top performers is one of the pioneers of the category: Malibu Rum.

The story behind the brand’s creation is one of ingenuity and bravado. Co-founders Peter Fleck and James Espey launched the brand in South Africa while working at International Distillers & Vintners, which would later become Diageo. In 1973, the pair introduced spirits entrepreneur Tom Jago to a light, coconut-flavoured rum drink called Coco Rico. All three were amazed by it unique taste.

The potential was clear – it tasted like summer in a bottle and needed to be brought to the wider world. They chose the name Malibu because they thought it had a good vibe and “sounds like warmth”. 

The trio decided to sell the product in white bottles, but they couldn’t source any in the late 70s, so they had to spray paint clear ones instead. They created a conveyor belt with the bottles hung upside down, which were spray painted by a man whose specialist job was to spray paint new fridges white.

The product was given the slogan “It comes from paradise and tastes like heaven” and launched without permission, market testing or a budget. Fortunately it looked good and tasted even better, so they eventually got thumbs up from their directors. 

It also proved to be hugely popular, but Diageo was forced to sell the brand by regulators to Allied Domecq for US$800million in 2002 when it acquired Seagrams. In 2005, French company Pernod Ricard purchased Allied Domecq for $14 billion.
When asked what advice they would give the industry about product launches, Espey said to always remember that “the consumers are your boss” and to put the consumer at heart of your business. Another tip was to let young people with lots of ideas create an environment where they can experiment.

“Many ideas are caged because of other peoples’ opinions,” the founders noted. “If there is passion, there is a way.”

Espey wonders if Malibu could be created today, given the amount of research and hoops new products much jump through.

“In the IDV days in the late 70s and early 80s when we had a culture where we tried things and sometimes even ignored consumer research,” he told Spirits Business in 2014. “Very few people in the industry know that Bailey’s failed in research, and with Malibu we didn’t do any at all. Our CEO, the late Anthony Tennant, encouraged us to get out and try and make it happen. He brought me in as marketing director to shake the tree and foster innovation. It was really a very entrepreneurial culture.

He wondered whether Malibu or Baileys could be launched today.

“The big companies wouldn’t have the courage to do it because they research everything,” he explained. “It’s like what they say of the camel – the racehorse designed by committee.”

Malibu crowned Liqueurs Brand Champion

Spirits Business crowned Malibu this year’s Liqueurs Brand Champion after what it described as a “stellar performance” in 2020. The Pernod Ricard-owned liqueur smashed through the four-million-case mark after a 14.3% sales increase, selling 4.4million cases in 2020, making it the second biggest-selling liqueur brand after Baileys.

The brand attributed its success to a redesign in 2019, combined with its ‘spirit of summer’ positioning to help brighten the mood for consumers during COVID-19.

Johan Radojewski, Malibu’s vice-president of marketing, said: “Our unique and distinctive white bottle and palm tree logotype are two of the most recognisable visual assets in the drinks category. Our redesign was aimed at strengthening those to ensure better standout on shelf and, of course, building on the consistency that has been critical for Malibu’s design from its inception in the late 1970s.”

New marketing campaign for Malibu Rum

Malibu’s new summer campaign in the northern hemisphere, #LetTheFunshine, highlighs the joy of simply being back together and encouraging people to embrace the summer moments.

Monica Jungbeck, Head of Brand Creative at The Absolut Company said: “Malibu is a summer brand at heart and our most important season is the summer. This year is of course a bit different, coming out of a pandemic, and we want to celebrate and embrace the fact that we’re hopefully going to go back to a more “normal” summer again. #LetTheFunshine is based on the insight that many might be a little rusty when it comes to hanging out in-person since there have been social restrictions for so long. The campaign reminds us to let go of the worries, expectations or assumptions and, instead, be in the moment.”

Jungbeck added that research shows that the things people missed the most during lockdowns weren’t the over-the-top parties or perfectly planned events.

“It’s just hanging out with friends, drinking new drinks and letting loose,” she said. “People have missed the small moments with their friends so that’s what we will celebrate with the campaign.”

Malibu is also targeting its marketing at a core target group: Gen Z.

“We are focusing on the summer mindset which it’s not necessarily generation-specific,” Jungbeck said. “But having said that – we are approaching Gen Z in terms of the media that they are consuming, how they act and what kind of content they create. For example, as part of the campaign, we are collaborating with global content creator Hannah Stocking, and global singer-songwriter Anne-Marie that cater to a Gen Z- audience.”

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