When he was 19 years old, Juan Lopez had his first cigar at San Francisco’s Just a Cigar. That first cigar—a Joya de Nicaragua—was a precursor to what would not only become a passion for Lopez but also a profession. When the Cigar Boom of the mid-1990s hit, Lopez landed a job with Caribbean Cigar Company and went on to spend 13 years as the national accounts manager at Carlos Torano cigar company.
Today, Lopez works at Gurkha Cigars as its national sales director. Known for its ultra-premium cigar products, it takes a unique sales approach and view of marketing to position Gurkha in the marketplace as a luxury brand. Considered the Rolls-Royce of cigars, Gurkha’s high-end cigars are enjoyed by royalty, celebrities and politicians—and for good reason. Much thought and consideration goes into the making of a Gurkha cigar and to the overall branding of the company. Gurkha’s strategy has changed in the past few years, shifting from focusing exclusively on its ultra-premium brands to also adding brick-and-mortar-only cigars that range in price from $6 to $14. This move has not only led to greater sales but allows more cigar consumers to enjoy one of Gurkha’s premium products without the sticker shock.
What has Lopez learned during his 20 years working in sales within the tobacco industry? Successful companies don’t just have great products; they also have great customer service. “You have to have your ear to the ground and be in tune with the customer,” Lopez explains. Lopez shares lessons learned from his years of working in the premium cigar sector and the steps other tobacco professionals and businesses need to do to scale up.
Tobacco Business: In your opinion, what makes Gurkha a luxury brand?
Juan Lopez: Luxury and lifestyle companies set market trends, and we look at our company as trendsetters. When everyone was running away from the perfecto or figurado shapes, we brought it back with our top-selling brand: the Cellar Reserve. Other companies are now coming back to it, too.
How do you develop a sales and marketing plan for Gurkha?
It is important to stay fresh and flexible. We try to listen to not just [founder and CEO] Kaizad [Hansotia] but also customers, retailers and subject matter experts to keep evolving as a company. It is important to continuously review what you are doing in your marketing initiatives and be willing to try different things while respecting what works.
You mentioned listening to customers as part of your sales plan. Do you and others at Gurkha look at reviews on Gurkha’s cigars or comments posted about the company online?
It would be impossible to look at every review and comment, but we do try to keep abreast of what our customers are saying. We also try to stay engaged with the Gurkha customer on both positive and negative feedback. We look at every customer’s experience differently, and we try to connect with those customers directly as much as we can.
How is this feedback responded to and incorporated into Gurkha’s marketing initiatives?
We do over 500 events nationwide, and our reps work closely with our retail partners to identify how we can provide a better smoking experience or cigars. We also have a ton of engagement through our social media, and it provides us a direct line to our customers.
Gurkha has noticeably begun to leverage videos and social media in its marketing more in the past year. Is this intentional, and what has been the gain for investing the time and effort in being more present in a digital space?
It was intentional. The videos and social media allow us to show the Gurkha lifestyle and connect directly with our consumers. Images of Gurkha’s exclusive Officers Club Lounge located at our headquarters underscore what it means to smoke a Gurkha.
For any Gurkha product, what’s key to getting that product into the hands of consumers?
We focus on the fact that it is a one-of-a-kind blend using six to seven tobaccos from around the world that have been aged anywhere from 15 to 20 years. The packaging speaks for itself.
How important is the packaging to the overall success of a product?
Kaizad is the innovator that changed the packaging in the industry forever. He made everyone reconsider their packaging when they were displaying their cigars in cedar boxes in comparison to the unique and artistic boxes Gurkha offers.
What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?
“Two ears, one mouth.” It is more important to listen than it is to speak.
This story first appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.
– Story by Antoine Reid, an editor and digital content director for Tobacco Business Magazine. You can follow him on Instagram @editor.reid