While Jonathan Lipson was attending college at Boston University, he met a cigar rep at a local cigar shop who set him on a different career course. The rep was well-dressed, personable and handing out samples (this was prior to the development of U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, when such an action was still legal and common practice).
Today, Lipson serves as director of sales and marketing at Alec Bradley Cigars. As evidenced by the early encounter he had in Boston with the cigar rep, Lipson has always understood the value of networking and influence, and he continues to leverage both in selling and marketing premium cigar products. Since the biggest challenges to the sales and marketing efforts of premium cigar products are now government regulations, smoking bans and taxes in both the U.S. and international markets, it’s increasingly important for brands to be influential. Companies like Alec Bradley Cigars tap into influencers and collaborate with other brands so that their own brands remain at the forefront of customers’ minds.
Lipson is part of a team that works hard to push and promote Alec Bradley Cigars’ brands both in the U.S. and beyond. There’s company founder and president Alan Rubin, George Sosa, the vice president of global sales, and Ralph Montero, the company’s executive vice president. Together, this group continually comes up with new ways and opportunities to grow the company and its brands globally, something they can do best by thinking of Alec Bradley Cigars as an experience rather than merely a product.
“We are big proponents of experiential marketing,” says Lipson. “We have, and seek out, partnerships in other industries that complement Alec Bradley to create mutually beneficial cross-promotion. Alec Bradley’s mantra is that our cigars are the best supporting actor. Alec Bradley, our partners and the consumers all win when we are all engaged in an enjoyable experience, where our cigars just happen to be there to complement the ‘main event.’”
How does Lipson define a good sales year? It’s not a certain figure in the accounting books or a monetary goal. To him, a good year in sales builds on the experiential marketing he’s doing and means the company and its brands are being talked about. When Alec Bradley’s cigars are being identified and talked about by influencers, the company typically sees other good things happen that lead to a better year overall. Lipson recalls his boss and mentor Alan Rubin’s unique take on success in the cigar business, which he paraphrased as, “If you’re on their lips figuratively, you’re on their lips literally.”
Building awareness and expanding the company’s network of brand advocates is key to Lipson’s overall marketing strategy for the company. With the help of advocates and influencers, Lipson’s main goal is to help consumers understand that Alec Bradley has many products and different blends within its portfolio. In addition, although the company certainly wants to be spoken about and has a large portfolio of products available, the sales and marketing effort goes back to that fateful meeting Lipson had in the cigar shop back in Boston—the company never wants to be seen as unapproachable.
The small, close-knit family mentality has helped Alec Bradley Cigars scale up over the years and has helped prevent the company from reaching beyond its abilities and capabilities. Rubin’s sons are now part of the business and are helping to grow what their father began as second-generation cigarmakers. The corporate culture at Alec Bradley Cigars is actually an extension of this idea of the business as a family. Every member of the staff is part of the family and is essential to the success of the company and its brands. The company has someone in place to help identify opportunities and talent to join the company, but each venture and new hire must fit into the family culture that has been established by Rubin and the others on his team over the years.
Lipson keeps the family mentality in mind when handling the sales team at Alec Bradley Cigars. Having worked in sales prior to his time at the company, his greatest desire as a salesperson was to not be micromanaged. Now, as the director of sales and marketing for Alec Bradley Cigars, Lipson chooses not to overly manage his own team, but instead he works to convey the sense of family and how each of his team members is essential to the overall success of the company. Just as communication is an important part of a family unit, it also plays an important role in creating and managing an effective sales team.
“To understand the needs of your customer, you must listen more than you speak,” says Lipson. “When you talk, it better be meaningful and directly address the needs of your customer.”
The company relies heavily on its sales team; each person has to be efficient and able to carry their load. One important task each sales team member is responsible for is sourcing leads and then converting those leads into new customers. Lipson explains that the premium cigar business is so small that anyone who can legally sell premium cigars is a potential customer. Each salesperson needs to be able to effectively communicate with these prospects and find out why they don’t currently carry Alec Bradley Cigars’ products and how the company can help fill a potential void.
Believe in Your Product
If you want to sell like Lipson and the team at Alec Bradley Cigars, you must know your product, be aware of your surroundings and the market, and know how to read a room and to be a good listener. You also can’t be a good salesperson if you don’t fully believe in the product you’re selling.
“I believe in the product, I believe in the company, and I believe in the mission,” says Lipson. “Every day is a challenge. Every challenge motivates me to succeed. I’m a workaholic—burning out is not an option for me.”
Selling a tobacco product of any kind in today’s industry is a challenge, and traditional tactics and overselling aren’t options. Focusing on the customer experience and expanding your sales force with the creation of brand influencers and advocates can help spread your marketing message and products to new markets. Keeping in mind that your influence starts within your own office and with your own team is the key to creating a culture of influence around your company and its brands. The more positive perception your products have and the more people that are talking about them, the easier your selling and marketing efforts will become.
This story first appeared in the September/October 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.