To expand Cohiba’s audience, Williams says that he tries to tell the story of Cohiba through imagery and events to help people see into the heart and soul of the brand. “There are a lot of cigar lovers that may not ever get to a Cohiba event, so it’s important that they know why our blends are special and what’s distinctive about the tobacco we use and the aging process we take our cigars through,” he says. “The tobacco story is just as important in our branding and marketing, and I focus on helping to bring that to life.”
Since he began his entrepreneurial journey in the cigar industry, Williams has learned the importance of patience and not being reactionary. Whether it’s while he studies a new trend in the market or in a different business situation, Williams has learned that it often pays to be patient and to consider the big picture. One of the biggest trends in business that Williams has witnessed in recent years is the rise of social media and the role it plays in gaining traction online among smaller and emerging brands. In Williams’ view, social media has been a valuable tool he’s been able to use to interact with cigar smokers and to dispense information instantly and directly. Not only does social media allow companies, brands and individuals to communicate easily and candidly; it also plays a pivotal role in building trust that’s not possible through most other mediums.
While this has been a good thing overall, Williams acknowledges that it also has enabled newer brands to get away with not focusing as much as they should have on building long-term relationships with other brands and business partners. Williams emphasizes the importance of “social” in building a brand, whether it’s with engaging with those in the factories, retailers or consumers.
“The most fulfilling thing about this business for me is being able to enjoy one of my blends with cigar lovers as they enjoy it. To this day, nothing beats that! The never-ending challenge, though, is creating those blends and keeping the profiles interesting, but that’s also one of the fun parts. There’s nothing quite like being at the factory working on blends. It never gets old.”
The Business of Empathy
The past 15 years have been full of milestones for Williams. It began with a fateful trip to Nicaragua to work on his first cigar blends for El Primer Mundo Cigar Company. The hard work put into building that brand eventually led to him leading the efforts to make Cohiba even more of a success. In Williams’ humble manner, he’s honored that some in the cigar industry view him as a mentor—and that’s something he doesn’t take lightly. When interacting with those who view him as a mentor, Williams knows that being honest with them about the ins and outs of business and the cigar industry in particular is the only approach to take.
“There’s a difference between coming into this as a hobby versus truly wanting to make a business out of it,” he says. “If that’s the mission, I don’t hesitate to let them know that it’s a tough business. As far as what it takes, I don’t pretend to know any secret formula, but there are, without a doubt, two things that they have to have internally: passion and patience. Aside from adequate resources, they’ll need these two things in ready reserve!”
Being empathetic and understanding how others feel and what their potential pain points are has been key to Williams’ career path so far. Having run his own small brand for several years, he knew that the buck stopped with him. If something goes off track or awry, he looks to himself first for answers.
“With a major luxury brand like Cohiba that has very specific marketing and event executions, attention to detail is critical,” he says. “It’s easy to get upset or frustrated when things don’t exactly line up. I try to think about all the brands that our various teams and departments support and try to picture myself in their positions of having to keep all those plates up in the air. This helps me try and do my job better and hopefully helps the other moving parts move a little bit smoother.”
Williams doesn’t mind dealing with all of the many different areas of business tied to the Cohiba brand. In fact, he feels gratified by the challenge and process. William has come to understand that with every opportunity, there’s a process to master, things to learn, and opportunities to identify and take hold of. That’s what he learned from mentors like his mother, brothers, college football coach and cigar industry associates. It’s also what he’s experienced firsthand as a small-business owner and now as the man in charge of the Cohiba brand. Being in the cigar business comes with its share of challenges, but the successful professionals like Sean Williams know that when opportunity knocks, they should fearlessly open the door and face it head-on.
This story first appeared in the January/February 2021 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, senior editor and digital director for Tobacco Business Magazine. You can follow him on Instagram @editor.reid.