These three women of Tito's Handmade Vodka are completely disrupting the spirits industry -- and they're using 'love' as their secret recipe
Behind every great brand is a great mission, a central and unifying core goal or drive-home message that sets the foundation for how employees will interact with the brand itself, with the product and most importantly, with each other.
For Tito’s Handmade Vodka, it boils down to one simple word — Love.
Founder of Love, Tito’s team and self-proclaimed Joyologist Amy Lukken explained just exactly why this is:
“I think what’s different is that our [Love, Tito's] tagline is ‘turning spirits into love and goodness’ and yes, that’s a play on the word spirit in our business. But in reality, if you think about what we do, spirits come in all packages. It comes in people, it comes in animals, it comes in community. So if we’re able to embrace spirits of others and actually let them see a different way of living and doing business through love and goodness, I think that’s really our mission.”
Lukken, who joined Tito’s a few years ago in helping formalize the Love Team, is the go-to girl for the company’s vast charitable and non-profit integrated initiatives — which have arguably become the backbone of what Tito's does day in and day out.
Tito’s Handmade Vodka began as a passion project and hobby for founder Bert “Tito" Beveridge with commercial production not beginning until 1997.
Tito’s Handmade Vodka is and always has been a company dedicated to giving back and lending a hand to those that need it, from one underdog who made it to the next.
“I think the biggest challenge on my side is a belief system that we’ve been doing business one certain way (with ROI being the financial dollar) and for me, I’m in new waters of teaching others that there is a different ROI in our business, which is our people and service to others. That’s a real different twist for people in the food and beverage industry, they’re not used to that and I think us leading the way in that manner is quite different.
Love became the center of what we do. ‘Love, Tito’s’ basically represents everything that we do in the community. Instead of doing major traditional advertising, were putting our energy back into the communities.”
At Tito’s the dedication to service starts from the bottom up — the people of the company choose who they want to give back to and what unique charities and causes make their hearts sing, instead of following a typical top-down approach where those in higher leadership dictate or pre-choose certain causes or organizations that are important to them, urging employees to follow suit.
Tito’s Chief Marketing Officer, Nicole Portwood, spoke to this sentiment:
“We’re a human-first company and that definitley feeds into the way we talk about the brand. The philanthropy piece of our business isn’t isolated to what Amy’s doing — It’s something that has really become the fabric of our company and the fabric of the way we talk with the people we work with and the people who consume our product.”
Portwood, whose been on-board with the Tito’s team for over eight years, is no rookie when it comes to working in the Food and Spirits industry, having worked up an impressive roster of spirits brands on her resume including Jack Daniels, Grey Goose and Bombay Sapphire:
“I just fell in love with the [Spirits] business immediately. It was like ‘Oh, I found home!’ It was this band of misfits who are doing this awesome work and its fun and its interesting.”
I definitley stumbled into this world, that’s absolutely for certain, and I think a lot of us do, just because it’s not necessarily a career path thats illuminated for you when you’re talking with your guidance counselor or career counselor.”
It’s this dedication to being a "human-first" company in a non clear-cut industry that allows Portwood to thrive in her most important role of all — being a mother:
“This is a family business, Tito owns the business and has made it very clear that our humanity is the most important thing and that our families are a really important part of that … The perspective of the company is focused on the whole individual and not just on the work the you’re producing when you’re in the building.
I was one of the early hires here and so I have really reinforced and protected that culture as we’ve grown. And every one on the leadership team has invested in that -- maintaining that family feel and that devotion to the whole person and what it means to balance those things in and out of the office.”
This feel-good notion allows employees to not only have a stereotypical work-life balance, but rather have the work that they do be a complement to who they already are:
“I do believe that you can, as an individual, regardless of what’s happening with the structure of your company … you can make that change with the people you interact with on a daily basis. You can see them as people first, you can be compassionate about the things they have going on in their lives outside of the office and recognize the whole person rather than just the work product.”
This has always been important to Tito’s right from the get-go — making sure that employees and the company at-large never lost sight of the fact that while business is business and finances won’t just magically figure themselves out, there are ways to get to where you want to be without having to "sell out", so to speak.
Tito’s Vodka for Dog People Program Manager, Beth Bellanti, explained:
“We did it our way, we did it over a long period of time … but I think after running around corporate America and seeing people’s motives and their marketing habits and how maybe those didn’t always appeal to me, this was just a chance to do everything differently.”
Bellanti has been on board with Tito’s for fifteen years, for one year even working on marketing projects completely free of charge due to the fact that Beveridge couldn't afford employees.
Her passion in animal rescue led to the formalization of the Vodka For Dog People Program which connects Tito’s to thousands of pet charities across the country, touching on everything from animal transport and rescue to spay and neutering procedures.
Bellanti explained that her program “gained so much momentum so quickly” and has luckily turned into a full-time role for her at the company — something she encourages everyone to pursue:
“I really love change, so I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to do all sorts of things in my fifteen years here. this, of course, would be a dream for me because i was also somehow volunteering or trying to help out with animal welfare. and now i get to live it every day.
Find your own story within your company. it does not always unveil itself immediately — we were rescuing dogs and had dogs in the office but that doesn’t mean that we ever had a plan to be ‘Vodka For Dog People.’ It evolved over time as our identity when it was a non-conversation, it was just something we did.”
What Lukken, Portwood and Bellanti all have in common is that each their devotion to the work that they're doing works in tandem with their personal passions — they lead with kindness, they lead from an empathetic standpoint
The women let this be the driving factor in the work they do day in day out, something that many would say is lacking in the Food and Spirits industry, which is well-known to be driven by financial initiatives.
It’s also driven mostly by men, which is what sets Tito’s — and the women behind it — apart, as Portwood dove into:
"I think theres equal [gender] representation [in this industry] if you just look at the aggregate numbers — what changes is as you get into leadership, the percentage of women really begins to drop off significantly. And I don’t know exactly why that is but we do know … that this is not unique to our industry.
We know that it’s women that are making most of the household good purchase decisions and the CPG purchase decisions, and yet in many companies and brands, the thinking is not as balanced. And the strategies and communications planning is not as balanced. Having multiple perspectives and the diversity of thinking and the diversity of approach is just very, very important for the health of every single business.”
This notion of "diversity of thinking" bleeds through in everything that Tito’s does, even bringing these different perspectives into company offices, as Bellanti shared:
“We do a lot of volunteering together and we have a lot of people form non-profits come to speak to us at lunch and this seems to be lighting a fire. not only are we a philanthropy-based company, but the more we hear about things that are going on and ways to heal, the more inspired we are. I think knowledge is power and opening up those conversations between non-profits just to visit the company, I think that helps you find yourself.”
Bellanti is a big proponent of the fact that in order to find ones professional purpose, one has to hone in and “look inward”, something that Lukken also spoke to:
“It needs to start at home with self-love, and then you can spread that outward.”
Lukken insists on the importance of keeping what she calls a “healthy mental immune system”:
“We cautiously watch what we eat but rarely do we watch what we take in through our mental immune system. So I’m really careful about being around a lot of negative items.”
Being self-aware of our own individual quirks, qualms and interests can help us to better understand how complex we all are, but how we can all be unified by that one thing that Tito’s is built upon— love.
Lukken paints a picture:
“If you think about our product a blue-collar worker can take a bottle of Tito’s to a party and a guy in a tux can take a bottle of Tito’s to a party, and both are cool, right?
Our product works with everyone, and thats really who we are internally. And so the product reflects [that] … everyone loves us and we love them.”
Portwood couldn’t agree more:
“We have a thing around here ‘If you have a liver, we deliver!’ We love everybody and I know that sounds kind of cheesy but it is true. It’s a mantra here — we love everybody.”