Christine Deussen knows her spirits. For more than two decades, Deussen has been traveling the world – in fact, eating and drinking her way across the world — as a specialist in the wine, spirit, travel and food sectors. In 2002, she launched Deussen Global Communications and over the years, has watched the PR agency mature like barrel of whiskey or a fine wine.
Deussen Global Communications is a leader in the wine and spirit industries with clients ranging from start-up brands to governments; in fact, UK-based Drinks International named them “PR Agency of the Year” in 2016.
While the successes of Deussen are many, there were plenty of growing pains along the way. Yet, through the realization of a career change that saw her go from appraising for Christie’s Auction House to PR, Deussen has found a niche.
Deussen Global Communications’ clients couldn’t be happier about her career change. The self-starter is taking the firm into a new decade and it remains a go-to agency for companies seeking to find their places and grow their awareness in the US market.
Christine, you founded Deussen Global Communications in 2002. What led you to establish the company?
After working in wine and spirit communications for other companies, I knew I wanted to start a company that emphasizes fact-based messaging aligned with clients’ core values. The independent company that I had worked for prior had been sold to a multi-national public relations firm, so I knew from experience that I preferred smaller, more entrepreneurial companies. Today, 17 years later, our clients are based all over the world, and we are extremely happy in our work. Sometimes we help clients expand their consumer connection within the US, and sometimes globally, the latter particularly through our knowledge of duty free. Over the years, largely for work, I have been fortunate to visit six continents, more than 30 countries, and countless wineries, distilleries, hotels, and restaurants. All of those miles and first-hand knowledge are what allow us to effectively, authentically tell each client’s stories.
The organization specializes in wines, spirits, travel, and food. Why did you pick these four areas to work in?
I first started work in Christie’s Auction House after I graduated college. I graduated from Barnard College with a Classics degree, so I loved being able to work with culture, language, and history. After trying my best for a few years, I had to admit to myself that I just did not have the talent to be a great appraiser, so I went to have a talk with my boss.
He confirmed my suspicion, and said that I had been a great employee, but had not found my calling. He asked what I would do next. I didn’t know. He asked me, “Well, what do you like to do?”
“Eat,” I told him. “Drink. Talk.”
“Excellent!” he said. “That should be your new job!”
My passion for these fields came from my upbringing. I grew up with wine on the table every night. My parents took my siblings and I traveling from a young age: as teachers – and despite teachers’ salaries – they prioritized learning and experiencing new things. We visited every church, museum, neighborhood, and historic site possible, for which I am very grateful. My passion for food is a natural extension from traveling and our family dinners. Every dinner hour was sacrosanct, and our Sunday mid-day meal lasted for hours.
Deussen Global Communications works with some amazing alcohol beverage brands. It isn’t just companies that Deussen represents, however. The PR agency has worked hand in hand with governments to help develop marketing strategies for exporting and importing goods. For example, the Georgian Ministry of Agriculture hired Deussen to help introduce its wines to the US.
Can you explain how large these areas you represent are, and some of the work you do to promote them?
We work for and with a range of clients, from start-ups, to the largest brands in the world, to governments. While we don’t take on clients that directly compete, it is possible to represent brands in the same category that differ in niche and price positioning.
For example, a start-up brand we are currently working with is Blood x Sweat x Tears, a craft vodka made in Eugene, Oregon that came to market less than 12 months ago. There is a lot of vodka in the world, and our job is to help this one rise above the clutter to become recognizable, called for, and pulled off the shelf. One of my favorite parts of this execution involved setting up a charitable partnership with Best Friends no-kill animal rescue. It was a logical choice because the master distiller’s rescued pit bull is the love of his life; being able to support a great cause while also raising brand awareness is both satisfying and effective.
At the same time, we work for Tanduay Rum, which is the largest rum in the world by volume; in July, we issued a multi-media news release announcing that Tanduay had again beaten out Bacardi for this honor, by selling more than 20 million 9L cases in 2018.
A current governmental client of is the Ministry of Agriculture for the country of Georgia. When we first started working on the account four years ago, it was very heavy lifting: most people thought we were talking about the state of Georgia rather than the country; once they knew it was the country, they had no idea where it was located, and so forth. The years of hard work are paying off: for our first three years on the campaign the average growth of Georgian wine exports averaged +54% year on year; this year, in the first half alone, exports to the US were +88%.
What do you consider when working with a new client?
We only work with people we like and trust, and products we believe in. Otherwise, work is not fun, and communication rings hollow. If we are all set on those basics, the next thing we do is learn. We visit the property, meet with the principals, taste the products versus their competitors, and learn about our clients’ businesses. The most important thing to absorb is their company vision, mission, and goals, so that our work supports all three.
From there we can create PR plans, work on messaging, set schedules and targets, and get to work. We give numeric guarantees on both the number of placements and number of impressions, as well as CPM and ROI, and keep all results in shared documents so the clients can review them at any time.
Who are some of the organizations Deussen has worked with and what were some of the strategies that stand out?
One example is our work for the category of genever, the official spirit of The Netherlands, under the auspices of the EU. Most Americans don’t know of genever, though historically – during the golden age of the American cocktail, from the late 1880s until Prohibition – one in four American cocktails was based on genever. Genever is a malt-based spirit that is flavored with juniper, so it can most easily be described as either a whiskey-lover’s gin, or a gin-lover’s whiskey. It is the most consumed spirit in its home country of The Netherlands, and its PDO (sort of like an EU version of an AOC, or appellation d’origine côntrollé) also includes Belgium and small parts of France and Germany. The strategies are simple: to expose key trade and consumer audiences to genever, allow them to taste it, and educate them about it. We are wrapping up the second year of a three-year contract, and it has been great to see the progress: when we started, only two genever brands were available in the United States; today, 83% of the brands participating in the program are imported.
Another favorite is with Dixie Southern Vodka: in the first six months of their campaign, we helped them win a prestigious “Growth Brands / Rising Star” award from Beverage Dynamics Magazine. Dixie has achieved annualized average growth of 60% since its first full year in market in 2015, reaching sales of 24,000 9L cases in 2018 while activated in only seven core states (AL, FL, GA, KY, NC, SC, TN). Having added Mississippi, Colorado, and Louisiana to its roster of markets in 2019, Dixie is the now the largest premium craft vodka brand produced in the Southeast, the largest spirit brand produced in the state of South Carolina, and the 9th fastest growing spirit brand in the United States. We used all of this to help Grain & Barrel Spirits was be named in the top 25% of America’s Fastest Growing Companies, as part of the 2019 Inc. 5000 list. Currently we are zooming toward their 2020 designation as the “Official Vodka of NASCAR.”
Although Deussen was familiar with travel and wines prior to launching her own PR firm in 2002, she never planned to own an agency specializing in those specific areas. Deussen began her post-university career at Christie’s Auction House before moving into something that felt more natural: public relations. Since then, she has flourished in the industry and found her true calling.
Christine, what was your business and entrepreneurial background prior to launching the agency?
Like most American teens, I earned money during high school and college by waitressing and bartending; I also worked in gourmet food stores, which I loved. After leaving Christie’s Auction House, I found my career calling through an incredible marketing and communications job with Clicquot, Inc., Champagne Veuve Clicquot’s wholly-owned U.S. importer. I had studied French since childhood and spent a year in college in Paris, so was happy to put my language abilities to work, too.
After five years, I wanted to switch from marketing to sales, but there was no position open inside of the company, so I moved on to a PR firm, David Kratz & Co., which wanted to start a wine practice. There, I gained agency experience, as well as a good dose of sales skills, which are important in any field. My first agency client was Campari, so being able to speak Italian came in handy, too.
The next stop was my own firm, in which of course I had a crash course in both business and entrepreneurism. I was fairly solid on my subject matter and with communications, but honestly knew very little about being an entrepreneur. It had been a terrifying leap to make, but I had incredibly supportive friends and family around me. One favorite story was a phone call with my mom. She said that if I failed, I could come live with her. So, I withdrew enough cash for a bus ticket from New York City to Michigan, put it in my sock drawer, and from that point onward went forward without fear.
Deussen Global Communications has been in business for almost 20 years. What were some of the growing pains you experienced in those early years?
When I first started out, I knew the hospitality industry, and I knew the PR industry, but I really had no idea how to run a business. On my very first day, I needed to send a package by Federal Express, which led to needing an account number, which led to needing a corporate bank account, which lead to needing an EIN. A what? It was eye opening and a lot to learn. I often think about that when potential clients ask why they should hire a PR firm. Of course, they could do the PR themselves, just like I built a company by myself. However, it is much more efficient to hire an expert.
In the beginning, we had no systems in place, so I had to work at least 12 hours a day – often more – and seven days a week in order to hit my personal goals. I learned the hard way, through finally literally collapsing one day on the street, that you need to take a bit of time off each week. I ignored a lot of valuable advice that would have saved me money, time, and frustration. I was not good at delegating, though I learned that one. We tried to do too much at first, being everything to everyone, until we learned the power of niche. Another professional regret was turning down on particularly attractive offer to sell; at that time, I just loved my company too much, and was too emotionally invested in it. If I could go back in time, I would have sold it, honored the sale terms, and then started another one!
With nearly two decades under her belt of running a PR agency, Deussen has learned a lot along the way. She is always learning every day, as no two days in the PR industry are alike. Many of the lessons Deussen experienced, she had to learn the hard way. But without gaining knowledge from difficult situations, it wouldn’t have made the company what it is today.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in starting a communications agency or at the very least, getting into the industry?
Regarding getting into the industry, at first, work for someone you admire who ideally focuses on things that interest you. Be aware of the world around you. Become a student of life and give yourself the richest background possible. Embrace change, adventure, and diversity. Say yes to every professional and personal opportunity possible. Work entrepreneurially: in every situation, keep in mind the principal goal is to benefit your client, which in turn benefits your company.
Read basic business books and practice what you learn. When you are ready to make your jump, take the high road. Do not take clients, media lists, staff, or any other assets from the employer who nurtured you. Do, however, hire a great lawyer and CPA to set up your foundations properly. And then, just go for it!
Christine, how do you get away from work and unwind?
This is the hardest question you have asked me so far. I unfortunately tend to work myself to a state of exhaustion. When I am with my family and best friends, I disconnect from my phone to 100% focus on them. My mind is most refreshed by new experiences such as exhibits, performances, new restaurants, and traveling.
Can you tell us about some of the emerging brands Deussen Global Communications works with or has worked with?
There have been so many! We often help brands that are very big in their home countries get started in the United States. Similar to the work for Tanduay Rum I mentioned earlier, we recently supported the U.S. launch for Michel et Augustin cookies – landing feature stories for then in both AdWeek and The Wall Street Journal within six months — and are currently doing work like this for Zignum Mezcals. Rooted in Oaxaca, Zignum is one of the leading mezcals in Mexico and Mexican duty free, and the most awarded mezcal in the world, but it is just getting started in the domestic U.S. There are a lot of great stories to tell, from female ownership to the distillery’s MÉTODO VERDE™ sustainability programs, which include being an animal-cruelty free distillery, certified Clean Industry by Mexico’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, and Kosher certified, among other designations
Christine, what is a day in your life like?
I am up early for coffee. It is how I always start my day. In a perfect world, I would take my dog on an hour-long walk without my phone; I lost my beloved greyhound in September, but I still try to spend the first hour of my day without technology to allow myself to think. For a while I was great at going to the gym every morning. I need to get back into that.
I try to be at my desk by 8:30 a.m. local time, and frankly every day is different. It is always fast-paced, varied, and challenging. It is usually fun and satisfying, though of course, there are those frustrating days. Today’s tasks included managing the team, writing advertorial copy, pitching news, preparing clients for interviews, interviewing two candidates, two new business calls, chasing for photos, partnership management, and completing this interview.
After work, I usually cook to unwind. Dinner is by far my favorite time of the day. Live face-to-face conversation allows the truest communication and trust. I love to end my day this way.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I can get by in French, Italian, and Spanish, as well as read and write Latin and ancient Greek.
What makes you smile?
What scares you?
Lack of communication.
Do you have any hobbies?
I love to cook, try new recipes, invent things, visit new markets, try obscure products, etc.
Which historical figure do you most admire?
It is very hard to pick just one; favorites are Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Mandela. In saying that out loud, I can see that qualities I admire are independence, leadership, quiet strength, freedom, and kindness.
Can you share two of your favorite quotes with us?
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Gandhi
“μηδὲν ἄγαν” (meden agan) — ‘Nothing in excess’. – Temple of Apollo at Delphi
If you had the power to change just one thing in the world what would it be?
I would magically install in every human an irrevocable habit to seek first to understand, then be understood.
The niche brand continues to grow year on year thanks to incredible marketing strategies that place emerging brands in the public eye. Deussen’s energetic attitude and personality has been at the forefront of the agency’s success. As the company ages, it only gets better as seen by its client’s successes.
For more information on Christine Deussen and Deussen Global Communications, Inc. please visit https://www.deussenglobal.com/
Journalist and author. Contributor