Denmark’s Liquorice King Ready To Challenge The World’s Taste Buds
Early on a sunny Tuesday morning in Copenhagen, Mr. Wolf had a chat with Johan Bülow, the man behind the world’s first handcrafted gourmet liquorice. Popularly dubbed Denmark’s Liquorice King, Johan is renowned nationally for having laid the founding stones to his vast and rapidly expanding Liquorice Empire in his mother’s kitchen at the age of just twenty-three.
"If you want to do something innovative, then you have to do it properly, and not make any compromises on quality just to raise the profit."
After six years on the market, Liquorice by Johan Bülow’s annual turnovers have increased from a half million DKK in the summer of 2008 (a year after their grand opening in 2007), to 60 million DKK in 2012. There can no longer be any doubt that the ambitious business venture has been a national success, nor that Liquorice by Johan Bülow represents an impressively broad consumer group, and this in spite of the fact that his liquorice is marketed as an exclusive product, a single jar of 160g costing up to DKK 70 (£8.95 or $14.95).
“The great thing about our product,” says Johan, “is that we can get a 55-year-old woman in a small rural Danish town to add liquorice to her traditional recipe for rye-bread, as well as get an 8-year-old boy who has been given 100 DKK in pocket money to spend the 70 of them on buying Liquorice by Johan Bülow.”
The company’s impressive achievements have been subject to much analysis, and are often attributed to Johan’s success with making the story behind the product a determining factor in the public’s renewed perception of liquorice. But whilst affirming that the art of storytelling has been an important marketing strategy for his product, and of course delighting in the fact that it has been as successful as it has, Johan Bülow stresses that what has been absolutely fundamental to the continued public interest in his liquorice, is the fact that he has created a premium quality product “that tastes good”.
Premium quality from start to finish
For Johan Bülow, premium quality has to be present at all levels of his brand: the ingredients in his products, from the liquorice root to the gluten-free rice flour, are the best available, and all artificial flavouring is avoided. Moreover, the company has just opened new, architect-designed offices and production facilities, a project in which the identity and atmosphere of the traditional liquorice factories has been incorporated. Finally, with top-notch ingredients and professional production facilities, the premium-quality vision is of course also present in a strong product design.
In this respect, the understated design of the jar-like container keeps the presentation of the product as aesthetically clean and minimalistic as possible, a strategy that follows in the tradition of Nordic design and aesthetic values, as well as keeping the liquorice itself at the centre of attention. In the beginning, this simple container was one of the brand’s trademarks, distinguishing it from their immediate competitors on the confectionary market. “No one else was using it at the time, and in the beginning people thought we were selling hair wax, because no one had previously connected food products with that kind of container.”
Today, however, perhaps 80 % of their competitors on the confectionary market are using the exact same packaging strategy, a fact that is the source of some frustration for the young businessman. In this respect, the modern confectionary market has many similarities with the fashion industry: the line between drawing inspiration from competitors, and direct copying, can, in both cases, be very thin.
Confectionary and the fashion industry
In fact, the relationship between Johan’s product and the fashion industry is even closer than for many other people in his business. “There’s no doubt that we get inspiration from the fashion industry,” Johan says, elaborating that this is why they have kept the colours on their latest jars in neon hues, a trend that has been emphasised heavily on the catwalk and in lifestyle magazines. The redesigning of the product and brand is an on-going process, and one of the reasons why they try to keep their selection of products relatively limited: this keeps them flexible, making it easier to keep up with fluctuating fashion trends.
Furthermore, in order to uphold the exclusivity and premium quality of the product that is key to Johan’s vision behind it, he has sought to market his liquorice in a different way than is typically done for confectionary. He has therefore chosen to work in close collaboration with the fashion industry, for example using Copenhagen Fashion week as a platform for promoting his product to an international and quality-conscious group of consumers. “Tomorrow, we’re going to be present at Hugo Boss’ show at Copenhagen Fashion Week, making black liquorice-flavoured candy floss, and of course offering samples of our products. It’s in my business just like in the fashion industry: if you want to do something innovative, then you have to do it properly, and not make any compromises on quality just to raise the profit.
The moment you start selling your product in the wrong stores, it loses the decadence and exclusivity it initially had.”
Despite receiving countless offers from big supermarket chains in Denmark and abroad, Johan insists on keeping his product exclusive by only allowing it to be sold at top-end food courts and specialty shops. “I’m saying “No” a lot of the time at the moment, for example to a Swedish supermarket chain that wants to buy 1 million jars of liquorice, only to dump the prices on them once they hit the shops. It doesn’t make sense to take these offers, taking into consideration the vision we have behind our product.”
Liquorice by Johan Bülow on the international market
However, it’s not just Swedish supermarkets who are expressing an interest in his product abroad. Liquorice by Johan Bülow currently has more than 1200 customers worldwide, a number Johan hopes will increase within the next few years.
Sales in London are going well, his liquorice featured on permanent shelf-space at the exclusive department stores Harvey Nichols and Fortnum and Mason, as well as being sold in 10 or 15 other specialty stores. “It might not sound like much, and it’s not like we’re selling masses of liquorice in the UK. But these stores are really la crème de la crème of department stores in London, and it’s a huge achievement for us to have our product put in connection with them.”
With regard to the rest of the international market, there’s no doubt in Johan’s mind that his ambition is to have his liquorice sold all over the world. According to him, expanding the company’s production capacity in order to accommodate increased international demand would, contrary to popular belief, raise rather than lower their ability to control and monitor the quality of the product. “Expanding our production capacity,” Johan elaborates, “would allow us to invest in more advanced machines to control the pressure of our boilers, for example.”
A further essential part of his premium quality vision is to keep his production facilities as close at hand as possible; moving the factory abroad, where taxes and wages are lower than in Denmark is therefore completely out of the question, even if making this move would enable him to produce and sell much more liquorice, and increase his yearly turnovers exponentially.
“I want to sell liquorice to the whole world, but I want to do it my own way. Back when we first started, we said that if we, in five years, could get three out of five people in Denmark to refer to Johan Bülow when they talked about liquorice, then we’d really have achieved something.”
Today, six years later, there is reason to think that this ambitious goal has been achieved. The story of this young visionary entrepreneur, with the artistic mother who throughout his childhood encouraged him to dream and, more importantly, dare turn his dreams into reality, has been told repeatedly in the Danish media, and won over even the most liquorice-sceptical Dane. In six short years, Liquorice by Johan Bülow’s ambitious vision to create the best liquorice in the world has succeeded in revolutionizing the common perception of liquorice as a cheap mass-produced sweet, opening the nation’s eyes to the unique properties of liquorice as a gourmet-product and a natural flavour-giver in everyday cooking. Having thoroughly transformed Denmark’s conventional perception of liquorice, his next step is to take on the rest of the world, where liquorice still is either considered as something of an acquired taste, or mass-produced in poor quality. However, if Johan Bülow manages to be as successful abroad as he has been in Denmark, then this is about to change.
For more information on Liquorice by Johan Bülow, check out the company’s website, www.liquorice.nu. If you’re keen to try a taste of the products, but have the misfortune of not living in Copenhagen, London, New York, Dubai, or any of the other cities worldwide where Liquorice by Johan Bülow is sold, it is now also possible to buy all of their products on the same website (they ship worldwide).
Words: Cecilie Maagaard Jensen