When Rocco Venneri launched a new beverage company, he had no idea what the drinks would taste like but had a very clear vision for the packaging design.
That makes sense given Venneri’s professional background. He’d worked for 15 years as a strategic marketer in the fashion industry, including stints at global brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Armani.
Design and marketing come naturally to Venneri, which is why he says his wine spritzer brand, Cool Cat, is more than just a drink. The brand hit shelves in April 2020 at the start of the pandemic. Today, Cool Cat is available in four flavors, including citrus and elderflower mint lime, and is sold in six states.
Demand for wine spritzers and other ready-to-drink (RTD) alcoholic products is expected to double in the next five years, according to alcohol-industry tracker IWSR. Since 2018, RTD volume growth has outpaced all other major alcoholic drink categories. Consumers are gravitating toward these beverages because they are packed with flavor, sold in fun packaging, and are conveniently portable.
Fortune recently spoke with Venneri, cofounder and CEO of Cool Cat, about the startup’s brand-building efforts, the importance of minority-founded businesses in the alcoholic beverage space, and the startup’s aspirations for the future.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Can you talk about your career before you cofounded Cool Cat?
Venneri: I started my career in fashion marketing, working at global lifestyle brands like Armani and Hilfiger. I got my original start in the industry at Saks Fifth Avenue, where I worked out of college—I went to NYU. I lived in New York, and during that time, I was able to understand what it means to build and work for a lifestyle brand.
At some point, I realized—and I think at some point everyone realizes this—do I want to work for someone or work for myself? And what does it mean to work for myself? I started my own marketing consulting company and thought I would pitch ideas back into companies I had worked at. As I was doing that, my brother and I were at a Mother’s Day barbecue, and he asked me, “Have you looked at canned wine? It is starting to scale.” And I thought, No, I haven’t [laughs]. But it was funny; he said this after I had just gotten back from a trip in Croatia where I had my first wine spritzer.
Typical to my style, I went home that night and started doing research and thinking about it. And I was like, “Wine spritzer. Why isn’t it a bigger deal in the States? It is really big in Europe.” I immediately started to write down notes, trying to figure out how I could leverage my fashion connections and create a lifestyle brand through a canned beverage. I created an LLC for Cool Cat the following day. I reached out to a friend of mine who had worked in creative [roles], and I said, “Look, I have this name. I want to design a really good-looking can that’s gender-neutral and has no fruits on it.” I wanted it to be sophisticated, fun, and pop off the shelves. And then of course, I had no idea how to start to develop flavor profiles.
What were you aiming to create with Cool Cat that didn’t already exist in the market?
At the time I launched, you saw the rise of spiked hard seltzers. I thought, If I’m going to go into this category, how will I differentiate myself [in terms of] a flavor profile and design aesthetic? I already had the layout of the can, the logo, and the name. But now it came down to flavor profile. I knew what I liked, and I knew it would feel light and refreshing and play into the health and wellness movement. I wanted to create a better-for-you, guilt-free wine—and, ultimately, create a brand, not a beverage. As I was developing the flavor profiles, I had already launched the apparel: the hats, the hoodies, and the tees. I wanted to generate buzz and then go and develop the flavors as the momentum was building.
A good friend of mine, his sister—who has been in the space for 20 years—she’s now our head of manufacturing and compliance. And she said, “You are going to go to California and learn how to build flavor profiles.” And that’s what I did. I went to California and came out with four flavors that I love.
Has your background in the fashion industry played a role in how you think about the brand and the design for Cool Cat?
I think about everything from an ecosystem [perspective]. With my fashion background, I knew I’d be able to more quickly push out the apparel. And then when we were ready to launch, people thought we were crazy because it was the height of the pandemic. But we were ready, and ultimately, it worked out in our favor because we didn’t have the pressure to be everywhere at once. We were able to really test things out. I found one liquor store on the Upper East Side willing to carry our product. But they only had one employee, so we needed to ship out to them ourselves. And every day for three months, I’d bike across town from Chelsea to the East Side to pack and ship our boxes. That helped me learn the process of shipping alcoholic beverages, and I was so grateful this one store would do it. To even get that, it was a real struggle.
You talked about the gender-neutral branding and the better-for-you element of your brand and the category as a whole. What alcohol trends does your brand most benefit from?
For us, it really is about the better-for-you trend. In wine, a glass usually is around 12 grams of sugar per glass. For Cool Cat, it is only two grams of sugar. That’s a really good customer value proposition. You are seeing other, bigger companies thinking about alternatives, of better-for-you wine, as well. Lifestyles have evolved, and people care more about exercise and trying to figure out how to work out and stay healthy and fit. Those habits will stay. I wouldn’t even call it a trend, because it is going to stay for the long run. That’s where we are with our culture.
We have also found that a lot of companies are really looking at minority programs now, more than ever. Because I’m a mixed-Black, gay man, we have benefited from that as it has allowed us to partner with brands that are evolving. When we look to partner with people, we look to partner with companies on the right side of history, or evolving, as a brand and as an industry. We have been fortunate enough to get a lift and a push. As a startup, and as a minority startup, our mountain is so much higher and harder to climb than others. Resources, money, and distribution, those are the hardest three things for a minority-owned business to get. Having certain brands step up—Gallo and Constellation Brands—has been a blessing. Those two are putting their money where their mouth is.
Where do you hope to see Cool Cat in five years?
For the future of Cool Cat, we want to continue to make quality product that is more than just a beverage. I’m all about slow and steady wins the race. I’m not trying to be everything to everyone. I want to go deep in the markets we are in and win in those markets. My goal for this brand is for people to learn about us, enjoy us, and inspire other minorities who are thinking about this industry, which rarely they do, because it isn’t talked about. I want to put a voice to it. With the right group, and the right people behind you, you can do it. I want to inspire people. Celebrating your uniqueness is what makes you cool.
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.