Ever wonder what a day in the life of a PR pro overseeing some of the top wine and spirits brands in the world might be like? We got a glimpse into the glittering, sometimes rarefied reality via Ross Matsubara, Vice President & Style Director at Nike Communications, Inc. If you're expecting champagne-fueled fun and fashion parties, you're not wrong. But it takes more than expert-level social skills to navigate the nuanced spirits world (though a penchant for networking is essentially a job requirement). Read on for Ross' take on spirits PR today, staying plugged into the cultural pulse and, of course, his go-to cocktails and where to imbibe.
Celebrating Rosario Dawson’s Birthday at the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series Finale
Can you briefly tell us about your path to the current role you have? Did you zero in on wine & spirits as a preferred specialty, or did you fall into it?
I'm currently a Vice President and Style Director at Nike Communications, a bi-coastal creative communications agency – that specializes in the marketing of luxury and prestige brands – and has nothing to do with the “Just Do It” giant. My relatives and doormen constantly ask about the name, so to get it out of the way: our president Nina Kaminer, who founded the company in 1984, was a Greek Classics major – “Nike” being the winged goddess of Victory.
I double majored in Business Communications and Studio Arts as I was originally planning to get into advertising. However, after a brief internship with a top ad agency in LA, I promptly realized I would be spending more time crunching numbers than painting beautiful billboards (full disclosure: I hate math and math hates me). However, I loved the tagline and copywriting aspects of advertising, so my professor urged me to consider PR.
Growing up in Hawaii, the only exposure I had to “PR” was Samantha Jones and Jennifer Saunders’ character in Ab Fab. But, they were both fabulously powerful felines who, like me, exhibited an innate aptness for stiff drinks and favorable conversation, so I figured it was a natural avenue to explore.
I started my PR career in Hawaii, touching corporate and hospitality entities like the Hawaii Tourism Authority and AIG Insurance, before transplanting to NYC where I interned for a prominent Fashion PR agency running garment bags in SoHo. Since then, I’ve managed the public relations for brands in every industry, from KONAMI video games and The Guinness Book of World Records (I actually participated in the record for longest human dominos – but I’ll save that for another time) to WET sexual lubricants and LuAnn “The Countess” de Lesseps of Real Housewives fame. In 2011, I was introduced to Nike Communications for a role in their Spirits division – virtually the only industry I hadn’t touched (professionally, obviously). Fortunately for me (and Nike), PR was a universal language that transcended all types of industries – and I took to spirits brands like a duck to water.
MOËT & CHANDON c/o VIRGIL ABLOH
When it comes to comms/marketing for alcoholic beverages, are there any unique considerations?
Short answer: YES. Promoting the profile of premium spirits brands has all the complicated considerations one would assume, and more. For starters, in addition to being at least 25 years of age, a CSI deep dive must be performed on every person, partner, and brand to ensure there’s been zero history of addiction, depression, and/or drunk tabletop dancing. It’s also an all-day-everyday challenge making sure your brand is featured, at times included, within stories you facilitate. Brands, and especially liquor brands, are the first to hit the cutting room floor. You need to be extremely creative and gracefully tactful in how you get the brand placed.
People are increasingly cognizant that a PR pro’s services have expanded to encompass a large number of practices. How has the scope of work for your clients evolved during your career? Which of those practices do you find carries the most importance for your clients these days?
The role of a publicist has evolved from simply placing favorable press coverage – which will always need to happen, of course – to existing and operating as a physical manifestation of the brand. I always joke that I’m late to work because 75% of my job happens outside of the office, but it could not be more true. A majority of the celebrity partnerships and top national press features I’ve secured for my brands over the years has resulted from a conversation over dinner or drinks. I invest a significant amount of my personal time in fostering the right relationships and it’s a practice that I both instill and look out for in my team. If it’s not something you naturally enjoy doing, spirits PR is probably not the right fit.
Grey Goose takes the Hamptons
When you work on a marquee event such as St-Germain’s annual Maison St-Germain, how does the ideation process work? As the PR lead, are you involved from the beginning? How integrated are the various parties who work on these projects?
Every activation is different. With Maison St-Germain, we were fortunate to have earned the complete trust of our brand. So, when we were ready to launch a massive annual experience on the High Line – that brought to life the 1,000 fresh elderflowers that make up every bottle of St-Germain liqueur – the brand did not hesitate when we proposed my friend and landscape artist, Lily Kwong, to serve as the creative director. St-Germain was unfamiliar with her extraordinary work, so it was my job to assure them of the right decision and facilitate the entire relationship and vision from start to finish. It was a monumental project – and mixing business with pleasure is always a precarious art – but I’m happy to report that the process and end results were nothing short of extraordinary.
Lily Kwong, Maison St-Germain on the High Line
What have been some of your career highlights?
The inaugural Maison St-Germain was a project that comes to mind. Also, working with my friend Edward at Vogue to secure celebrities and meaningful press coverage for Moet & Chandon at the Golden Globes each year.
How do you personally stay plugged into the cultural pulse?
Short answer: Espresso and La Mer Eye Concentrate. Long answer: it’s always been important to me, especially in the fashion and spirits industries, to constantly be meeting new people. Whether that’s a Sunday coffee with a family friend who just moved to NYC from Hawaii or dinner with Mariah Carey after a private performance of Hamilton, I try not to turn down a meeting. I actually learned this from my husband Noa, who founded Homepolish, which is comical as he’s a complete homebody. Now that I’m a bit older, and have legit established a Top 8 in Seamless web, I try to instill the same mindset in my team, and it’s one of the first qualities I look for in a new hire. That said, there’s a fine line between “social” and “social butterfly,” and we’ve had to clip a few wings.
What are some of the best things about working with top shelf wine & spirits brands?
In addition to maintaining healthier budgets, which enable one to get creative with programs and activations, premium spirits play in such a colorful cross-section of arenas that you’re rarely ever just pitching the actual liquid. From Tribeca Film Festival and Art Basel to the US Open and Aspen Food & Wine, you are constantly engaging with top writers and personalities in arts, tech, food, film, fashion and beyond.
Also, when am I ever going to have a career where it’s frowned upon not to drink on the job?
Vogue’s Annual pre-Met party with Moët & Chandon
And the worst? Is it a lot of late nights?
The work and events are relentless, and the pressure is always on, but there is not a lot to dislike about my industry. Except for the blisters and bags.
What are a few projects you’re working on at the moment that you’re excited about?
We just started working with Carine Roitfeld and Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld on the CR brand’s major extensions, including CR Fashion Book/CR Men and CR Studio. It’s refreshing to work with clients outside of the spirits industry, and we’re gearing up to announce/launch something major for the brand this summer.
I'm a seasonal girl. A spicy Paloma in the Summer; smoky Bombay Sapphire Negroni in the Fall; a double Penicillin with a large ice cube in the Winter, and I will always reach for a goblet of Moët Ice (over three large cubes) and/or a St-Germain Spritz for all day imbibing -- like spring weddings.
The Rusty Knot on the West Side Highway, where my husband and I had our first date. The cocktails are terrible and the bathroom smells like yeast, but what makes a bar a bar – for me – is the memories.
That said – if I want a solid cocktail that will make my dreams have dreams – BlackTail in FiDi or Angel’s Share in the East Village. The beverage program at Blue Hill at Stone Bars is also worth the trip.
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