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A drink with… Ben Branson, Pollen Projects

The founder of Seedlip and Pollen Projects reveals all about his most recent product launch, his venture studio’s plans and his thoughts on where the no-and-low sector is heading.

Ben Branson seasn Pollen Projects
Pollen Projects launched Seasn last year

Are you still involved with Seedlip on a day-to-day basis?

I’m still a shareholder and I’m still involved, but not on a day-to-day basis. I was in LA and Austin a couple of weeks ago for the Seedlip Notas de Agave launch. I get involved in campaigns, creative and product innovation, and any press media. It’s Diageo’s brand now, but it’s still my baby.

It’s nice to not have all of the responsibility – it’s created capacity for me to work on other things. The Diageo team and the specific Seedlip team are brilliant – they’re as passionate about Seedlip as the original team, so I feel good about it.

There’s an affectionate phrase: I’m a ‘living founder’. You know, Charles Tanqueray and Arthur Guinness aren’t around any more. So, as long as I can be useful, then I want to be involved.

What was it like taking part in Distill Ventures? Is it something you’d recommend to other founders?

I think it’s amazing for a FTSE 100 company to have the awareness to say: “We’re not the best at creating new brands, but there are loads of exciting new craft spirits, and we’d like to be involved in some way.” Distill Ventures is a brilliant platform to do that.

I think it is very important for people starting new drinks brands to be clear about what they’re looking for because it won’t be for everybody. I wasn’t from the drinks industry, so it was really helpful because I had access to people who knew a lot about the drinks industry. Distill Ventures is a great platform for demystifying some of the jargon.

Is there anything new or exciting coming from Seedlip in the future?

Two big things have just recently happened – the first was our partnership with Regé-Jean Page. He is a very suave, charming man, and he loves Seedlip. He’s very selective but he really believes in what we’re doing.

Seedlip launched three products in its first three or four years. We took a strategic approach and focused on having a core range. So, it was amazing to launch our fourth product in January this year, Seedlip Notas de Agave. It’s US-only and very much born, bred and built for a US audience.

There’s more to come, but having a big partnership and a new product – there’s loads to get on with.

Tell me about Pollen Projects.

The non-alc category is now worth around US$13 billion in 10 key markets, according to IWSR. But it’s still really early days. There are around 1,000 dedicated non-alc brands. From where it was in 2015, it’s pretty remarkable.

Lots is happening in the non-alc category – it’s very dynamic. But there’s a massive variety of quality and in terminology, production methods and motivations for getting into the category. There’s a big divide – there’s the idea that “This is for people who don’t drink alcohol, and alcohol is bad.” I’ve got zero interest in that. For me, it’s just about great drinks, full stop – across the ABV spectrum.

With Pollen Projects, I wanted to find a way to structure a business that could have a pipeline and a portfolio of different brands. We describe it as a ‘non-alc venture studio’. We’re not an accelerator or an incubator – they’re all our own ideas. We’ll develop our own brands in the next few years – we don’t want loads, just the right ones. It’s fully independent and not connected to Seedlip or Diageo.

One important aspect was fantastic taste and quality, and another was to look at category gaps or monopolised categories, like bitters.

Pollen Projects SeasnI started working on Seasn, our range of cocktail bitters, back in 2017. We season our food, so why don’t we season our drinks? Seasn are these amazing, intense, complex, delicious liquids that are so easy to use and can traverse ABVs, and whether it’s food or drink.

Cocktail bitters are a really fascinating category. It’s got all this history – it goes back 5,000 years to the ancient Egyptians. It features in the first recorded recipe for a ‘cocktail’ in 1806 and is served in 30% of the world’s 50 most popular cocktails. It has an overwhelming monopoly from Angostura – I love Angostura, but they’ve got an overwhelming monopoly.

When you think about recent trends of personalisation and wanting to tweak classics, cocktail bitters really fit into that space. We’ve taken a slightly different approach in that we have just two products. If you like lighter-style drinks, from tonic drinks through to Martinis and Margaritas, choose Seasn Light – it’s super green, zingy and zesty. If you like Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and rum and coke – those darker drinks – then go for Seasn Dark because it’s super aromatic, spicy, umami and bitter. It’s salt and pepper for drinks, which is what we landed on as a proposition.

What’s next for Pollen Projects?

I started working on our second project in 2016, which we are aiming to release later this year. There’s another project I’ve been working on for three years that we’d like to release next year.

We’re launching Seasn in New York in the summer and we’ve just hired a head of research and development.

We’re also building a laboratory in my house – a proper lab where we’re going to start producing the second project.

Where do you think the non-alc category is heading?

There’s a whole load of consolidation and rationalisation coming. Consumers and the trade don’t need loads of options – they just need brilliant options. It’s pretty saturated at the moment.

There’s an opportunity in the next couple of years to move beyond the ABV conversation, to where it’s not about alcohol levels. We can move the conversation to being: what do you like to drink? What’s in your drink? In really simple terms, it’s like moving ‘0.0% ABV’ from the front to the back of the bottle.

And outside of drinks, you run The Hidden 20%.

I was diagnosed as autistic in September 2022. At the time, I didn’t really know what that meant. I’d certainly never heard the word ‘neurodivergent’ before.

It was liberating to be diagnosed and illuminating to discover some massive things: 40% of neurodivergent adults are unemployed; people are waiting up to 10 years for diagnosis; up to 85% of people in the prison system are believed to be neurodivergent; and around 1.8 billion people on the planet are neurodivergent.

Those numbers made me wonder why there is still so much stigma, exclusion and myth. On the flip side, I learned that all of my heroes – whether that be Steve Jobs, Picasso, da Vinci, Elvis or Isaac Newton – are neurodivergent.

I couldn’t connect the fact that so many amazing contributions to society, culture and science, etc, have come from people who think differently, yet, in 2024, we are asking people to wait 10 years to be diagnosed.

I set up a charity called PRISM ND in January to have the conversation and spread awareness so that the 80% [the population who are neurotypical] have more understanding. We launched a weekly podcast where I interview a whole variety of neurodivergent chefs, authors, charity CEOs, psychologists and more.

I feel that all I’m doing is exactly what we did with Seedlip and the taboo around alcohol drinking: focusing on the majority and shifting mindsets.

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