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Elevator pitch: Swim

We gave advertising creative Ben Polkinghorne a little longer than an elevator ride to pitch Swim, a caffeinated vodka soda.

To some, a burrito-flavoured sausage and caffeinated vodka soda may seem like bizarre ideas.

Not to advertising creative Ben Polkinghorne.

He was the creator of Bangerritos which won gold at the 2017 Devro NZ Sausage Awards and became an approved supplier for Foodstuffs.

While Polkinghorne called time on the burrito-flavoured sausages in 2018 after four years due to the expense of making a premium snarler, he and friend Daniel Farley have since created Swim.

Ben Polkinghorne.

It’s a caffeinated vodka soda which has no sugar, sweeteners, preservatives or artificial flavours.

“It’s for those that like to party, clean. It’s great because it’s easy to drink, doesn’t bloat you and is incredibly low in calories,” Polkinghorne says.  

And like any good idea, it was after a few drinks that Swim was hatched.

“Couple of years back, Daniel and I were looking for a pick me up in Barcelona. It was around 4am and we were spent. We mused… wouldn’t it be great to have a clean drink with just a dash of caffeine? A lot of research and development later, and here we are”.

Swim launched in December 2018.

“Is it [called Swim] because it’s a fluid-feeling name for a liquid? Because it’s unexpected? Or is it an acronym?” Polkinghorne says.

“The truth is, it’s a closely guarded secret, stored in the same vault as a certain 11 herbs and spices. We like the fact Swim means different things to different people.”

The original design is by Kristen Howard who is based in Berlin. It took a while to get right but Polkinghorne says they got to a “really interesting place”. 

“Squint your eyes and you might just realise that the logo spells Swim. More recently we’ve been working with other talented designers closer to home.”

For its marketing strategy, Polkinghorne says the company basically does things it likes, and hopes others will too. 

“We enlisted the support of Graham Bell (ex-host of Police Ten 7) to colourfully voice our radio ads. We also turned these into videos and shared them on social to the delight of the internet.”

With alcohol being a very populated market, Polkinghorne says there have been challenges due to entering such a competitive sphere.

“When we decided to give it a crack, we didn’t know where to start. Manufacturing alcoholic beverages was new to all of us and we experienced an almost vertical learning curve.”

Despite countless dead ends and conversations, it eventually led to assembling a great team to make everything happen, from procuring empty cans through to warehousing and distribution.

Needless to say, the team is still learning.

“We’re also up against massive budgets. Fortunately, we have a committed team and a great product on our side.”

Swim’s point of difference is that there’s no sugar and no sweeteners, Polkinghorne says.

“There’s also a smidge of caffeine in each can. Think of it as more of a tickle than a slap in the face. Three cans are roughly equal to a cup of coffee. Drinking a few cans responsibly brings on a really lovely, chilled yet energetic buzz.”

The drink is also closely linked to the nightlife and festival scene and can be found in leading Auckland clubs such as Impala and Roxy and in over 100 stores.

He says the brand is tapping into the fact that people care about what they eat and drink nowadays.

“That works out well for us, we care about the ingredients we use.”

In terms of investments, Polkinghorne says the team has supplemented one round of funding with their own cash. 

With his advertising background, Polkinghorne says skills developed in the industry have helped him launch his products.

“As a creative, my job is to come up with ideas and then bring them to life. It’s not always straightforward – so trying to find ways around naysayers and roadblocks is a reasonably big part of what we have to do. Advertising also teaches you how to work impossibly hard. All things considered, it’s probably the perfect training ground for entrepreneurship.”

He says it’s worth pointing out that Farley, Billy Vasdev (sales director) and Keegan Jones (sales rep) also have valuable experience in different areas too.

“We make quite the team.”

When asked what sectors beside food and beverage he sees himself entering in the future, Polkinghorne says it’s just a complete coincidence both endeavours have been in the same sector.

“Or perhaps I’m just really passionate about burritos and drinking? Jokes aside, Swim is the focus for the foreseeable future. We’re off to a great start and we’re all keen to see how far we can take it.” 

With everything going swimmingly for Swim, Polkinghorne is now based in London working at AMV BBDO.

He admits the geographical separation isn’t easy. 

“Having the rest of the team on the ground is key. It’s also possible thanks to the 13, 12- or 11-hour time difference (depending on daylight savings) that I can chat with people in the New Zealand morning or evening. It’s not great in terms of having spare time and great sleeps, but I’m energised about what we’re accomplishing”. 

He continues to push boundaries and come up with creative ideas with his work both inside and outside the office.

“Last week [creative partner] Scott [Kelly] and I launched an idea to fight air pollution. It made a bit of a splash and was on the front page of The Times along with extensive coverage elsewhere.”

Outside of the advertising day-job, he works on art projects with Kelly.

“We get a lot of satisfaction out of these and it’s led to some amazing experiences, like exhibiting at the Seoul Museum of Art.”

Looking forward, Polkinghorne says the team would love for Swim to be served on Air New Zealand flights.

“We hope to be in every liquor store in the country, the coolest clubs and the best events. We want to bring out more flavours and continue to have fun with the brand…then, we want to sniff around the Australian and UK market.”

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