The A-lister debuts on the US Forbes 30 Under 30 this year while attempting a transition from model to mogul. Can Jenner’s 818 Tequila stand out in the crowded celebrity spirits space?
Kendall Jenner knows the power of her name.
Arguably the world’s most famous family, the Kardashian-Jenners have a proven 10-figure touch. Kendall’s sister Kim Kardashian’s shapewear brand Skims was most recently valued at $4 billion. Little sister Kylie Jenner sold the majority of her makeup brand Kylie Cosmetics in 2020 at a $1.2 billion valuation.
In the celebrity-driven business of premium booze, attaching the Kardashian-Jenner moniker to a tequila bottle would be branding 101. After all, Jenner and her four sisters have a combined 1.6 billion Instagram followers. So it was surprising that when Kendall, 28, started her premium tequila brand, 818, she rebelled against family tradition–and launched the brand anonymously.
In March 2020, she entered the prestigious World Tequila Awards, presenting her new Añejo, Reposado and Blanco without any fancy branding or mention of anything Kardashian-Jenner. No big launch party or flashy Instagram and TikTok campaign either (though that would come later). Instead, her tequila bottles were simply labeled “818”–a nod to the area code of Calabasas, California where Jenner was born and raised.
“We wanted to get true, honest feedback,” says Jenner. “I wanted the liquid and the brand to stand on their own and for people to love it without me even having to be a part of it because I just wanted it to be that good.”
Her 818 Reposado took home the category’s top prize; the Añejo won bronze. By the time Jenner finally announced, nearly a year later, that she’d been the one behind it all along, 818 had won 16 awards across six competitions.
Only then did she turn on the Kardashian-Jenner PR machine, following the family’s classic playbook of leveraging their massive fame as a free advertising force. These days, sister Kourtney is focused on vitamins and wellness, Kim has clothing and makeup, Khloe has jeans and Kylie has cosmetics. Kendall, part of the new class of supermodel influencers that includes Bella Hadid and Hailey Bieber, has landed the cover of American Vogue and has walked the runway for the world’s biggest fashion houses. (And now debuts on our 2024 Forbes 30 Under 30 list). With 818, she’s building her own corner of the Kardashian-Jenner business world: alcohol.
Why tequila? Jenner credits her parents, who she says drank it frequently when she was growing up, and fueled her passion for it when she became an adult. During the pandemic, Jenner says she’d hold blind taste tests for her family and friends, stacking their favorite tequila standbys against her new product. “With modeling, I was a part of someone else’s vision,” Jenner told the audience at October’s Forbes Under 30 Summit in Cleveland. “I was their character and whoever they wanted me to be at that moment. The shift into being a founder and owning my own business was a really cool way of getting to know myself again.”
Kris Jenner, Kendall’s mom and Kardashian matriarch, has high hopes too. “Kendall has been very independent about this process and really shown me that she’s not only an amazing businesswoman, but super-smart, super-focused, amazing work ethic,” says Kris Jenner, who has invested in 818. “She has every single part of what it takes to be in her position, and she’s nailing it.”
Tequila was one of the fastest-growing spirits by revenue last year, with sales up some 17%, or $886 million, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. In all, Americans drank $6 billion worth of the stuff in 2022.
Jenner is out to grab her share by creating a tequila for the younger, Gen Z crowd.
The opportunity helped her lure veteran beverage executive Mike Novy away from rival brand Casa Dragones, where he was president. The pair first partnered with Mexican distillery La Cofradia to make their tequila, but switched to Guadalajara’s Grupo Solave as the brand grew. “[Some celebrity brands] lack authenticity,” says Novy. “They may be good for driving awareness, but will they actually drive a consumer emotional attachment with your brand?” Novy says that Jenner is all in on 818, constantly texting him questions and embarking on multi-city tours to interact with customers and consumers. Says Jenner, “My hand is pretty much in every aspect of the business.”
So are her social media handles–Kendall has a combined 300 million followers on TikTok and Instagram. With an award-winning liquid and worldwide fame, Jenner sold more than 123,000 cases of 818 in 2022. The brand is reportedly on track to sell 160,000 cases in 2023. Bottles of 818 start at $30, with her Eight Reserve añejo retailing for about $150. Forbes estimates 2022 sales were around $25 million. Jenner declined to comment on sales or her stake in the business.
But as the tequila market grows, it’s growing crowded. Scores of established brands like market leaders José Cuervo, Don Julio and Patron have been selling tequila for decades. And Jenner is far from the only celebrity moving in. Stars including The Rock, LeBron James, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Eva Longoria and Carlos Santana all have brands. In 2017, George Clooney sold Casamigos to Diageo for a reported $1 billion.
Brian Sudano, a managing partner at data and consulting firm Beverage Marketing Corporation, says the biggest challenge 818 faces is standing out. “Don’t expect Casamigos to be replicated,” says Sudano. “We haven’t seen that in history, where you have replication of the same success within the same genre of brands or category.”v
To successfully capture the U.S. market, a brand needs to sell at least 250,000 cases, he says. But to be considered a strong national brand, 818 would need to sell 500,000 cases, he says.
Teremana, which The Rock launched in 2020, reported in April that annual sales had topped 1 million cases–up from 600,000 the year prior. 818 COO Novy says the company hopes to be a “quarter-of-a-million case brand” within the next two years.
Last year, 818 ranked 16th globally and 14th in the U.S. by total value sales, according to Euromonitor data. Jenner’s team, however, is quick to cite another survey, by marketing research firm IRI data, showing 818 was one of the top 10 tequila brands by dollars generated in the $25-and-up category in 2023.
Matthew Barry, a manager at researcher Euromonitor, sees the potential for 818. He credits Jenner’s influential social following and sway over a younger audience who want to be like her and drink what she drinks. “The Rock and Kendall Jenner, those two are really the biggest-profile in the space,” says Barry. “And Kendall’s probably the bigger name these days,”
Jenner says she isn’t fazed by the growing competition. “I consider that a healthy challenge,” she says. “We obviously know that there are a lot of amazing brands on the market and amazing tequila on the market. It just makes us want to be better.”
This article was first published on forbes.com and all figures are in USD.