Matt Blevins, left, of Brown-Forman and Ryan Bridgeman of Manna Inc. spoke to entreprenuers from around the world. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling
Matt Blevins, left, of Brown-Forman and Ryan Bridgeman of Manna Inc. spoke to entrepreneurs from around the world. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Eighteen food and beverage entrepreneurs from as close as Detroit and as far away as the United Arab Emirates gathered in Louisville to learn from executives at the city’s top food and beverage companies.

The two-day event was put on by Endeavor Louisville, the local chapter of an international nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs make connections and learn from successful business owners. The event in Louisville included tours of Papa John’s International, Creation Gardens, Texas Roadhouse and Thorntons led by the heads of those companies.

On Tuesday morning, Matt Blevins, global brand director for Brown-Forman, and Ryan Bridgeman, president of Manna Inc., led a talk about branding, communications and franchising.

Blevins and Bridgeman zeroed in on the importance of workplace culture, and Blevins spoke extensively about Brown-Forman’s efforts to maintain an authentic brand.

Some of the entrepreneurs in attendance are still trying to work out who they are, what their brand is.

“We have startup businesses within our company and the advice to them is — act like a startup — and it is — to really focus on nailing what their brand is about and delivering that brand promise over and over and over again,” Blevins said.

While people may be familiar with Brown-Forman, they may not be familiar with all the brands it owns. Each must build up a brand separate from Brown-Forman or its sister brands. Once a company or product has figured that out and figured out what works, Blevins said, stick to it, not matter what branding or identity others put on to the company.

Blevins asked the group what they thought of when they think about Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, the company’s main brand. One person noted that the brand is not as popular in the Middle East as scotch is; it’s viewed as a lower shelf brand. Other answers ranged from Al Pacino to barbecue to crazy party people.

“You never see that in here. You never see party animals. We like them — responsibly,” Blevins said, referring to Brown-Forman’s advertising.

Instead, the advertisements tell the story of the Jack Daniel brand and how the brand views itself.

“We believe if we do that, that sales will follow,” he said. “You can’t chase culture. Culture has to find you. …We just have to do what we do and trust the reason people are relating to us is because we have values that are their values.”

As an example, Blevins showed a television ad that hasn’t hit the airwaves yet. The ad focuses on people who live in the town of Lynchburg, Tenn., where Jack Daniel’s was first created.

“This is how many people were born here. This is how many are fifth generation,” the ad starts. It continues with similar identifiers, including how many have served in the Armed Forces and how many will attend a particular football game.

In the end, the voice-over artist offers to send the viewer a Lynchburg postcard, which the ad implies is not a postcard at all but rather a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. The purpose of the ad is to say that Jack Daniel’s is Lynchburg.

In Bridgeman’s case, for the most part, it’s the parent company that dictates branding campaigns. National restaurants Wendy’s and Chili’s had an identity before Bridgeman’s father Junior Bridgeman came on as a franchisee. The Bridgeman family is the sole owner of only six of their roughly 500 restaurants, most are franchised locations such as the Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza locations in Louisville.

What Manna Inc. has control over and prides itself in is a great workplace. “As a company, that’s everything,” he said, adding that three of the five managers who started with Junior Bridgeman at Wendy’s in the late 1980s are still with the company, albeit in higher positions.

Bridgeman echoed statements his father has made in the past, saying the company values its lowest-level employees, the ones physically in the restaurants every day, over its executives. The company is known for giving presents to employees’ small children during the holidays and helping out employees who are struggling. For example, he said, Manna Inc. gave out $17,000 to buy furniture for employees impacted by the 2010 flood in Nashville.

Though this has become more difficult as the cost of doing business increases, Bridgeman said they stick with it “to let our people, our managers know, you are the most important things to us.”

At Brown-Forman, Blevins said the workplace culture is “a competitive advantage.” Groups work to ensure that its employee pool is diverse and talk about how different divisions can work together. The company also offer bonuses to employees based on their long-term performance, compensation that is traditionally reserved more for high-level executives.

“It’s a difference that makes a difference,” he said. “We want people to make decisions about our business with the long-term in mind.”

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Caitlin Bowling
Louisville native Caitlin Bowling has covered the local restaurant and retail scene since 2014. After graduating from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Caitlin got her start at a newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina where she won multiple state awards for her reporting. Since returning to Louisville, she’s written for Business First and Insider Louisville, winning awards for health and business reporting and becoming a go-to source for business news. In addition to restaurants and retail business, Caitlin covers real estate, economic development and tourism. Email Caitlin at [email protected]