Introduction: Getting Flat
For an industry so full of legendary brands with passionate followings, alcohol brands’ advertising has always struck me as surprisingly generic. Why do so many of the campaigns rely on similar tropes and creative devices, even as the products evolve?
You see origin stories evoking age-old processes and visionary founders (Hornitos, Johnnie Walker), aspirational lifestyle depictions featuring more attractive avatars for their consumers (Michelob Ultra, Bacardi) and functional campaigns that telegraph rational benefits like taste (Grey Goose, most light beer).
I have discovered throughout my career that when I find an industry with undifferentiated advertising, there’s usually a good reason—some invisible force compelling the conformity, not a blatant lack of courage on the marketers’ part. For some industries, it’s regulation. For others, some niche consumer preference. But in beer, wine and spirits, the culprit is advertising itself, and its limitations. It’s simply not good at building the kinds of brands these industries seek to build. Let me explain.
Made in the Clichéd
I have pitched for and worked on many alcohol brands in my years in advertising, and in every case, the client brief focused on some combination of aspiration, fun and authenticity, if not all three. This formula for alcohol brand-building has been clear for as long as alcohol consumers have wanted to be more interesting, fun, cool people. But conveying these ideals through advertising has become fraught and inefficient, especially lately.
First, advertising is a poor way to communicate authenticity, since ads, by definition, are sales pitches. Furthermore, portraying authenticity through advertising is a creative bear trap, because to portray any image is to present a front. You see brands twist themselves in knots trying to advertise “authentically.” My favorite example comes from a TV spot for 1800 Tequila featuring Michael Imperioli proclaiming, “Whatever happened to commercials? So many of them don’t make any sense, and you can hardly tell what anyone is selling. This is a commercial for tequila.” Telling people your ad is an ad doesn’t make it any less of a manipulation.
You see these bizarre, self-aware ads from alcohol brands all the time. Anna Kendrick featured in a 2014 Super Bowl spot for Newcastle Brown Ale in which the storyline was that Newcastle would not do something as clichéd as a Super Bowl ad, and was therefore using a non-Super Bowl-type celebrity. If the simple act of advertising is too much of a contrivance for your brand, maybe it’s not the right vehicle anymore.
Surely, though, advertising must be a good springboard for aspiration if not authenticity, right? RIGHT? Not really anymore. These days, we’re less likely to take image cues from ads than we are from friends, influencers, social media and pop culture in general. No amount of cool men sitting at bars telling us to “seize the day” or “make more stories,” even if it comes from The Most Interesting Man in the World, is going to reverse this. Gen Y and Gen Z have made aspiration, and masculinity for that matter, a far more nuanced concept than advertising is suited to navigate.
As for fun … OK, fine, beer ads have a long history of being fun. Budweiser especially. I’ll give you that. But too many campaigns are merely depictions of parties breaking out on rooftops, hidden beaches and sultry nightclubs. Too many merely show fun rather than provide it. Advertising can depict fun for 30 seconds, or provide a chuckle, but what if there was a way to be the fun, in a real way? To be the venue or the enabler or the instigator for fun (without having to buy exclusive distribution rights at South By)?
Content: A Twist on the Classic Recipe
In the spirit of authenticity: We are a content agency, and this is a piece of content about content. So here’s why you should spend less money on advertising and give it to us to make content.
To most brands in the alcohol space, particularly the big ones that spend a lot of money on multichannel marketing, content marketing is but an afterthought — a tertiary endeavor, taking its cues from the ad campaign, confined to blog posts about the product and cocktail recipes. But let’s imagine for a second how aspirational, fun and authentic your brand could be if you made content your lead alcohol marketing discipline.
Instead of apologizing for your own commercials to garner authenticity, you could engage people more deeply in the real story of your brand. That founder story that falls flat when crammed into a 30-second spot can become genuinely interesting when told through long-form editorial or a video series, if it’s told by real journalists and writers who deliver more than pithy headline copy. That proprietary aging process that makes your product distinct could very well be fascinating to your consumers, despite what your ad agency will tell you, if you explore it in greater depth through content. Today’s consumers are curious and obsessed with learning. Teach them something, and your expertise will be more than image-deep.
Rather than portraying aspiration through composed images of celebrities in cool settings, content can help you actually be aspirational to your audience. It’s one thing to see that indie pop artist sip your product in an ad, but it’s another to show your fans what it’s like to be in his or her recording studio. You can claim that your craft beer goes well with fine cuisine in a print ad, or you can produce an award-winning essay series featuring leading food writers waxing poetic about pairing your beer with contemporary food. You can say that your wine is complex and satisfying for real connoisseurs, or you could give them an insider view into how sommeliers think and work.
Most of all, content is far better than advertising at showing that your brand is fun. Providing entertainment to your consumers (especially while we’re all stuck at home) is a great way to play a meaningful role in their lives. Why couldn’t a beer brand create the next popular party game, like Cards Against Humanity? Perhaps a vodka brand could show fans what it might be like to see musicians reinterpret each other’s songs. Maybe a scotch brand could show us what it’s like to be at the dinner table with a group of comedians. If you’re insightful about your consumers and you study their social media tendencies, you can quickly determine how you can help them have more fun.
Fundamentally, the difference between ads and content is that people want to see content—if it’s good, if it brings them real value. Where advertising is an interruption to something else your consumers want, content should be invited into their lives. It’s a level of intimacy with consumers that brands in this space crave but never achieve through advertising.
For the rest of this series, we’re going to get specific on alcohol marketing strategies, diving into the challenges for beer, wine and spirits brands and offering content approaches and ideas to overcome them.
To get our “Content Marketing Prompts for Alcohol Brands” one-pager, email us now.