On the House: The Hard Truth About Building Spirits Brands

Learn how content can quench consumers’ thirst for authenticity in Part 4 of our advice for alcohol marketers.

You’ve made it to the fourth and final installment of this series about marketing booze brands. You deserve a drink. Better make it a double—this might get a little hairy. 

By now, the premise of this series should be as clear as vodka. It’s time to reconsider the industry’s adherence to advertising as the promotional weapon of choice. The default assumption that advertising should be the sun of your marcom solar system is handicapping your brand, particularly if you’re in the spirits game. 

Yes, the B-word. Brand. There, I said it. 

Content marketers aren’t supposed to talk about such high-minded concepts. We’re supposed to be tacticians. Click-getters. A tertiary discipline at best. The blog, not the campaign. The partner agency, never the agency of record. A marketing manager, not the chief marketing officer. 

But that paradigm is shifting. 

Historically, advertising mixed with spirits brand-building like rum with Coke. Print in particular was the perfect medium for projecting an aspirational style or tweaking consumers’ subconscious drive for self-actualization in a high-value context. But try running Absolut’s iconic bottle art campaign today. Never mind that print isn’t a viable lead horse anymore. Can you imagine those ads working as digital banners, surrounded by retargeted ads for pillow tops and bike racks? 

Ads no longer build icons of aspiration in this category. Consumers’ insatiable thirst for a more authentic, currency-building alternative is a continual threat for light and dark spirits alike. With every new handcrafted vodka, small-batch whiskey or single-village mezcal that enters the scene, a pre-digital spirits titan takes a punch in the gut. We find ourselves in an era in which consumers spend more on a bottle of liquor during a recession or a pandemic—where they habitually trade up to premium options in search of something more “meaningful” than iconic brands with storied histories. 

You know there’s a problem when the “authentic” brands are the ones launched by celebrities on social media. Ryan Reynolds’ Aviation Gin grew 100 percent in 2019, largely because of his snarky social media presence, while other legacy competitors grew modestly. A sarcastic rich guy buys a gin company, and that’s authentic? Or how about the explosive growth of Conor McGregor’s Proper No. Twelve, while Jameson’s grew at only 3 percent in the first half of its financial year, according to a February article in The Drinks Business. 

For a no-strings chat about how your marketing apparatus could look if you elevated content marketing reach out to us here.

Using Content as Currency

Brands in this category (and otherwise) are now built, at least in consumers’ eyes, by the content they produce. Content is the substance of your brand, put on display. From site to social to YouTube channel to apps to digital experiences, it’s the stuff that you create and share with the world, not the messages you place, that brings you currency and defines your soul. It’s today’s true source of authenticity when advertising is understood as an inherent contrivance. 

Not that you should abandon ads. They still play a crucial role in building awareness. But imagine not arraying your plan around an ad campaign, a tagline, a key visual and a spot. Imagine planning around a content strategy. That is, using insights to deliver to different slices of your audience things they would actually enjoy, value, take style cues from and generally invite into their lives rather than skip. 

By way of example, let’s take one of the staples of spirits advertising: establishing an occasion. Forever, brands have tried to own the association with certain situations, hoping to become a necessary ritual for those moments, like whiskey at a poker game. But they’re often building their own cage. Scotch has a hard time being anything other than male and contemplative. Jagermeister, for all its efforts to educate us on its quality ingredients, is still an occasion of belligerence (at least in the U.S.). Most tequila brands can’t escape the ethos of raging parties. Most brands are stuck with the behavioral truths that define their category and end up with undifferentiated advertising. 

Give Consumers a Good Time

Content marketing, on the other hand, not only allows brands to educate consumers on new occasions with greater depth, but it also lets them cause the occasion in the first place, or invent new ones. You could depict a rooftop party in an ad, or you could create a map of all the rooftop lounges in the ZIP code. You could depict a rock concert in an ad, or have amazing journalists take people backstage. Scotch brands can depict well-adjusted male wit, or they could put consumers at the dinner table with five comedians. A vodka brand could sponsor a band, or use content to take fans on the road with them. We’re no longer building an association but an entry point. 

Spirits brands can mean so much more to consumers if they’re freed from the encumbrance of advertising and allowed to snake their way into consumers’ lives. We source style advice from unknown common people on social media (i.e., influencers), so why not Tanqueray? We get dating advice from anonymous blogs, so why not Bacardi? Why get dance lessons from a stranger on YouTube instead of from Patrón? Can Jameson’s teach me how to tell a joke? 

Let’s shift our mindset. Let’s stop asking consumers to buy into our brands, and let’s buy into their lives. Create meaning for them rather than searching for your brand’s meaning. Give them a good time rather than showing that you are one. 

For a no-strings chat about how your marketing apparatus could look if you elevated content marketing, or if you just want to have a drink, reach out to us here.

About the Author