How alcohol brands grant drinkers permission to lie to themselves.
By Dante Pannell
For almost 60 years, James Bond has been disarming bad guys, masterfully handling luxury vehicles, and ordering the same drink, the same exact way: the vodka martini, shaken—not stirred. While this may seem to be just an idiosyncratic calling card of the world’s most famous 00 agent, it showcases the relationship between the drink a person orders, and the way the world perceives them because of it.
Since his 1953 introduction in Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale, James Bond has represented an aspiration of masculinity that still intrigues fans to this day. Whether it’s his impeccable style, unmatched taste in cars, or interest in attractive yet mysterious women (and success in bedding them), Bond represents a level of sophistication that is simultaneously unachievable and intensely coveted.
Of course, marching up to the bar in a tuxedo and ordering a (shaken) vodka martini doesn’t make one James Bond. Yet, among the most intoxicating effects of alcohol brands is the permission they give drinkers to be seen not as they are, but as they want the world to see them. Ordering a specific drink tells a story about one’s self to those around them, and when brands are able tell that story powerfully enough, customers shift their own perceptions away from reality and toward the ideal they associate with the brand.
Alcohol consumers broadly fall into three categories: aficionados who buy for taste, less discriminating price-shoppers, and a large group who select spirits based upon brand.
Savvy beer, wine, and spirit companies know the first two categories are rarely worth marketing to. Those who buy on taste tend to be heavily informed, educated on craft brands, and engaged with communities around their drink of choice. They’re apt to try new brands (in excess of 10 a year). Price-sensitive shoppers respond to price incentives in their preferred category, and as a result lack brand loyalty, or the ability to up-sell into a premium brand (where most category growth comes from).
Hence, the overwhelming majority of alcohol marketing is targeted at drinkers who attach their preferred brands to self-perception. In a study conducted by Affinnova, consumers of vodka showed they became attached to brands based almost entirely on marketing. This is supported by the almost universal move towards positioning alcohol as lifestyle brands.
What person does not want to appear interesting? Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man” ad campaign launched at a time when imported beer sales were dropping and craft beer was king. In 2009, when the campaign began, overall sales for imported beer in the United States dropped 4 percent, outpacing the decline in volume of total beer sold (2.1 percent). To get young people drinking beer again, Dos Equis counterintuitively introduced a septuagenarian man as the face of their Mexican-based beer.
The “Most Interesting Man in the World” was a far cry from the typical young, in-shape, and anonymous face who represented alcohol brand’s stories. Yes, beer brands are about lifestyle—but drinkers have aspirations broader than the typical US brand gives them credit for.
Those broad aspirations are at the center of the Dos Equis story. The most interesting man’s exaggerated feats not only poke fun at the meager aspirations of other beer brands, but it provides Dos Equis drinkers with a way of saying “there’s more to me than meets the eye.” The character himself does so in a comedic way—giving permission to the brand’s adherents to embrace the most interesting parts of their personality, even if they might be more fantasy than reality.
Dos Equis even recognizes that the brand-driven drinker is likely to have less category loyalty than most American brewers, who see their customer as exclusively a beer drinker. The most interesting man signs off by saying, “I don’t always drink beer. But when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.” It’s a signal: if you want a beer brand that screams cultured, diverse, and most importantly, interesting—be seen ordering a Dos Equis.
It worked. Between 2007 and 2016, sales for the company’s Lager Especial grew 34.8 percent.
“Nothing taste quite like it.” That’s how White Claw, one of America’s most popular alcoholic beverages, chooses to describe itself. Brands such as Smirnoff Ice and Mike’s Hard Lemonade had established a category for alcoholic coolers—but always as niche products, sold alongside beer, and targeted toward female audiences (as a complement to their beer-drinking male companion). White Claw has aggressively chosen to position not as part of this category—but as a completely new, and market-leading, offering.
Seltzer—also known as expensive, carbonated water—is the
fastest-growing beverage category in the United States. It’s growth to a
$1.7 billion market is credited to people craving “better for you”
alternatives, a preference that was inevitably extended to alcohol (which has
been historically light on “healthy” options, Bacardi’s efforts
Hard seltzer is a $550 million business that is built on the dual desires to consume alcohol and be perceived as healthier. What is unique about the seltzer trend is how cosmopolitan it is. Unlike previous offerings, the hard seltzer market is designed to appeal equally to men and women, affluent and not, even urban and rural—Montana consumes more hard seltzer per capita than any other state.
Since its launch in 2016, White Claw has been the dominant brand in this trend: during the 2018 Fourth of July weekend, White Claw sales accounted for more than 55 percent of the entire segment.
White Claw’s VP of Marketing, Sanjiv Gajiwala describes the brand’s approach to marketing: “Whatever we put out creatively and how we positioned the brand really reflects that everyone hangs out together all the time.” White Claw’s nuance is that it isn’t just selling a lifestyle, it has become one. With the help of social media, the “White Claw Lifestyle” has become synonymous with day parties, festivals, and a never-ending summer. With a sleek can, a light alcohol taste, and low amount of calories White Claw is designed to be a cultural phenomenon ready to be shared by drinkers on Instagram.
This lifestyle is embodied no better than in the catch phrase: “Ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws.” While it started off as a joke on social media, the phrase has since taken on a life of its own. There’s a powerful subtext: the successful and wealthy have always been able to flaunt certain cultural norms, and embedded in this phrase is a self-perception of exceptionalism. By grasping a can of White Claw, drinkers immediately elevate the way they view themselves: exempt from the normal standards that apply to the unexceptional.
White Claw lifestyle has provided its dedicated drinkers the ability to pick up a “Claw” and become the person they’ve always wanted to be. An slovenly man can see themselves as a supermodel. A reserved female accountant can become a lawless cowboy. Reality leaves the moment that 12-oz white can enters ones hand. It’s completely up to the drinker to step into their role.
While every brand seeks to tell a story, alcohol brands’ are particularly powerful given their attachment to customer identity, and the loyalty of said drinkers. 62 percent of drinkers stick with one to two alcoholic brands through their life. Even though trends come and go, and the marketing continues to pull in new consumers, this emotional connection goes far beyond just the drink, but instead speaks to the story being an extension of themselves—most people decide what category they prefer before 35, and stick with it for their lives.
Whether a drinker fancies themselves interesting due to the beer in their hand, charming and brilliant because they order an Old Fashioned, or a leading member of the beautiful nouveau rich while crushing Claws, James Bond set the precedent, and standard, for this relationship..
A person’s drink of choice and their personality are so closely tied that the world was blindsided when Daniel Craig, playing the latest Bond incarnation, ordered a Heineken in the “Skyfall” installment of the series. The uproar speaks to the deep connection between brand and self-perception, one that comes not from successful marketing, but rather the inseparable alignment between drink and drinker.
Brands don’t need alcohol to be this intoxicating. Any company that can closely tie their identity to their customer will benefit from the lasting relationship and advocacy inherent to that connection.
There’s a scene in “Live and Let Die” starring Roger Moore where a powerful assassin Kananga enters a hot air balloon and blows up. Viewing the explosion, Bond says in a snarky voice, “He always did have an inflated opinion of himself.”
Kananga was having a White Claw summer and didn’t even know it.
Dante Pannell is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how we can help tell your story.