Marketing

Should Booze Brands Get Political?

Industry experts weigh in on recent ad campaigns and what brands should consider when wading into politics

In this crazy day and age, it’s hard for any single post on Facebook to surprise people anymore, but there it was back in June 2015: a Maker’s Mark bottle with its neck dipped, not in the iconic red wax, but instead in a Pride-supportive rainbow wax. What did fans of this venerable bourbon from Kentucky (a state President Trump later won by 30 points) have to say about that?

Below the image, there were plenty of comments like “Why ruin good bourbon with politics?” But surprisingly, the majority of comments were positive. Still, the few intolerant commenters did raise a decent point:  

Why risk customers for politics? (Maker’s Mark declined to comment for this article.)

Robin Robinson, a sales and marketing consultant whose focus is small spirit brands, points out that politics is now permeating our culture in an entirely new way. “When you think of the zeitgeist now, it’s a highly polarized time we live in,” he says. “Everyone is asked to choose sides. I guess it makes perfect sense that alcohol brands would join the fray.” His feeling is that it would be almost disingenuous for a brand not to choose a side—millennial consumers expect them to.

Another brand aligning itself with the LGBTQ community is Threes Brewing, a brewery and bar in Brooklyn, New York. Though mostly a locally celebrated spot, the brewery made national news when it released a beer earlier this year called Gender Neutral, a pale lager with lemon zest that comes in a rainbow-striped can. A portion of the proceeds from its sales go to the Human Rights Campaign in support of LGBTQ advocacy and equality. The beer did a fantastic job at ticking off conservative commentators. Tucker Carlson snarked on his show Fox News television show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, that it was “everything I dislike in the whole world summed up in a 12-ounce can.”

It was no laughing matter, however, to Joshua Stylman, the brewery’s cofounder, who explains, “We are a small, but ambitious and well-intentioned company that is trying to use our platform to make a difference about serious issues that we care deeply about. Many of those themes broadly center around human rights.”

Besides Gender Neutral, Threes has produced a beer called Courage, My Love to protest Trump’s travel ban (with proceeds going to the ACLU) and one dubbed Day of the Dead, which helped raise money for Red Hot, an organization dedicated to fighting AIDS through pop culture.

“We’d suggest other companies looking to address social issues careful consider their motives by asking themselves what the desired outcome is,” believes Stylman. “Then, think about whether their plan maps to those goals. If it’s well thought out, the authenticity will shine and they’ll make a difference. If it’s not, the message can get lost and the effort may just come across as a lame marketing gimmick.”

While it may be easy for a small brewery in a highly liberal enclave to say that, big brands haven’t been particularly shy either. Diageo, one of the world’s most powerful alcohol companies with a market cap of $71.2 billion, owns such brands as Guinness, Johnnie Walker, and Smirnoff. In May Smirnoff began offering special Love Wins bottles depicting same-sex couples on the labels. Smirnoff also used special tools to troll homophobic social media users by responding to them with posts and tweets expressing messages of love, like a drawing of gay men kissing inside a nightclub. Similarly, Absolut Vodka has offered a Pride-friendly bottle called Absolut Colors.

“There are a number of stakeholders involved in vetting … any marketing campaign or new product,” Nick Guastaferro, the director of Absolut, explains, noting that the brand has supported the LGBTQ community for more than 30 years. Absolut has also started The Open Mic Project, a portal where the brand publishes stories and videos that give first-person accounts of diversity and acceptance. “The Absolut Colors bottle elicits positive reactions from our consumers in both online conversations and off-line sales,” says Guastaferro. “But being able to support the LGBTQ community and put a stake in the ground for diversity is the most positive result of all.”

Photo collage by Jeff Quinn.

Later in the summer, Smirnoff expressed its politics even more overtly by straight up mocking Trump and his perceived collusion with the Russian government. The brand placed ads throughout New York City subway stations, noting that Smirnoff was “Made in America, but we’d be happy to talk about our Russian ties under oath.”

Perhaps such powerful international companies just don’t need to concern themselves with a single nation’s politics. Or maybe Trump has become such a punching bag that brands aren’t worried about any potential fallout. (Smirnoff’s internal research found that 86 percent responded to the ads positively.)

“One of the antidotes to Trumpism is comedy,” notes Robinson. “Everyone gets laughs from him. Trump is just so extreme, even Trump people have to laugh at him. When people are given permission to laugh, brands follow the laughs. They make forays into it.”

Then there is the Scottish rabble-rouser BrewDog, long known for its provocative marketing campaigns. In August, BrewDog claimed that it planned to build a “border bar” that would straddle the the U.S.-Mexico border. Whether such a bar would be logistically or even legally feasible, a mocked-up image of the evocative tavern was shared widely across the Internet, making many wonder if it was just a cynical ploy.

“Beer is a universal language and has a heritage and legacy that far [pre]dates the creation of most nation-states,” claimed BrewDog cofounder James Watt at the time. “So we want to celebrate its capacity to bring cultures together with this Bar on the Edge.”

As of this writing, the bar still does not exist.

With the U.S. such a massive market for Mexican beer, tequila, and mezcal, many producers of those products have also felt they had no choice but to fight Trump’s policies publicly. Before Trump had even been elected, Tecate slyly slotted a commercial into the Fox News, Univision, and Telemundo broadcasts of the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The fun-loving spot proposed an alternative idea for what to put on the border—yes, a wall of beer.

“Given our heritage in Mexico and in the U.S., we believed we earned the right to enter that conversation in a clever way that felt 100 percent authentic,” explains Bjorn Trowery, the director of external communications at Heineken USA, Tecate’s parent company. “We were also very conscious of needing to strike the right tone. A campaign like this will create a bit of tension—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Trowery called the ad his brand’s Super Bowl moment and claims the spot generated 1.4 billion media impressions, 31 million social media mentions, and an 87 percent positive sentiment rating.

“CNN even quipped that we were the true winners of the debate,” notes Trowery.

If Tecate proved that tension isn’t necessarily a bad thing in an ad campaign, Ilegal Mezcal had no problem creating a lot of it, spray-painting ads throughout the U.S. that bluntly read, Donald eres un pendejo (Donald, you’re an asshole).

“He’s an easy target,” Fernanda Guerra, the director of the Mexican marketing firm Wawa, told The Guardian. “It’s very difficult to find a Mexican who likes Donald Trump. He’s someone who’s been attacking Mexican society, so there’s a common sense that he’s our enemy.”

The commercial that has caused the most political debate this year, however, was one that initially seemed nonpartisan and benign. Of course, it also came from one of the world’s most powerful alcohol brands—one that considers itself so patriotically American that it even renamed its flagship brew America.

Eschewing the typical Clydesdales and Spuds MacKenzies of yore, Budweiser’s Super Bowl spot this year told the story of immigrant Adolphus Busch’s trying journey from Germany to America in 1857. Though the now Belgian-owned Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) insisted it was not sending a political message in light of the current refugee crisis and Trump’s boorish Muslim ban—“You are not wanted here. Go back home!” one man shouts at Busch in the ad—conservative commentators were again triggered.

A #boycottbudweiser hashtag quickly trended on social media, as did, comically, the misspelled #boycottbudwiser. Similarly, right-wing bloggers seethed in all-caps rage on those “fake news” websites: “Budweiser Airs DISGUSTING Super Bowl Commercial Bashing President Trump, Now They’re Paying For It BIG TIME.”

Still, Matthew Kohan, ABI’s senior director of marketing communications, says that the brand never intended for this spot to be political. “It was conceived and shot before immigration became part of the national conversation,” he says. “The intent was always to tell our founder’s story and his pursuit of the American dream. It was a total coincidence that it happened to air at the same time the immigration ban was at the forefront of politics.”

True or not, ABI could always have pulled the commercial and saved its $5 million for those 30 seconds. The fact that a company worth $213 billion let it run meant they thought it would surely help the bottom line—or at least not hurt it all that much. Ultimately, most analysts considered the commercial a success, and after years of sluggish performance, ABI’s core brands grew 12 percent in 2017’s first quarter.

Maybe it just makes sense to tie your hooch to young people and their liberal causes these days.

“Are brands picking that up? Oh my god, yeah,” says Robinson the marketing consultant. “Who is writing [the commercials], who is producing them, who is green-lighting them? That cohort is part of the same demographic they’re going after. What all the surveys are telling us—even across America, even in the middle of the country—is that there’s a tendency of moving toward blue in the younger generation.”

Still, you might wonder whether any alcohol companies are making pro-conservative political statements in 2017?

Well … no big ones.

Excluding President Trump, who has bragged about a Trump Winery that isn’t all that big or even owned by him, a few smaller brands have supported right-wing causes … or nastiness, depending on how you look at things. Scissortail, a military veteran-owned distillery in Oklahoma, created special #MAGA bottles to be served at the teetotaling Trump’s Liberty and Freedom inaugural balls. The concept was generally well received in the distillery’s highly Republican home state. On the other side of the coin, the owner of Sacramento’s Twelve Rounds Brewing saw major fallout on revealing he opposed gay marriage and was “disgusted” by January’s Women’s March. After facing immediate backlash from customers and quickly losing investors, Daniel Murphy offered a plaintive apology on Facebook.

“We invite you over to our brewery if you ever want to talk to us and get to know the real us,” wrote Murphy. “A former president once invited two disagreeing parties to talk over a beer. I think that’s a great idea.”

By June, Twelve Rounds Brewery no longer existed.

Aaron Goldfarb lives in Brooklyn and is the author of How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman. His writing on beer has appeared in Esquire, Playboy, The Daily Beast, PUNCH, First We Feast, Serious Eats, Draft Magazine, among others.

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