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Lingo and One-Liners from Liquor Leaders

Posted by: Steven Elwell and Tom Shanahan on Friday, January 31 2014 04:26 PM

WhiskeyWith any sort of spring thaw far from sight and polar vortexes hitting parts of North America, the time has come to stock up on some strong liquor to get you through the cold winter nights.

And you certainly won’t be alone if you do. According to the most recent international data from Euromonitor, spirit sales have been on a steady rise the past several years. The US alcohol industry is enjoying a particularly strong surge, with sales up 3.7 percent in 2012 and some states celebrating record highs (we’re looking at you, Ohio and Iowa).

Today we’re going to highlight the voice and messaging of some of our favorite brands, and since discussing the strategies of spirit brands could take up enough space to fill a short novel, we’ve picked one from each base liquor category to think about when you’re shopping for winter warmers.

Ketel One


We might expect the NFL or Dodge to target one gender over another. But for a vodka company to do it? That takes some guts. Enter Ketel One.

The company’s 2011 campaign, “Gentlemen, this is vodka,” is still alive and distilling in Ketel One advertising, with two new spots coming out this past fall. Strangely enough though, beyond advertising, the company doesn’t focus as much on this idea, but rather highlights the historical and genuine nature of the drink. Its tone is approachable and straightforward, its message is simple: Ketel One is about tradition, quality, and craft.

Gentlemen, it works.



If there’s a jester in this circle of spirits, Hendrick’s is wearing the cone — and it fits perfectly. The quirky, Irish gin brand stands out from the crowd by boasting its individuality, and that its “gin made oddly” is anything but average.

Instead of simply having a recipe book, Hendrick’s creates a “Treasury of Tipples,” assuring drinkers that “that which is least expected is often the most delicious.” Its elaborate and fun tone complements both the message of complexity and individuality perfectly, while its visual system is as colorful as the botanicals used to make its gin. They say “No other gin taste like Hendrick's because no other gin is made like Hendrick's.” Well, no other gin talks like Hendrick’s either.

Johnnie Walker


Johnnie Walker may be one of the most commonly gifted alcohol brands on the market. And that’s a reputation the scotch baron is quick to embrace, calculating its messaging to become a drink for milestones and occasions of great import, rather than an everyday indulgence.

In 2013, the brand expanded its long running "Keep Walking" messaging with "Next Step," a push to reach a younger demographic that's fighting their way up the ladder in today's cut-throat work environment. Even Johnnie Walker's most premium product, Blue Label, is now fashioned as being "For those whose defining moments have yet to be defined." It's a subtle shift in tone from the soaring, inspirational calls to individualism that have framed the brand's voice in the past, but a wise one considering the trending popularity of scotch among today's urban dwelling upstarts.



At first blush it may seem like an odd strategy for an international powerhouse brand like Bacardi to position itself as a personal, family-made product. That type of artisan talk is generally the territory of tiny, regional brands that have little more to mention than their roots. But the Bacardi family has been intimately involved with running the business for each of the company’s 150+ years, and that unbroken chain of command forms the backbone of the brand’s messaging, and the proud, defiant tone of its voice.

Bacardi peddles its rich history across touchpoints, from its website to its “Untameable” spots, underscoring how the brand outwitted peril time and again to become the leader in nightlife it is today. And in an amusing instance of life imitating art, the company employs a certain cunning to its business in the US (where the brand’s current day Puerto Rican production is highlighted) and internationally (where the brand plays up its early Cuban origins to compete with the demand for true Cuban rum).

Jose Cuervo


Even in a market glutted with small, specialty brands, it’s still safe to say that anyone with a taste for tequila has thrown back a shot of Jose Cuervo at some point. And more importantly, everyone’s got a tale to go with that shot. Or at least that’s what the Cuervo brand bets on when it rallies consumers to “Have A Story.”

With its commercials helmed by an ever off-kilter Keifer Sutherland, the brand has embraced its image as a gateway to wild times, extolling the values of living with no regrets. A notable divergence from the more urbane tones of its contemporaries in other liquor categories, Cuervo gets credit for owning up to the fact that, for better or worse, tequila just isn’t like other liquors. And their gritty, borderline rebellious voice confirms it.

Brand Elevation

Examining voice and messaging in the spirits category becomes a lesson in brand elevation. Spirit brands are careful to avoid becoming entangled in the barroom slosh-fest associated with some of their beer brand brethren. They acknowledge consumers turn to their products when they’re looking to let go, but the brands unanimously frame that choice as a letting go of pretension – an embrace of our more authentic selves.

Tell that to the crowd at closing time, but one thing is certain: the big boys of booze know how to pour on the class.

Steven Elwell is a Senior Consultant and Tom Shanahan is a Consultant in Interbrand New York's Verbal Identity.

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