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Star power: Celebrities behind spirits brands

The established norm of celebrity endorsement is changing as consumers look for greater authenticity. These days, actors, musicians and athletes are putting their time, energy, and – often – their money into liquid assets. James Lawrence investigates.

Matthew McConaughey became creative director of Wild Turkey Bourbon in 2016

*This feature was originally published in the June 2019 issue of The Spirits Business

Celebrity endorsement remains a perennial topic in the spirits industry, and its track record of success is impressive. Take Cîroc for example: rap artist Diddy joined the vodka’s creative team in 2007 when its yearly production amounted to less than 70,000 cases. By 2011, the volumes sold were more than 1.4 million cases, and Cîroc was so impressed with Diddy’s influence on social media that it handed the music mogul creative control of its advertising. In 2016, Wild Turkey owner Campari Group enthusiastically welcomed actor Matthew McConaughey onboard as creative director. The list of similar collaborations goes on.

Yet while the relationship between brand and celebrity is seemingly old news, in recent years the industry has witnessed a fundamental shift in how celebrities engage with distillers. Two strata have emerged: A-­listers who lend their names to a products, and those who invest directly into a brand, eager to become involved in decisions relating to production, marketing and distribution.

Tequila has become a category littered with celebrity associations – Chris Noth, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Toby Keith and Justin Timberlake own significant stakes in Tequila brands. In 2017, George Clooney’s Casamigos Tequila was bought by Diageo in a deal worth up to US$1 billion, but the actor and director remains closely associated with the brand and its marketing messages. And, an anomaly in a sector dominated by famous men, this year singer Rita Ora became chief creative partner of Conecuh Brands’ Prospero Tequila.

British singer Rita Ora is chief creative partner of Prospero Tequila


Of course, Tequila doesn’t have a monopoly on celebrity dollars: in September 2018 professional fighter Conor McGregor founded Proper No. Twelve Irish whiskey, and has big ambitions for the fast­-growing brand. Distilled at the Old Bushmills Distillery, Proper No. Twelve quickly upped capacity after demand in its first two markets – Ireland and the US – “rapidly outpaced supply”. According to Ken Austin, a major shareholder in Proper No. Twelve, McGregor is keenly aware of the potential of the Irish whiskey category.

“Several Irish whiskey makers looking to do an endorsement deal with Conor McGregor had approached Conor and his manager and partner Audie Attar,” Austin recalls. “It would have been very easy money for Conor, and a coup for any brand that could hook him for an endorsement deal.

“In this category though, Conor did not take the easy money and instead told Audie he wanted to create a company and Irish whiskey brand of his own, and be the true founder and majority shareholder. Conor is a unicorn, simple as that. He is a true force of nature and anyone who meets him feels the electricity that runs through his body into theirs. The fame is one thing but the critical elements of building a brand are the cornerstone of what we worked on.”

This rapid rise in direct ownership has significant, and potentially far-reaching, implications for the future of celebrity endorsement. Arguably, marketing has been transformed by this trend of celebrities who move beyond the traditional confines of a temporary alliance.

The growth of promotional messages that emphasise authentic involvement from celebrities can be seen as a marketing masterstroke, particularly in an era when consumers are searching for legitimate brand stories and increasingly call out ‘fake brands’. Over the past five years, spirit owners have placed messages of provenance and terroir at the centre of their marketing strategies, yielding impressive results. Combining these provenance cues with the allure of direct celebrity involvement, if handled correctly, may represent the most powerful force in spirits marketing to date.

“This growing trend for direct celebrity ownership gives brands a powerful legitimacy and persuasiveness that other brands may now lack,” says bartender Dirk Hany, of Zurich’s Bar am Wasser. “Most consumers make a buying choice based on a brand’s image, yet they are increasingly wary of brands owned by conglomerates that are simply endorsed by a celebrity. ‘Do they actually like this product?’ has become a frequent question. ‘Or were they simply paid a lot of money to pretend they do?’”

Hany underlines the point that these questions are becoming especially relevant as celebrities increasingly claim to have ‘launched’ a spirit brand. “People take more time to separate the ‘fake’ examples from the legitimate ones,” he notes. Midori, a melon-­flavoured liqueur brand owned by Suntory, provides a piercing example of the pitfalls of forming a sudden, temporary association with a famous face. For a time, Kim Kardashian was heavily involved in marketing Midori, including hosting a Halloween party and appearing in promotional images, even though she conceded in numerous interviews that she didn’t drink alcohol. A consumer backlash quickly ensued.

Other celebrity endorsers, however, are much more than simply hired help. Actors Chris Noth and Dan Aykroyd both own major shares in their spirit brands – Ambhar Tequila and Crystal Head Vodka respectively – and what unites them is their insistence that the craft credentials of the product are key to its success, rather than their considerable fame.

Conor McGregor of Proper No. Twelve
Conor McGregor of Proper No. Twelve


“With Crystal Head Vodka, I wanted to create a vodka that was as pure as I could make it, with no additives or anything to mask the clean, smooth taste. There wasn’t a vodka on the market that was perfect to me so I decided to make one myself in 2007,” Aykroyd tells The Spirits Business.

“I think my fame definitely helped at the beginning to get cut­-through for the brand as a completely new independent vodka, but now it very much stands alone as an established brand,” he adds. “That’s what we (co-­founder John Alexander and I) always wanted – to create a liquid where the quality speaks for itself.”

According to Aykroyd, Crystal Head Vodka is embarking on a major new marketing mission in 2019. “Our communication platform for 2019 is ‘Vodka for the Creative Spirit’. We’ll be focusing on creating content and partnerships that hero the extraordinary in tattoo culture, music and arts. We have partnerships planned with Parliament Tattoo, The Great Frog jewellers and Home of Metal festival in Birmingham, UK. Russia and the United Arab Emirates are new markets for us this year [so] we’ll be focusing on building relationships with key bartenders and on-trade venues.”

Meanwhile, Sex and the City’s Noth is planning to take Ambhar Tequila to new heights, targeting markets in the US and Europe. Yet despite his fame, Noth also insists that the quality of the raw ingredients and liquid remain the cornerstone of its success. “When people ask why I invested in the brand, I always reply – why not?” says Noth. “I believe the category is growing, [and] Ambhar Tequila is delicious and out of the ordinary – it’s very artisanal, and the dragonfly that represents good luck when you drink it is a powerful symbol.” The brand is due to launch in London soon, with subsequent rollouts across Europe.

But despite the obvious commercial potency of this convenient marriage between craft credentials and celebrity allure, there are still inherent risks with celebrity endorsement. Though celebrities have various degrees of involvement, one thing remains the same: partnerships are forged because their personalities and stories best reflect the brand. Marketers consider many factors when it comes to choosing celebrity endorsers for their brand. Yet there is always the risk that if a celebrity commits a major faux pas, suddenly a strong social media presence becomes a pernicious liability.

The fallout from disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal is a powerful reminder of the dangers of a fall from grace. “Apart from the obvious drawbacks, such as cost, there can be challenges ensuring you’re working with celebrities who resonate across global markets and are truly aligned with your values,” says Tad Greenough, global marketing director at The Absolut Company. “The key to celebrity endorsement is authenticity and ensuring the talent is naturally aligned with your brand, and if this goes wrong you can risk losing the trust of your audience.”

George Clooney sold his Casamigos Tequila brand to Diageo for US$1 billion


However, Greenough maintains that celebrity­-backed campaigns, rather than direct ownership, can still provide lucrative dividends for both parties. “Where we’ve seen the strongest response in this area of our marketing strategy is when we work with authentic ambassadors who bring their own personality and talent to the forefront. For example, content from our collaboration with Zach Galifianakis is still getting online hits, and it’s over 10 years old.”

This form of celebrity promotion remains a vital part of Absolut’s marketing strategy. According to Greenough, the firm is always looking to connect with its audience, whether through collaborations with top talent, experiential activations or limited edition products.

“We really feel that celebrity endorsement campaigns do work, but for different reasons now compared with 10 years ago,” he observes. “We know our younger target audience is digitally connected and engage with their favourite celebrities on an almost minute­-by-­minute basis. By collaborating with the right ambassador we’re able to be brought into that intimate and trusting exchange between fan and celebrity.”

The ubiquity of social media has also opened up opportunities for brands to partner with a new breed of celebrity: the influencer. Modern-day marketing has a heavy reliance on Instagram stars, who can immediately engage with their millions of followers. “Much like most marketing strategies, moving forward there is a challenge to keep celebrity endorsement relevant by working in more creative and unexpected ways,” says Greenough.

“In other industries, we’re seeing shifts from celebrities to trained experts or social media influencers as ambassadors. We expect this trend to rise in the spirits industry as global brands find innovative ways to work with bartenders and distillers in consumer-facing ways.”

Star power, in whatever guise, remains a powerful force in spirits. The history of the industry is littered with examples of celebrity endorsements that have backfired, but a focus on authentic involvement and digital communication is helping to create a new legion of coveted brands. Casamigos’ sale was a landmark moment for celebrity spirits – and the next US$1bn brand could be waiting in the wings.

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