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What makes a successful celebrity-backed spirit?

From Hollywood A-listers to prime-time TV stars, when it comes to spirits launches, sometimes it feels like everyone is trying to get in on the action. But what is driving the rich and famous to back booze, and how can celebrities make sure their spirits brands are a success?

Casamigos George Clooney and Rande Gerber
George Clooney and Rande Gerber launched Casamigos in 2013

Celebrities jumping on the spirits bandwagon isn’t a new trend, with Oceans 11 actor George Clooney debuting his Casamigos Tequila brand a decade ago, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia actor Danny DeVito launching a limoncello product six years prior to that.

However, in recent years, momentum has started to pick up, with The Spirits Business reporting on more than a dozen products launched with the backing of celebrities in the last year alone, from Barbie actress Margot Robbie’s Papa Salt gin, to Maggie May singer Sir Rod Stewart’s Wolfie’s Whisky.

While some consumers have expressed frustration at the trend’s momentum, there is no denying that star power holds a lot of weight when it comes to the success of a brand.

In March this year, Tequila brand 818, founded by The Kardashians star Kendall Jenner, saw sales rise by 150% above predicted levels within 12 days of launching in the UK, while Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s Teremana Tequila brand surpassed one million nine-litre-case sales annually this spring, three years after launching.

“Consumers are attracted to celebrity-backed spirits because they trust the celebrity to help inform their buying decisions,” explained Shawn Thurman, CEO of WES Brands, the parent company behind Mark Wahlberg-backed Flecha Azul Tequila and Jamie Foxx-backed Brown Sugar Bourbon.

But does celebrity affiliation guarantee a brand’s success? Thurman doesn’t think so, citing a need for authenticity, both financially and personally, in order to make a brand thrive, as well as a need for a more ‘hands-on’ approach to the creation and development of the spirits.

“Consumers can see right through inauthenticity,” he said, “so it’s important that the celebrity is personally invested in delivering a quality product to their fans. When done correctly, they can introduce a whole new pool of consumers to a category they may have not been familiar with before.”

Mark Wahlberg Flecha Azul Tequila
Mark Wahlberg invested in Flecha Azul Tequila in 2022

He noted that Flecha Azul’s partnership with Mark Wahlberg is the “perfect example” of this.

“Aside from having a stake in the brand, he puts boots on the ground to drive awareness and encourage sales. Mark’s involvement has helped propel Flecha Azul’s overall growth, making it one of the fastest-growing Tequilas in the category.”

Other celebrities and producers are also aware of the need for authenticity, and a backstory that goes beyond being ‘skin deep’.

On the launch of Renais Gin in May, Alex Watson, who co-founded the brand with his sister, Harry Potter actress Emma Watson, told The Spirits Business he was aware that his sister’s involvement would “open up an avenue of criticism”, however he hoped that his 10-year career within the spirits industry and his family’s long-standing history within the wine world would allow him to communicate that the launch was more than just a vanity project.

“So much care and attention to detail have gone into developing the liquid with some of the best talent in the industry,” he said, “so I believe that when people taste it, they will recognise how much love and thought has gone into it.”

Celebrity-driven category appeal

US-based alcohol e-commerce site Drizly currently stocks 72 products that have affiliations with celebrities, 29 of which are agave-based spirits – a figure that suggests the category possesses a strong draw for celebrity involvement, and something that Thurman credits to the category’s overall growth.

“The Tequila category is booming – in fact, it’s one of the categories driving overall growth, and celebrities know that there is an option to maximise profit when using their likeness in the space. That said, because the space is booming, authentic brands and partnerships are more important than ever.”

Liz Paquette, Drizly’s head of consumer insights, agrees: “The overall quality of the product remains important for overall staying power. Casamigos is a great example of this as it has become the number-one Tequila brand on Drizly.”

Kendall Jenner 818 Tequila
Kendall Jenner’s 818 Tequila reported sales of 136,000 cases in its first seven months of business

According to IWSR figures, celebrity Tequilas grew at a volume compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 50% between 2016 and 2021, bringing US$1.9 billion in global revenues during 2021 alone, demonstrating that the celebrity factor is not only influential in the US, but it also helps to elevate Tequila’s image in smaller but potentially lucrative markets for the future, such as the UK.

Jose Luis Hermoso, research director at IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, said: “Celebrity participation adds sophistication to the category, and elevates the drink to a luxury status and lifestyle offering,

“Celebrities organically expand the base of demand for Tequila by attracting a global and diverse group of followers and fans.”

Thurman noted that the increase in celebrity involvement within the spirits industry is “ultimately helping to spread awareness, which is what we all want.

“People who are not normally inclined to try an unfamiliar alcoholic beverage are starting to pay more attention and becoming consumers of these products because they’re backed by celebrities.

“It’s everywhere – from celebrity-backed sangrias to flavoured whiskies – there’s certainly a wide range to choose from, and I think their fame is attracting more and more consumers to go outside their comfort zones and give an often unfamiliar spirit a try.”

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