In this episode, I’ll share what I learned from a bottle of bourbon, and from watching a 2018 documentary on Kentucky’s signature beverage.
I’d say marketers need to always keep their eyes peeled and ears attuned to the world to be able to learn marketing lessons from unlikely places. When you’re on vacation and outside of your normal routine and surroundings you might just learn how businesses and brands market, communicate, and position themselves in the marketplace. In other countries and regions, people communicate differently and use different words and the like. One such experience for me wasn’t overseas. Rather, it was on my couch watching the 2018 documentary NEAT: The Story of Bourbon.
In it, the documentary told the story of Bourbon from the perspectives of many different people, from a corn farmer in Western Kentucky to Freddie Johnson, a third-generation distillery worker at Buffalo Trace, to Marianne Barnes, bourbon’s first female Master Distiller who started Castle and Key. One such figure, Brent Elliot (Master Distiller at Four Roses) described the elements of bourbon to me in a way that got me thinking.
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Everything you need to know about Branding or heck, marketing too, is contained within that bottle of golden amber liquid sitting on your shelf.
How can this be? Well, stay tuned and you’ll learn everything you need to know about Branding from a bottle of bourbon.
I. Branding starts with internal elements or ingredients
I alluded to Brent Elliot earlier in the program. In the documentary, Brent Elliot describes the different ingredients that makeup bourbon. Those could be
- Limestone water
By United States law, bourbon must contain at least 51% corn in its mash bill or recipe. Everything else is fair game.
So what’s in a brand then? A brand’s ingredients contain:
- Color Scheme
- Tone of voice
II. Branding then starts to develop an Image
We take all these things and put them together. For bourbon, we start the distilling process. For businesses, we start putting things into the market.
For Bourbon, the ingredients are milled, combined, and mixed with water and heated to a high temperature in cookers, making Sour Mash. Kentucky water is especially suited to bourbon making because much of the state’s water sources pass through or go through limestone rock as a sort of natural filtration process. Freddie Johnson, in the documentary, explained that the limestone takes out much of the iron that water might have in it. If it didn’t, Bourbon wouldn’t taste as good.
The Distilling process is pretty fascinating. As a bourbon lover, I’ve taken a few tours of distilleries, Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve are my favorites. If you go to Buffalo Trace, make sure your guide is Freddie and you get a Hard Hat Tour. Also, see what they call the Bourbon Pompeii. In the distilling process, the sour mash is set to ferment in huge vats made with wooden staves, some distilleries use metal containers. I know that Woodford uses the same vats they have used since the beginning.
Anyway, yeast is added to the sour mash to start the fermenting process. The yeast eats up the sugars in the grain and converts them into alcohol. On all the tours I’ve been on they’ve allowed me to stick my finger in the vats and taste the sour mash as it is fermented. It tastes amazing.
In business, the “distilling process” means putting together all the ingredients of the brand into a website, developing marketing materials like brochures and advertisements, designing storefronts, and writing sales copy, social media channels, and more. Heating up the mix might just be like getting all this marketing and advertising out into the market. The market provides the “heat” to distill this mix.
Perhaps, and maybe I’m stretching a bit here, but I think for businesses and brands, the yeast is the customer that gives you the necessary feedback and helps you refine your positioning, ad copy, design, and more. Part of the image of the brand is definitely the brand’s promise. What the business will do for you either as a client or customer?
So far we’ve talked about the ingredients of a brand and how a brand develops an image. We’ll be back after some words from our sponsors
Sponsors of Marketing Distilled:
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Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
Today we’re enjoying Wild Turkey 101. For over 60 years, legendary master distiller Jimmy Russell has been crafting Wild Turkey 101 one way, the right way. With a high-rye content, this iconic bourbon is perfectly aged for up to six to eight years in American oak barrels with the deepest char for more character. It’s bottled at 101 proof and only once it reaches its full complex flavor of caramel, vanilla, toffee, and spice.
“Like the Kentucky River, Wild Turkey 101 is mighty, bold, and it takes its own sweet time.” – Jimmy Russell.
TASTE: A hint of sweet upfront with vanilla and caramel notes. Oak and baking spices in the middle.
AROMA: Vanilla with cinnamon and oak
FINISH: Bold, signature Wild Turkey spice and orange peel
PROCESS: 101 proof aged between 6-8 years
Let’s get back to the program!
III. A Brand Develops and Acquires a Personality
One of the things that I love about bourbon is how it is aged.
The aging process for bourbon is pretty simple, but it’s super slow. The sour mash is distilled into what’s called “white dog”. My understanding is that when the sour mash is distilled it’s heated until the alcohol turns to vapor and then cooled back into a liquid. The resulting liquid is what we call the white dog. The white dog is then put into new, charred barrels made of oak. I think this is a requirement by law. Those barrels are stored in rick houses all across Kentucky to age for a range of years from 5-25 years depending on the bourbon being made.
Because of Kentucky’s location in the world the state enjoys all sorts of climates from harsh winters, hot summers, cool springs, and Indian summers. For bourbon, this is an ideal thing, because as the seasons change and weather comes and goes, the white dog actually is absorbed by the barrels. The white dog gets sucked into the wood, picking up notes of the char, and still, yet the white dog will go past the char and into the wood itself. This process is repeated naturally over the course of aging. In fact, if you ever see a stave from a used barrel you should look for a line that is probably somewhere in the middle. This is the visual representation of that process. What’s also amazing is that on average, 40% of the white dog stays with the barrel. It’s trapped by the barrel or it evaporates into the air of the rick house where thousands of barrels are stored. This is what bourbon drinkers call the “angels’ share”.
What’s this have to do with branding and marketing? Well, like the aging process, a personality takes time to develop and acquire. The brand moves back and forth in the market in the form of customer interactions, sales calls, getting feedback from customers, responding to the needs of the market, developing new products and services, refining the marketing messages, and figuring out what works in the market or not. The brand learns new things, picks up flavors of the customers it serves, and largely is out of the control of the business. It’s as slow as aging a barrel of white dog.
IV. Over Time, A Brand’s Personality Attracts Customers and Becomes an Asset
One thing I loved to see in the documentary was that bourbon enjoys wide appeal with lots of different people. From the buttoned-up professional business types to the rugged individualist who wears work boots and jeans and Carhart overalls. There are more demographics that are represented but you get the idea.
For decades, distilleries have been working to carve out their share of the market and they have found their tribe and their people. When I think of Buffalo Trace, I think of the rough and rugged worker who enjoys bourbon after a hard day at work. When I think of Woodford Reserve, I think of suits and blazers and dresses and people who just left their office to enjoy a cocktail after a day of work. When I think of Maker’s Mark, I think of it as the “everyman’s bourbon”.
My point is that when a brand moves in and out of the market through interactions with customers like bourbon in a barrel, the brand will develop a personality. The Brand will also attract people who resonate with the brand’s personality and the brand will pick up traits of its customers.
What’s more is that as customers resonate with a brand’s personality, they will begin to make that brand a part of their Identity. This might be the sweet spot for marketing and branding. When I see that customers resonate with the brand personality and they begin to make the brand part of their identity, that’s when the brand knows they have established loyalty to the brand.
When the brand has done the work to acquire a personality, establish identity, and especially create loyalty with customers, then the brand has done the work to become an asset in the marketplace. Well-known brands can use this asset to charge more (think Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 Year which has a $299.99 MSRP but sells well over that price tag), to be sold in more exclusive retailers, and enjoy a stronger position and place in the market.
Well, thanks for tuning in to this episode of Marketing Distilled! I hope that you will use this episode to inspire you to keep your eyes open and your ears attuned to marketing lessons where you might not initially get them. Maybe this is an opportunity and a call to my fellow marketers to look at life from a different perspective. I learned a lot from watching the documentary NEAT: The Story of Bourbon. I encourage you to let me know what interesting marketing or branding lessons you’ve learned from unexpected places. Shoot me an email at [email protected]!