Historically, celebrity partnerships in the beverage alcohol industry took the form of endorsement deals, but today it’s much more common to see a celebrity involved with a brand through an ownership stake. Nearly everyone in the industry is familiar with George Clooney and Ryan Reynolds, who have made personal investments in beverage alcohol brands, contributed to business strategy, and leveraged their status to sell the brands in blockbuster deals.
But for every George Clooney and Ryan Reynolds, there are a dozen celebrity-brand partnerships that haven’t made the cut. So what do the most successful celebrity-brand partnerships have in common? They accomplish three main objectives: 1) amplify brand messaging, 2) attract a new audience, and 3) generate awareness.
Keep reading for advice on what makes a celebrity-brand partnership work from industry members who have been through it.
Today’s consumers don’t want to be overtly marketed to. They are looking for brands that appeal to their values or lifestyle and celebrity-owned brands are no different. The most successful ones have obvious commonalities between the brand, celebrity, and target consumers.
The trick is to appeal to both the brand’s audience and the celebrity’s fan base, not just one or the other. “I think a lot of brands make the mistake of putting the celebrity first, when in fact they have to be behind the brand,” says Jared Poe, the General Manager for Sweeten’s Cove Whiskey.
Sweetens Cove Whiskey is a good example of a successful celebrity-owned brand that evolved naturally. In this case, a group of sports stars including Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick were co-owners in the Sweeten’s Cove golf course, which had a longstanding tradition of taking a drink of whiskey before starting a game so the creation of a whiskey brand was a natural extension of the business.
But common ground doesn’t have to be intrinsic—it can also be created.
Such is the case with Cedar Ridge Distillery in Iowa, which has a successful partnership with the band Slipknot. Before the partnership, Cedar Ridge had an existing brand built around an approachable, gentle whiskey that was a far cry from Slipknot’s trademark loud and aggressive sound.
The initial common ground was that the members of Slipknot are also from Iowa, so the challenge was to create a spirit that represented both parties. They put their heads together and came up with No. 9 Iowa Whiskey, a bourbon and rye blend with a fuller taste and a bit more of a punch than Cedar Ridge’s existing flavor profile.
Align on Goals & Messaging
“The guiding principle whenever you’re doing any kind of partnership is all about authenticity,” said Alexandra Clough, Founder & President of Gather PR. “Your brand is nothing if it doesn’t have credibility.”
“Whenever I work on celebrity deals, message training and your story are really big parts of that effort. What is it you, as a brand, have to say and why have you aligned with X influencer? Doing the homework beforehand to message train pays dividends in the long run so that you can make sure your story is told well and seamlessly across the board,” noted Clough.
Additionally, it’s essential to define the roles each player will execute and maintain clear guidelines to manage the relationship.
The Cedar Ridge team and Slipknot meet every year to determine their annual targets for the brand and build in promotional responsibilities and bottle signing schedules. In this case, the bottle signing schedule is tied into the band’s tour schedule so they can do both in each city they visit.
Beyond a financial incentive, it helps if the celebrity or influencer is personally motivated to see the brand flourish.
Poe notes, “one of the things you have to consider when you deal with celebrities is how you’re going to incentivize them. Most of them do want that payday, but what [Sweeten’s Cove has] is a situation where [Peyton Manning] is not only an investor but wants to see growth long term and knows that when we do sell, he’s going to be part of that deal.”
Consider Smaller, Regional Celebrities
If you’re a brand with a large portfolio, you can likely dedicate a larger marketing budget to gain awareness, but craft spirits distillers need to think a little more strategically and focus on transactional opportunities. Smaller, regional, or local events can present opportunities for brands to capitalize on.
“You can do a smaller scale partnership. You’re not always going to have the opportunity to do a long-term equity deal. You can look at one-off deals,” Clough notes.
Before Slipknot, Cedar Ridge had a short-term partnership with a local band for them to come out and pick 10 of their favorite barrels of bourbon, which were then sold to strategic accounts around the state of Iowa.
“I know that’s not Casamigos, it’s not a billion-dollar deal. It’s 10 single barrels,” says Quint, “but if you’re running a little behind, 10 single barrels can help you put a good month together. So that was a really successful move on our part.”
In Clough’s time at Jose Cuervo, the brand partnered with the Association of Volleyball Professionals to sponsor its regional tour. “Beyond just sponsorship of the tour, we did individual sponsorships with 12 of the best volleyball players. Everyone would have these huge airbrushed Cuervo tattoos when they were playing,” says Clough. “We arranged media sessions in the morning where they’d talk about the fact that they’re part of team Cuervo and it was tremendously successful in that circle.”
Utilize Internal Talent
It is also possible to utilize an influencer strategy without looking outside your team. Clough suggests looking at the talent within your own company, maybe your master distiller, or a team member that is influential within the local community.
Moreover, if your team does enter a partnership with a celebrity, it’s helpful to have someone from your team embedded within the celebrity’s team. This ensures that there is a strong day-to-day relationship and there is open communication in regards to any opportunities to promote. It can also help keep your celebrity partner up-to-date with any requirements in terms of compliance or operations.