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Are the days of myth-making in alcohol advertising numbered?

The alcohol advertising “legends” archive is brimming with brands that built cultural icons through consistent, relentless, widespread above-the-line campaigns, hammering home a single message over an extended period of time.

Think Jack Daniel’s and its well-worn ads about its defiant founder achieving the American dream. Or of Guinness and its “good things come to those who wait” strapline. Or of the Absolut Vodka campaign, which used the brand’s bottle as a blank canvas for creativity and surrealism. Its posters emblazoned with striking visuals from the gold “Bling Bling” to the flopping “Absolut Impotence”.

Absolut’s limited edition bottles oozed credibility and cool and were the perfect accompaniment to a house party if you wanted to raise eyebrows. But, if you’re reading this thinking “ah yes! I remember them, they were the cat’s pyjamas!”, then you’re probably not a benchmark of cool. At least, not anymore. (And, for the record, I include myself in this category).

Today’s down-with-the-kids millennials don’t like to be told what is cool. Particularly not by a loud, attention-seeking poster outside their local pub. In fact, as our research The Drinking Code tells us, that type of brand behaviour is bound to ensure that the target audience doesn’t order the advertised drink inside. In today’s world, you can’t just shout about being an icon. If you do, you risk looking crass and unseemly. Besides, it’s for them – the people – to decide whether you can become an icon or not.

There are a few things, however, that brands can do to encourage achieving iconic status. They can be quietly confident and avoid talking in meaningless hyperbole. They can develop an authentic narrative, which has depth. They can focus on a purpose that they believe in wholeheartedly.

Brands successfully doing this currently include the likes of Pinterest, Toms, Warby Parker, Patagonia, Instagram and Snapchat. Alcohol brands aspiring to iconic status can learn much from these brands. They seed nuggets of narrative out into the world which, because they are tied to meaning, are adopted at a grassroots level and grow, sometimes flourishing into a core part of the brand story.

In the context of an alcohol brand, this means you don’t tell people about the stories behind the label via advertising; you let people discover them for themselves.

This holds far more cachet for today’s cool benchmarkers. In fact, the ultimate aim of alcohol communications should now be for a customer to walk into a bar and tell his friend about the myth he’s heard about the brand, which intrigues them both to try it.

This is exactly what Johnnie Walker is aiming to achieve in its new campaign ‘Joy will take you further’. The campaign provides a contextual framework that the brand can use globally, appealing to different markets via tapping into cultural events. This contextual approach provides Johnnie Walker with a way to tailor its advertising depending on where the ad is sitting, for example an ad in a tech publication can focus on innovation, or a motivational print ad on a marathon route.

It is certainly a shift away from the ‘Man who walked around the world’ which told the Johnnie Walker brand’s history. Is joy really better than success for Johnnie Walker? Time will tell, but it’s certainly an ambitious campaign with 70 pieces of creative set to appear to over 270 million people worldwide.

Jack Daniel's is another great example of an alcoholic drink steeped in effective brand mythology, such as the speculation about why it is called No.7. Is it because it’s the number of the train he used to take? Or is it the number of mistresses Jack had? No one knows, but the myth forges a connection with the consumer and provides a reason to drink.

The fact that, these days, we can use programmatic and digital technology to target drinkers in a discrete, personal fashion should be a significant shot in the arm to the booze business. It means brands can operate at scale, but low cost, while aiding this discovery of narrative nuggets and, therefore, providing a reason to drink. Even better, by taking a test-and-learn approach, marketers can easily and quickly gauge which myths are likely to take off with most gusto.

Another effective tool in the modern alcohol marketer armoury, intertwined with myth, is ritual. As we have long known, there is often a tribal element when young people socialise and they’re looking for opportunities to bond and make memories; rituals are a good way to do this. Whether it’s adding vodka to Red Bull, ice to Magners cider or a shot of Jameson’s whiskey to a beer, rituals are a powerful boost for brands looking to gain traction quickly. Social media can effectively fuel rituals, too, by rapidly building momentum around “the” way to consume a particular alcohol brand.

So, how do you now know if you’ve succeeded as a marketer in this new alcohol advertising landscape, apart from the empty bottles?

Easy. You know you’ve succeeded when a consumer feels cheated if the ritual is not adhered to, like if a barman was to pour a Guinness too quickly, neglecting to observe the vital standing time.

Admittedly, in this new era of alcohol communications, achieving iconic status might not be as obvious or as immediate as it was in the nineties, when you could see an arresting visual that you commissioned, splashed all over TV or posters. But it will be equally powerful. Just remember, all good things come to those who wait.

Nick Vale is global head of planning at Maxus

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