A lot of things in the world are transitory, but the core concept of branding is not one of them.
The practice of forming a relationship between product and benefit – or, more recently, between brand and consumer – in the minds of buyers is as immutable as it is vague, and as such consistently leaves room for new and creative solutions.
Nevertheless, some approaches to advertising are functionally timeless. For instance, a celebrity endorsement, or category-specific themes such as associating alcohol with togetherness or celebration. These deep associations become tropes, or expectations we have of how a piece of media will play out given our knowledge of the category or genre.
There comes a point where these tropes become so embedded that one begins to run out of new combinations, and we end up getting unimaginative and borderline-dystopic taglines like Yellowtail’s Tastes Like Happy campaign. This point is a sign that, collectively, we need to go back to the drawing board and do what we do best: innovate.
Thankfully, a lot of alcohol brands (Yellowtail excluded, of course) have done just that. It’s become very apparent in the last few years that brands that aren’t attempting to rehash their strategy and avoid clichés are going to get left in the dust. While many tropes may seem timeless on paper, they’re also beginning to lose efficacy when not paired with decent creative due to how many uninspired renditions of the same idea have come before.
We’re living in a cultural eco-system where advertising is so abundant that people have started subconsciously blocking it out just to cope, if only because the majority of it offers them nothing. It’s harder than ever to get through the churn and, unfortunately for the lazy, sex just doesn’t sell like it used to. So, what does?
The most successful alcohol ads recently have attempted to modernise the clichés and tropes of the category and do it in a way that gives their consumers something more than a hollow sales pitch. Be it a laugh, a feeling of inspiration, an interesting idea to consider or event to experience; all the most memorable ads of recent times have created value for their audience and managed to stand out from the crowd because of it.
Take the above Amstel spot, for example. While the underlying association between alcohol and friendship that it uses is as old as time, the campaign managed to inject new life into it by riffing on the simple question ‘can you hold my beer?’ – a question that anybody who has found themselves in a crowded pub needing to use the toilet would be familiar with. The spot takes that idea to the extreme and the result is equal parts absurd and hilarious and, most importantly, memorable.
Other brands have found success in taking previous conventions of the category and flipping them on their head. One such of these is Heineken’s Cheers to All campaign, in which the dead horse of a trope, that beer is a men’s drink, is reversed in a simple but effective way. It might not be the most creative alcohol spot in recent memory but it functions perfectly and comes across as refreshingly different because it plays on the prior knowledge that viewers have of alcohol advertising, namely that it’s a historically sexist category.
Speaking of refreshing, woe betide the next alcohol brand that attempts to market its product as thirst-quenching, sitting in an enticingly frosted ice-bucket. It’s about as inventive as a mattress company calling their product soft. Carlsberg, however, managed to see an opportunity in what some would call the ‘product benefit’ trope by accepting their own mediocrity, subverting their famous tagline to ‘Probably Not the Best Beer in the World’ to resounding success. At a time where consumer trust in advertising is at an all-time low, honesty tastes more refreshing than a cold beer ever could.
What all of these campaigns have in common (Yellowtail, again, excepted) is that they’re the by-product of one of the dominant trajectories of brand messaging in the last decade: a radical increase in self-awareness from advertisers. We’ll leave examining the causes of that for a later article so, for now, let’s just chalk it down to a convoluted and meta-referential media environment or, in a nutshell, post-modernism.
Symptoms in the alcohol category include the absurd overlapping of fiction and reality as in the Budweiser/Game of Thrones Super Bowl spot or Amstel UK casting Jeff Bridges as a literal bridge. This trend of self-awareness is perhaps the end point of pushing tried and tested traditional tactics so far that they’ve nearly come full circle.
And that’s not to dismiss it as a bad thing, rather, it’s a trend that has given birth to some of the best creative we’ve seen in recent years. A shining example of this is Jameson’s Long Lost Barrel spot [below], which is set up to look like a textbook handcrafted spirit commercial before wryly pulling the rug from under itself in a wonderful fumble of self-deprecation.
The bottom line is that it’s no longer viable, as an alcohol brand, to mindlessly follow convention. It’s not enough to show attractive people partying intercut with shots of your product, nor to just point out the craft, heritage or tasting notes you would like your ideal consumer to associate with it. Consumers require value beyond the product itself. It’s only fair given how much of their attention is demanded.
Subverting expectation has become the new norm, and not just in the modernisation and reversal of old ad tropes, either – subverting the expectations that consumers have of brands themselves is a necessary part of staying relevant in such a saturated market. The only logical next step is that we come entirely full circle to a world where Tastes Like Happy is a revolutionary tagline… But luckily, we’re not quite there yet.