Philip Duff – Livin’ On The Edge

This article featured in the recent March issue of Australian Bartender
By Philip Duff

Big drinks brands are managed in a boringly safe way. The reason is that everyone in a big firm who is not an oxygen thief wants the top job, plus the jingling sack of gold and reverential deference accorded the leader.

Lacking innovation. No creativity? Then apply here.

To get there, you have to be known as a likeable, positive person. Nothing else will do. Competence at your job is not an important factor. Cultivating this likeable, sunny-side-up world view includes never being the boy who cries wolf when a terrible idea is presented, especially when it’s presented by your boss. That’s why shit stuff gets made.


Large firms are unable to innovate, so instead they outsource not only the concept of R&D, but also the entrepreneurial spirit of an innovator, to agencies or to the Mergers & Acquisitions department, buying anything that’s made waves in the drinks media as soon as it tops 100,000 9-liter case equivalents,

So, a fantastic opportunity for nimble small, entrepreneurial brands to do cool stuff in lieu of having a big-boys Advertising & Promotion budget, right? Well, yes, but you need a plan, and daring is all. As a small brand, you have nothing to lose – like a teenager, you’ve never known real pain, so just as pubescent skater boys attempt 720s above a concrete deck, you are able to risk all.

You do not need to worry about being sued and made an example of by a government agency or even by a consumer; you don’t care if you are threatened with a boycott that may lose you 100,000 customers, because you don’t have any customers to lose. You have nothing to lose. It is your only strength.

A problem I’ve seen lately is that such brands are already anticipating being bought by big firms and have an only slightly daring take on things. They are like secretaries ordering Cosmopolitans instead of Fuzzy Navels and thinking themselves cutting-edge fashionistas. I recently evaluated a new whiskey brand for a potential client. It had an attractive, colourful, different appearance and layers upon layers of detail, but not one thing stood out.

The label imagery looked like a cross between the album cover for Appetite for Destruction and a David LaChappelle photoshoot. There was no back story. It was only interesting – not fascinating. They were hoping, my prospective client (a small start-up) continued, that the esoteric mildly-titillating imagery would appeal to the gay and lesbian community. I looked at it again. Nope. Time to kick it up a notch.

I suggested they call it Anal Sex Whiskey. Now, granted, this will not challenge Jim Beam’s case sales anytime soon. And I can imagine a thousand or so gay people being outraged. But as a brand you’d be on CNN and BBC within days, wouldn’t you? Every media outlet on the planet would report it. People would firebomb your office. CNN and BBC would film that too. Markets would clamour for it.

Doubtless the more confidently gay people would order it, in order to ?own? it, as would the influential early-adopters of both genders, plus those in-between. You would polarise opinion, but the attention for your brand would be enormous. There is literally no end to the advertising slogans a half-competent chimp could come up with if the brand was that iconoclastic. (I just had a brainwave for a bottle-shot advert with the headline “Anal Sex Whiskey – Stings A Bit At First!“, with body text that goes on to explain the delicious-yet-challenging bite of the whiskey’s rye and other small grains. Genius!).

One or two years later you’d sell ASW to one of the Big Four, and cash in on all that notoriety. The brand would then be handed to an MBA graduate who would tame it down, make all the advertising compliant not only with the laws but with the Big Four company’s internal marketing code (sometimes referred to as the Dear God Please Don’t Sue Us department) and all the notoriety would fade.

At first the sales would appear to be stable, because the Big Company would push it out through its vast and submissive distribution network, but little by little, month by month, both sales of and attention for the brand would dwindle, and no-one would rejuvenate it. This is because if anyone at the company knew how to rejuvenate such a brand, or were allowed to, the company wouldn’t have had to buy a brand like that in the first place. Four years on it would be re-branded as AS Whiskey and begin a slow, helpless slide into competing on price alone.

If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly. Go on, Anal Sex Whiskey. You know it make sense. At the very least you’ll have a few laughs. OK then, one last ad: photo of the bottle next to a shotglass full of the whiskey, next to a cold, sweating glass of amber beer – a boilermaker, if you will. Headline: “Anal Sex Goes Better With A Little Lubrication“. Thanks, I’m here all week. Try the fish!

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