Do celebrities matter?
That’s the gist of this article from the Hollywood Reporter as it talks about celebrity backed spirit brands and finds that celebrities that hustle really matter when they launch spirits brands. Of course the center of attention here is Casamigos because Clooney’s star wattage and the cool Instagram matching acquisition price of $1 Billion Dollars
And that’s interesting because we all know that money doesn’t just grow on trees. The interesting thing about the article is that it points so clearly at the brand driven nature of our world but is trying to tell aspiring celebrity brand investors ‘Wait – This takes work!’
We all accept that we live in a brand driven world to some extent or another but occasionally the nature of that connection jumps out at you. Here’s the quote from Randy Gerber about Casamigos’ origin story in that article:
“Casamigos is brought to you by those who drink it — it’s not a celebrity brand,” Gerber contends. “[We] created it, own it, drink it, run the company and live the lifestyle. It wasn’t even [originally] intended for the public.”Hollywood Reporter
That’s the apotheosis of branding because he’s saying ‘we’re not a brand, we’re a lifestyle, the brand thing just, sort of kind of happened because the people wanted it.’ Oh and that one billion dollar payout, and the investors. Don’t mean to be overly cynical here. Just trying to point something out.
But the bigger set of questions is what the focus on celebrities and brands obscures:
Sustainability and equity
No one talks about it. It’s not part of the brand. The things that sell these are the celebrity affiliated lifestyle – think George and Randy riding motorcycles through agave fields – and tradition – the oft trotted out variation on ‘generations of distillers stand behind our product…’ But no one talks about whether they’re actually sustainable or doing something positive for the world. That’s a fascinating contrast to many non-celebrity backed brands which at least pay lip service to how their brand gives back – some even make that the key focus of their brand. Sure, the sustainability focused brands are going after a different sort of customer, but it’s worth calling out because it’s so central to much else in this world, celebrities included.
Then there’s the whole question of whether we can even think of making many mezcals at scale. Ryan Reynolds and his team can plan a gin that will scale to wherever sales reach because its ingredients grow on an annual or better cycle and can be grown pretty much everywhere crops are grown. Growing agave is another matter because of its longer growth cycles and limited cultivation areas. Even if tequila distilleries are masters of agave agriculture at scale to produce their spirits in an unbelievable spread of white labeled operations. There is a limit, we just haven’t reached it yet in tequila, mezcal may be closer.
It’s also worth asking who’s actually getting paid. These brands have to be putting some money into Mexico and the Mexicans who grow, produce, and handle their spirits but are they really investing in people?
No one seems to talk about whether your celebrity endorsed spirit is any good. I know, I know, I’m consuming the celebrity lifestyle by proxy so that’s what’s good but we gotta be clear here, people don’t want quality, they just want the spirit that Ryan, Clooney, the Rock drinks. Just saying…
For lack of a better word, what about the culture and traditions that created these spirits? Yes, I live in a San Francisco that could just as well be anywhere with its – pre quarantine – blond wood cafes, pop up restaurants from every cuisine, youth cruising the city on rental scooters. But there is something that makes San Francisco different and there is indelibly something that makes traditional mezcal different: The culture of the people who make it which continue to anchor and inform how it’s made. People fall in love with mezcal because they see that culture, once they come to value the quality of its bottled spirit, there’s no going back. Celebrity brands obviously play this element up a bit, it really burnishes their identity, but only so far.
Where does this leave us?
In the mezcal world there are a few points of interest. I recently tasted Lobos 1707 backed by Lebron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, and Arnold Schwarzenegger – how is that for a menu of celebrity marketing options? – but I haven’t seen the backers doing much for the brand. Lebron and Davis do appear on the website but he’s not the leading sales point- so that’s an open business question. Dos Hombres is backed by the actors who made Breaking Bad so compelling, Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston, and they clearly put a lot of work into launching the brand at Tales of the Cocktail…. 2019. Since then they continue to associate their faces with the brand – most recently in an Insta repost from last year’s Super Bowl
– and their faces are all over the web site. But still, it doesn’t feel anything like the Clooney effect on Casamigos or the Rock on Teremana’s brand profile: He is all over it.
And the sale figures bear that out, the above article reports that Teremana moved 300,000 cases last year – after launching during the pandemic. And maybe the pandemic actually enabled its success because in an unrestricted year Johnson would have been preoccupied with a number of acting projects. Quarantine may have given him time to focus on promoting Teremana just when everyone was desperately ordering spirits to be delivered for Zoom cocktail hours. I know this is all supposition based on appearances but isn’t that what celebrity is all about?
Fact is, celebrity brands aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. There are a veritable plethora of projects on the market like Travis Scott’s agave flavored seltzer ad Cacti, past attempts like the Elon Musk Tesquila thing, and rumored future projects that the Kardashian/Jenner clan might get into the tequila business. As Susan’s alma mater college paper notes, “There is not a whole lot of praise for celebrity alcohol. It usually just ends up being more about appearance than actual craftsmanship.”