In this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss brand loyalty. Does loyalty to spirit, beer, or wine brands differ across generations? How do luxury and premium brands find their “niche” consumer bases? And how is social media driving brands to change their approach to marketing?
Since our hosts are talking all about brand loyalty, they each try a spirit to which their family members are loyal, including three popular spirit brands: Stoli Vodka, Bombay Sapphire Gin, and Dewar’s Blended Scotch.
Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out The Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this the “VinePair Podcast,” Friday edition. It’s been a long week, so let’s just get straight into it. Today, we are talking about brand loyalty. Brand loyalty is an interesting subject because you see a lot of articles talking about how the next generation are not loyal to brands. They switch, they go between things. I actually don’t think that’s true. With the rise of certain products, we talked about Casamigos on Monday’s episode. There are some people who are quite loyal to that tequila, or 1942. You could mention fashion brands like Supreme. There’s lots of brand loyalty out there, but not in the same way that there used to be, I don’t think. What do you both think creates strong loyalty among certain brands and certain people and not among others?
J: That’s a good question. Quality is definitely part of it, but I think consistency as well. That’s something we’ve discussed quite a bit. This might be specific to beverage alcohol, but if you like the taste of something and it’s reliable, you can go back to it again and again. That’s probably the biggest reason why people are brand loyal. Also availability. If something is really great and you love it but you can’t get it, forget it.
A: What about you, Zach? What do you think creates brand loyalty?
Z: Well, it’s interesting. Brand loyalty is born out of some of what Joanna said, in terms of enjoying the product and availability. But some of it is really about wanting to create an image for yourself. And I think that’s why there are some people who say younger generations are not brand loyal. And it may just be because there hasn’t been something in the category yet that captures their imagination or describes themselves the way they want to be defined. I think about how much advertising is focused around that very idea. Whether it’s the idea that you’re someone who drinks Jack Daniel‘s because you want to be known as the kind of person who drinks Jack Daniel’s, or you drink White Claw because that’s what kids do. There’s all these sorts of ways. For many of us, our initial forays into drinking come at a time when we are looking to define our personalities and our senses of self. Just like how people define themselves through fashion, the music they listen to, the TV shows they watch, they define themselves through what they drink. It’s a thing we do socially. It’s a thing that people respond to and judge people on, or just make assumptions about people based on. The last piece of this that I’ll mention is that the other reason why we’re seeing a complicated story with brand loyalty is frankly that there’s a lot more out there in beverage alcohol than there was 20, 30 years ago. So a person can be less brand loyal and more category loyal because — whether it’s tequila, whiskey, wine, beer, etc. — there are so many more choices in 2022. Saying “my drink of choice every time I drink is Miller Lite,” that’s a way that you would have defined yourself as a drinker 30 years ago. But in the modern landscape, I don’t think there would be very many people who are in their 20s who define themselves solely through one beer or one spirit.
J: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I remember a seminar that Dale DeGroff was giving, and he was talking about gins. How back in the day, there was Beefeater, and that’s pretty much it. And now, things are so different in the gin category, but in categories across beverage alcohol as well. There’s so much more available to people now. You don’t have to be brand loyal.
A: Zach, what you basically just described is the David Acker “Model of Brand Equity.” Acker is considered to be the ultimate guru when it comes to branding. He wrote a lot of books throughout his career, and if you were to hire McKinsey or things like that to come in, and they would look at his models. What he talks about with brand equity is that it’s really about looking at your brand through a few different lenses. One is your brand as a person. If your brand was a person, who would that person be? Is your brand Carrie Bradshaw? Or is your brand someone who doesn’t live in New York City? So who is the brand? Then you literally create a universe around that brand. Who are the brand’s friends? All those things. What we’ve seen so much in beverages, especially recently, is a race to mass. There are very few brands that actually have taken the time to invest in their brand equity and say, “This is my audience. These are the people we are going to appeal to.” It’s become kind of taboo to talk about that, right? We don’t like to know, especially in today’s times, that we are separating people by demographics and targeting. But that is what’s happening. The brands that are the best at that are the ones that still do have brand loyalty, because they build equity with specific groups of people, and they support those specific groups of people. Because they do that, they are very successful. You can look at a bunch of different examples. Hennessy has been incredibly, incredibly successful for decades at targeting Black Americans. They’ve been very loyal to them since World War II. They were the first-ever spirits brands to take out ads at Ebony Magazine. They’ve been there forever. So that group of people rewards them with massive amounts of loyalty. Skyy Vodka and Barefoot have both been brands that have been extremely supportive of the LGBTQ community. Those are communities that support those brands, and that is what it means to build brand equity. A lot of the brands don’t do that. My issue with gin, to push back against Dale DeGroff, is not just that it was only Beefeater. It’s that every f*cking gin says they’re the perfect gin for the Gin & Tonic. OK, so then where’s the brand equity? What differentiates me, as a Tanqueray Gin & Tonic drinker, from a Hendrick’s Gin & Tonic tonic drinker, from a Gordon’s Gin & Tonic? Nothing, except I may be stupid because I pay Hendrick’s prices and don’t just get Gordon’s. If you invest and say no, Tanqueray is for the Martini people and the more sophisticated gin drinkers, then I am a sophisticated gin drinker. That’s brand equity. There’s so much of that not happening in alcohol now because everyone’s just like, how much of the pie can we get? I think that’s why so many brands aren’t succeeding in the way that they could be, because they’re sitting here trying to just go for as much mass as possible. You see it in bourbon, too. Everyone wants the Old Fashioned. If everyone drinks an Old Fashioned, then what makes you unique? What does that say about you as a person? I want you to walk into my house, and if I have a certain brand on my bar cart, say, “I know Adam’s a sophisticated individual. He understands the finer things in life.” That’s what people are looking for. Why do you think people want to have platinum Amex and black cards, and drive certain cars? It’s all about what it says about you, as you’ve been saying, Zach. That’s all brand equity. And I think it’d be great if we get back to that in a lot of beverage alcohol, and stop trying to race towards the biggest trends. Stop saying, “We can be there, too.” Because that’s where you exist in nothingness. You’re there for a little bit, and then no one’s loyal to you in the long run.
Z: Has some of this also changed because so many of us now exist in a world where so many things are advertised in a way that they’re tailored directly to us? They show up in our Instagram feeds, they show up in our Facebook feeds, etc. If you think about the way that things were marketed in the past, there would be Super Bowl ads or they would be on the most popular network TV shows, or on prime time. In a way to do what you were talking about, to try and get that mass attention, in that they would give some cues to their potential drinkers like, “If you see yourself as this kind of person, we’re the beer or spirit for you.” The Super Bowl still happens, and stuff like that. But now, so few people interact with those things. But so many of us interact with advertising, from my vantage point, as a much more tailored view. You might be brand loyal without even realizing it.
A: Yes. I think that there is this race to homogenization. All these brands look the same that are created for social media. So all that it says to people, when someone walks into your house and you have Great Jones cookware and you have Brightland olive oil and some new thing on your bar cart, it’s like, “They are a huge Instagram user.” I don’t know. They’re probably a millennial, and that’s really about it. Let’s not forget, the majority of alcohol are luxury brands. When you look at luxury fashion, they’re not as active on social media. They’re doing really cool digital campaigns. They’re doing really cool stuff digitally with digital publishers, they’re doing print stuff. But they’re not trying to homogenize. They’re not going mass, because they’re saying, “We are for a niche audience.” They want to be with the influencers who care about what this says about them because they know that those influencers will influence their friends.
Z: You also want to stay out of that thing that we talked about last year, which is “premium mediocre.” For some of these brands, if they were on Instagram a lot, they would run the risk of being confused with what you described, Adam. That ubiquitous aesthetic that is premium mediocre.
A: One of the premium brands I would argue that wine drinkers are incredibly loyal to is Veuve.
Z: I thought you were going to say Dom Perignon.
A: It’s Veuve. It’s owned by LVMH. They are one of the best in the world at branding and building brand equity. They’ve done an incredible job at making people feel like, when they order Veuve, they’ve successful. They are doing well, they’re of a certain class. Whether or not a somm wants to believe that it’s a quality Champagne, they’ve built so much brand equity there that that brand is just insane.
Z: Oh, for sure. A lot of that comes back to this exact topic that we’ve been discussing, which is this notion of choosing something because you like the taste, but also you like what it says about you. With some of these things, it’s not to say the taste doesn’t matter, but at some point people are buying that for the way it looks. For this feeling, as you said, Adam, that it gives them to be the purchaser and consumer of it. This is something that I think would behoove our beverage professional listeners, sometimes you have to give someone that feeling. Whether or not you personally don’t think that Veuve for $150 or Dom Perignon for $400 is the best use of their money, they may not be looking for the ultimate flavor expression as much as they are looking for the ultimate expression of how they see themselves.
J: Their image.
Z: Their ultimate image expression, exactly Joanna. We can feel how we want to feel about that. But it’s important that we all understand what’s going on. Those things are branded so elegantly to convey that sense of self to people. It’s a purchased image.
J: I hear everything you’re saying, and I agree with it. But I also think there’s a different kind of brand loyalty. We’ve been talking about our parents’ generation and their brand loyalty. Obviously, there were ads back then for specific brands and maybe they saw them and they said, “I want to look like that or I want to associate with that brand.” But I feel like it’s kind of different thinking of certain spirits that my grandfather used to drink or something like that. Was that really about the image? Or was that a different kind of brand loyalty? Has it evolved since then?
A: I think it always was about an image or a group that he was a part of. That’s how really amazing brands are born and continue to have life. You have to be able to say to yourself as that brand, “It’s cool that the opportunity is on the table, but that’s not where our brand lives.” That’s where thinking about the brand as a person makes a lot of sense. Again, I’m using Carrie Bradshaw as an example. Let’s say Carrie is Veuve. Would Carrie ever go to a warehouse party in the middle of the woods in Pennsylvania? Probably not. Veuve is not going to show up there. But she would totally be at Top of Rockefeller Center. It’s thinking about where the brand will show up. Even if there was going to be 100,000 people at this random warehouse party and there’s lots of sales to be made, the brand has to decide where it lives. Is this Brooklyn hipster brand that’s going to be all about craft and DIY? What other brands does it surround itself with? Or is this a mass-market luxury brand? Is this a high-end luxury brand? Thinking about my grandfather specifically, he was a big Seagram’s drinker. He and his friends drank Seagram’s, and they drank it for a few reasons. For one, my grandfather was an immigrant. So he drank Seagram’s because it was affordable. But he also drank Seagram’s because it was owned by the Bronfman family, and he was very happy to be supporting a Jewish family owning a big spirits brand. Because to him, they had achieved this incredible New World dream. And he’s drinking Seagram’s as this immigrant from Lithuania. That, to him, was part of this image that he was embracing. I’m sure you can talk to people from all different groups that could say that, right? We did a big article years and years ago about Hennessy. You go back and look at that and you talk to people about how Hennessy became this behemoth in the Black community. It’s because they were supporting Black Americans since they came back from World War II. People can trace it back to, “My grandfather drank it, my father drank it, my mother drank it, my sister drank it.” That’s why it’s built so much loyalty among that population of people. And I think that’s really important. It might not just be because of what it says about you. It’s because the brand’s always been there for you. It’s always been in that world. That’s definitely changed somewhat now because we have the internet. We can talk to so many different groups. But then that does allow everyone to move between, and brands falter. So there’s an argument for both. There’s the argument that brand loyalty is important and that it’s not important.
Z: To talk about what we’re each going to be drinking, there’s also that element of inherited brand loyalty that’s obviously extremely powerful. It doesn’t mean that everyone drinks exactly what their parents and grandparents drink. But there’s no doubt that the things the people around you consume as you grow up are impactful or often your first entry point to the category.
A: Speaking of brand loyalty, we all brought something to drink this Friday. That is a brand that either we were loyal to or someone in our family was loyal to. Zach, why don’t you go first?
Z: Sure. I have Bombay Sapphire, which is not necessarily something that I personally have been super loyal to. But Bombay Sapphire was, I think, the first spirits brand that I was really aware of as a kid. My mom’s sister married a guy who was this object of fascination for me as a kid, because he was so different from anyone else I knew. He was a bricklayer from Iowa who was maybe 5 foot 7, but easily 200 pounds and almost all muscle. He loved gin and he loved Bombay Sapphire. Every year for Christmas and maybe his birthday, my mom would get him a bottle of Bombay Sapphire. I remember being sort of captivated by the whole thing, as an 8- or 9-year-old. My family did not drink hard alcohol, really. My dad would drink a little bit of Scotch from time to time, but what I saw consumed in my household was basically beer and wine. But my uncle drank Martinis or sometimes a Gin & Tonic, and he had his own brand. And he had a Sapphire Martini every night, it was his thing. Now I realize it was almost an anachronism, but at the time, it was a marvel to me that this was a thing, and it felt very adult. But it also felt alluringly different. It’s weird to me, as I got older and learned, that Sapphire was a relatively recent invention at the time. I think the brand was released in ’86, so I don’t know how it came to be my uncle’s gin. He didn’t grow up with it, and it wasn’t anything he’d been drinking for a long time at that point in the early ’90s. Having it now, just chilled, it’s a perfectly fine gin. I have some at home. It’s not necessarily the gin used for everything, but I think it’s a well-made gin. So that’s what I got. How about you, Joanna?
J: I don’t have an uncle who drinks Bombay Sapphire. Similarly, this is not my particular brand. I actually don’t find myself very brand loyal and all. I like to try different things, and maybe I’ll return to something, but I don’t get the same thing every time. I have a bottle of Stoli here that was in my freezer. And this is because my parents drink Stoli. I think I’ve mentioned before that my parents are vodka drinkers and drink “Vodka Martinis.” And I say this in quotes, because they’re not really Martinis, it’s just cold vodka with olives. The brands that they’ve been loyal to have changed over the years. They were big Grey Goose people for a while. They went through a Ketel One phase, and now they really like Stoli. They like Stoli Elit, but I didn’t have any of that. I always have a bottle of Stoli or one of those brands in my freezer. So that’s why I have a Stoli right now.
A: Very cool.
J: Yeah. What about you, Adam?
A: I have Dewar’s White Label. My dad and his father were Dewars drinkers. There always used to be a handle of Dewar’s that was in the liquor cabinet that I knew my dad could have. My dad’s definitely become more of a wine drinker in his retirement. He also likes gin cocktails, but he always seemed to go between gins. That’s what we were talking about, with Dale DeGroff, my dad didn’t really care. Sometimes, he would have Bombay, not even Sapphire, just Bombay. He’d have Gordon’s and would make Gin & Tonics. He was more loyal to his tonic water, which was Canadian Club. But when it came to Scotch, it was always Dewar’s White Label. It’s a great blended Scotch, I’m tasting it now. It made you feel a little bit special. You weren’t following the masses drinking Johnnie Walker. It was almost like you knew something more. You were a savvier consumer because you drank Dewar’s. You’re drinking blended Scotch, but you drank Dewar’s. It wasn’t this huge mass-market product. Johnnie Walker is still the No. 1 blended Scotch brand, but within American consciousness, it’s not at the same level as it used to be. Where like people were stealing it because it was so popular. It’s past that time, I think, and hopefully on its way back. But you were in the know if you drank Dewar’s. My dad’s a professor, an academic. He’s in the know. So that’s what he drank. Drinking it right now on the rocks, it reminds me of having a glass of Scotch with him during the early days of being 21. And coming home from college and him and I having a Scotch on the rocks and chatting. The rocks start to melt and the Scotch gets a little bit more watered down. But it’s just such an easy-drinking liquid. It has a little bit of smoke, but a little bit of sweetness. It’s super consistent, and I can see why he was so loyal.
Z: We should do a podcast episode about why blended Scotch fell out of favor and why it should come back in favor.
A: That would be great. Well, Zach and Joanna, enjoy your drinks this Friday.
J: Thank you.
A: I’d love to hear if there are any brands that people are super loyal to, whether they be wine, beer, or spirits. Let us know, and I’ll see you both on Monday.
J: See you then.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.