Under the influence

I vaguely remember Geoff Ross, the guy who started 42 below Vodka, from an agency we both worked at - though he worked in the Wellington office and I was in Auckland. He seemed a decent enough chap. Quiet, unassuming…Who'd have thought he'd go on to be the founder of one of the most interesting brands in the world - and certainly THE most interesting in New Zealand. I mean, who'd have thought that Vodka would become a hip drink again (it sort of smacks of James Bond and martinis), let alone that New Zealand would become the source of a serious brand contender in a cluttered category.

I've worked on Vodka accounts. It's a tough product to differentiate. Colourless and pretty much tasteless. Sales of vodka used to experience a spike just before closing time (when there was a closing time). Spike being then operative word. Vodka was the great 'leg-opener'. Vulgar concept, but we're all adults here, aren't we? Mix it in with orange (a screwdriver, I believe) and you pretty much might as well be drinking the orange juice by itself.

So, the point is: the real point of difference when marketing vodka is, well, …the marketing.

Oh, sure there are some people who can discern subtle differences in Vodkas, but, in the main - in a dark club say, (with the presence of cranberries or the hint of fragrance from one's companion and maybe some cigarette smoke) I'm not sure anyone can really tell the difference. But that's just my opinion. Or maybe not. I lauched Pepsi and its associated brands (7up, Mirinda, Canadian Dry,) and saw the head of Pepsi undertake the 'Pepsi Challenge' on camera for a news crew. Stupid guy, stupid thing to do. He was flavour-challenged and chose the Coca-Cola. Oops.

While I'm labouring this point I can also tell you that most people can't even choose their favourite beer from a selection of like brands (and yet swear loyalty to their preferred brand erring on devotional).

Let's assume that 42 Below is actually ok. It is certainly well packaged. The marketing is energetic and they've adopted a provocative positioning that not only lampoons it's 'origins' but also the people who believe marketing stories about liquor origins.

It's called, if you'll pardon the pun and the shocking use of the vernacular 'taking the piss'. And it seems to work.

The media fuss over an offensive response by the U.S. based marketing guy for 42 Below to a gay bar owner who found their approach offensive is a classic case of rising to the bait. TV One's Sunday programme covered the story - or should I say re-covered it, fuelling interest in the brand (watch NZ sales increase this week).

42 Below executives will be sniggering all the way the the bank.

I'm going to grant The One & Only status to 42 Below Vodka . Because it's hard to differentiate bathtub booze and because the plonker who markets it in New York is so offensive that watching the news article was hilarious - like watching a train wreck and knowing that we're all being played - because it's not really a train wreck, but a staged event (ever see Wag The Dog). More power to them.

I might buy some 42 Below shares - wouldn't surpise me if Seagrams or United Distillers or somebody big buys them out, either to shut them down or to get some of their perceived mojo.

The crippling cost of going national in the U.S - which you have to wonder how long 42 Below can fund out of New Zealand investor's pockets - even with clever, lucky and shameless tactical marketing. My guess is that would make the brand as insipid, colourless and flavourless as the product itself.

All Marketers Are Liars Check out Seth Godin's Latest book The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-trust world.

42 Below's web site


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