At the Whiskies and Spirits Conference in New York, the distillery companies and branding consultants talked about the direction of the industry and their respective brands. Within the first five minutes, it became evident that if you're a 'grey hair', you don't matter.
From Ireland to Scotland and the USA to Canada, whiskey makers want to capture the millennial, the term used for the youth reaching adulthood around the year 2000. This group trend towards having the same economic influence as their grandparent's generation, the 'Baby Boomers.' Heaven Hill's Andy Shapira told me that if you do not cater to this generation, your brand jeopardises a potential 30 year relationship.
As I listened to one speaker after another detailing why this generation consumes media at a faster pace than any other, that they don't read editorial - apparently, they play games - they are fickle, but not fickle in a way that's fickle, that they're driven by an across-the-board 'social justice' that is not defined by a political activism or faith, and they're expecting you to back up your claims, I wondered about the whiskey. Does the whiskey matter or do they just want to 'feel' cool?
For television spots, they're hiring male models with beards, tight jeans and flannel shirts to talk to young women models in cool and hip clothes. They sit at a picnic table talking, surrounded by flowers, and there's your whiskey in a cocktail or some other hip way of drinking it.
The marketers are trying to build a case for their brand being millennial friendly. And why wouldn't it be? I mean, if people are having a picnic with it, by God, that's an experience I want to have.
I'll admit, I'm technically an older millennial, and this desire to market to my kind is a slap in our face. You know how you market to a millennial? You improve your whiskey.
Make all the ads you want, but put as much money as possible into production. For every dollar you pump into your national television campaign and your mobile trailer serving cocktails at brand-awareness events, distillers should spend the same on developing their distilleries.
I'm talking about improving your grains, which the likes of Maker's Mark and Buffalo Trace have done. Both are planting corn near their distilleries. I'm talking about come off-the-still at lower proofs, which Michter's is doing with its 103 proof off the still. I'm talking about procuring better wood, which Brown-Forman is doing through its in-house forestry and logger program. I'm talking about improving warehouse strategies, which Maker's Mark has done using caves for its Maker's 46 barrels and Buffalo Trace is doing with Warehouse X project.
Perhaps the inside knowledge of this marketing - a dirty word for many! - just annoys me. Most of us just want to think we discovered our beloved Bourbon, Scotch or Irish whiskey, and we were not pushed there like a herd of cattle. I certainly get fussy from time to time over the whiskey quality, but generally, most whiskey people in my generation just get irate over the whole marketing approach. I don't think that's specific to millennials.
Branding firms get paid to place us in a box, and study after study shows millennials are coddled to the point that making a bowl of cereal in the morning is too much work.
I'm here to tell you that millennial whiskey drinkers are much smarter than the research indicates. The minute they smell your marketing tactics, they expect a better product for the money or they'll move onto something else. You're welcome to target them with advertising; but you better back it up with your whiskey.
On the other hand, you'll still have the 'Baby Boomers.' They've often expressed dissatisfaction with the millennial influence on whiskey. The way they see it, once the 25 Years Old is out of the whiskey picture, there's more for them at better prices.
The older generation will stick with you through good times and bad; they're brand loyal. Some say millennial are not brand loyal. I disagree, but we'll find out soon enough. Beards are losing their appeal; whiskey can, too.