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StarStruck: Celebrities Join Wine and Spirits Brands In Growing Numbers—and Unusual Ways

Posted on  | February 1, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Celebrity endorsement of wine and spirits is not exactly new. Orson Welles famously assured TV viewers back in 1980 that Paul Masson would “sell no wine before its time.” But the past decade has seen significant shifts both in the frequency of celebrities aligning with wine and spirits brands and in the nature of the endorsement. Some are spokespersons, some are brand owners, some have licensed their names and images. Some appear in ads or at promotional events, radiated online.

In general, celebrity-brand relationships have become more of a two-way street—not to mention one with more lanes. As more celebrities want in to this relatively glamorous world, more wine and spirits marketers appear eager happy to bring them along for the ride.

The Power of Personality (& Credibility)

Few celeb-brand connections have proven as effective as P. Diddy (Sean Combs) and Cîroc. Annual sales of the vodka hovered around 120,000 cases when Combs came on board in 2007; now it’s a million-case brand, with much of the success is attributed to the artist himself appearing in TV ads and the well-known entertainer promoting the brand actively via appearances, both formal and informal.

P. Diddy’s success came with a young brand. Stars can bring juice to established ones as well. Tanqueray Gin partnered with actor and DJ Idris Elba in 2011 for “Tonight We Tanqueray,” a platform that included events, videos, a downloadable song and even new drink recipes. “We were looking for partners who could bring to life the style and sophistication of Tanqueray,” says Brand Director Matt Pechman for Tanqueray. “Idris was a perfect match.”

Before launching a celebrity brand or partnering with a celebrity there are a few considerations, says Dave Karraker, director of public relations for Campari America. “First we look at the celebrities themselves—who is their demographic and does that demographic match a hole in our portfolio that we have to fill?” he says. Just as important: “The person has to have credibility to be associated with that spirit.”

Campari recently showcased Oscar-winning actress Penelope Cruz in an evocative 2013 calendar. Entitled “Kiss Superstition Goodbye,” the calendar shows Cruz indulging in superstitious acts—breaking mirrors, walking under ladders, opening umbrellas indoors, etc.—all while looking fabulous in Campari-red outfits and holding Campari-based cocktails. The calendar project, shot in Milan this year by fashion photographer Kristian Schuller, has been done annually by Campari for more than a decade.

And, naturally, celebrity power is increasingly being tapped for new product launches. One recent example is LeSutra. Grammy-winning producer Timbaland is an owner of the line of sparkling liqueurs, and his high-profile support is intended to draw some of the attention going to rival brand Nuvo, whose rapper-backers include T-Pain, Jeremih, Wale, Pusha T and Lloyd Banks.

In a blend of established brand and new product, Usher was a partner for the launch of Belvedere RED in 2011. Similarly, R&B crooner Ne-Yo helped launch Malibu Red—a fusion of rum and tequila; the collaboration included a custom song and video, supported by social media.

Tapping the Fan Base

Celebrity endorsements can be as much about targeting a specific fan base as they are about publicizing the liquid in the bottle. Star power may be just the right thing to draw attention to both a category and a brand. For instance, when Bacardi launched the Bacardi Light ready-to-serve cocktails, they collaborated with actress Busy Philipps, aiming to attract her vibrant and loyal female following. And Jim Beam Bourbon tapped into the passionate fan base of live music by sponsoring a series of six concerts in 2012 (Kid Rock, Daughtry, David Gray, Darius Rucker, Bush and Train). In addition, Beam collaborated with Kid Rock on several projects, raising funds for Operation Homefront, which provides support for families of American troops.

TY KU Saké has taken aim at multiple audiences, enlisting diverse support from Bravo’s “Millionaire Matchmaker,” Patti Stanger; Internet gossipmonger Perez Hilton; and well-known singer and The Voice judge CeeLo Green. “The perception of saké is that you can only drink it in certain locations or specific ways,” says brand co-owner CeeLo. “It’s my mission to show how saké is a progressive cocktail for the modern trendsetter. It’s versatile, low calorie, all natural, accessible and will make you stand out at a party.”

Vodka as a category needs no introduction to Americans, but in aiming to increase their share of the low-calorie segment of the the vodka pie, marketers of Voli brought both Fergie and Pitbull on board. Erin Harris, EVP of marketing and public relations for Voli Spirits, notes that Fergie and Pitbull each bring something different to the table: “Fergie—who stays fit and owns the social scene—knows how to balance all aspects of life and represents the Voli brand perfectly,” says Harris. “Pitbull, with his charisma and musical sense, is a force within the Latin market and has a large female demographic.”

Perhaps a taste of more to come, ad campaigns featuring multiple celebs have picked up just within the past year. Hennessy’s “Wild Rabbit” campaign features Martin Scorsese, Erykah Badu and Manny Pacquiao. Each person’s “wild rabbit” is what inspires them, keeps them motivated and drives them. The campaign consists of print ads, billboards, installations, QR codes and Web marketing. Johnnie Walker’s “My Label is Black” is both an ad campaign and outreach program designed to celebrate the Hispanic community and inspire men to achieve their true potential. The ads feature Don Omar, Jorge Posada and Alex Sensation; events and charitable partnerships are set in key markets such as New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

No Cookie-Cutter Molds

To put the recent explosion of celebrity wine/spirits endorsement in perspective, it is important to realize that there are no standard formulas for how the star-brand relationship will be defined or promoted. The degree of involvement can range from select promotional appearances—such as Kim Kardashian hosting a Halloween party for Midori—to full-blown ownership. Some bottles are designed by the stars themselves; others don’t even mention them. But if there is one commonality, it’s that marketers are taking cues from what made the stars stars when considering how best generate publicity.

Musician Dave Matthews has (quite quietly) owned Blenheim Vineyards in Virginia since 2000 and recently worked with Constellation Brands to create The Dreaming Tree wines with winemaker Steve Reeder. “As part of our 2011 launch strategy, we targeted loyal fans of Dave Matthews, who include consumers ranging from 30-50 years old,” says Sarah Pearson, marketing manager for the brand. “We felt this grassroots approach was in line with how Dave Matthews rose to popularity and was a great way to honor the fans. After serving his fans first, the wines were made available everywhere.”

One recent collaboration to watch is Enrique Iglesias with Atlantico Rum. Aleco Azqueta, who launched the line in 2008 with partner Brandon Lieb, explains that the new business relationship was entirely organic: Enrique loved the rum before he even met the founders. Azqueta notes, “A lot of brands developed for a celebrity are gimmicky. This one started with a product that had already won awards and gained respect.” The partnership works, he says, because of its authenticity: “Atlantico is a lifestyle brand that celebrates Carribean sophistication—and that’s his brand, too.” The Spanish singer-songwriter has given the brand mass exposure through placement in his videos and live concerts.

Passion Plays

The example of Enrique Iglesias and Atlantico highlights the reality that the more hands-on a star is, the more leverage a brand gains in the market. Actor Dan Aykroyd has teamed up with winegrowers in his native Canada to create a line of varietal Niagara wines, but here in the U.S. he invests time and sweat into Crystal Head Vodka, a brand he launched in 2008. “He is involved in every major decision and also a number of smaller decisions, whether it is production, sales or marketing,” says Kristina Arnold, marketing manager for Crystal Head.

Hands-on tequila-making success stories include rocker Sammy Hagar (Cabo Wabo) and singer-actor Justin Timberlake (901); and country music’s Toby Keith, who created Wild Shot Mezcal. To create 901 (the brand name is based on the Memphis telephone area code), Timberlake and co-owner Kevin Ruder scouted distilleries in Mexico and helped develop the flavor profile. Carlos Santana is now a brand owner of Casa Noble Tequila, and his album covers are featured in packaging. Tequila has also served as insipiration for some high-profile advertising, notably Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell for Dobel and The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli for 1800. The newest Hollywood kid on the agave block is actor George Clooney, who developed Casamigos Tequila with nightclub maven Rande Gerber (husband of Cindy Crawford).

Hollywood & Vine

On the wine side, Francis Ford Coppola set the gold standard of passion-turned-product. Some might even argue that his wine renown rivals his film legacy. Coppola has plenty of star-powered company when it comes to the fruit of the vine. Down in Santa Barbara, Fess Parker in 1987 established a successful family-run winery more than a decade after starring on TV as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. The Smothers Brothers make serious reds at Remick Ridge in Sonoma Valley. Actor Danny Glover is also a grower in Sonoma. TV star Adrian Grenier and film producer Peter Glatzer help blend their Paso Robles red, SHFT, marketed by Domaine Select.

Actor Sam Neill owns Two Paddocks estate winery in Central Otago, New Zealand. Italy’s Bocelli family, known worldwide for the opera success of tenor Andrea, has actually been making wine in Tuscany for more than a century; their wines just recently debuted in the U.S. Italy was also the origin for an eponymous line of wines by Oscar-nominated actress Lorraine Bracco. And Ben Flajnik, perhaps better known as The Bachelor, turned the celebrity-wine formula inside-out—he and two partners created Envolve in Sonoma before he became a reality TV heart-throb.

So many celebrities have gotten into the wine/spirits act that it has become hard to  keep track. Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil has produced wine (Vince Vineyards) as well as Tatuado Tequila and Vodka. Other bands/musicians going the wine route include Mick Fleetwood, Kiss, Bob Dylan (Planet Waves), Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall (Il Cantante), Lil Jon (Little Jonathan), Tool’s Maynard James Keenan (Caduceus), Train (Save Me, San Francisco), even Elvis Presley and Jerry Garcia.

Celebrity fashion icons are tossing their hats into the wine or spirits ring, too. And why not? Great-looking bottles will never go out of style. Jean-Paul Gaultier designed a “corset” bottle for Piper-Heidsieck. Gianfranco Ferré dressed up Frescobaldi Brunello for the Millennium. Christian Audigier licensed his tattoo-esque Ed Hardy brand for a line of wine. Roberto Cavalli now has his own vodka. And John Varvatos designed a special bottle stopper for Patrón Tequila.

Of course, no roundup of celebrity wine would be complete without mention of Marilyn Monroe, whose iconic beauty and fortuitous adopted surname posthumouosly made Marilyn Merlot a fan-driven collectible. Will there ever be another? Probably not. But Hollywood stars now seem more inclined than ever to test their wine chops. Witness Drew Barrymore and Fergie. Both are acutely cognizant that their names needed to be part of the package, literally. The red blend from Ferguson Crest is called “Fergalicious.” And Drew’s first wine, a Pinot Grigio from northern Italy, features the Barrymore family crest on the label.

The Sports Scorecard

Numerous pro athletes have been lured by the call of wine country. Pitching great Tom Seaver makes highly acclaimed Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Ditto Super Bowl–winning football coach Dick Vermeil, once nicknamed the “Calistoga comet” during his playing days in the region. Hall of Famer Joe Montana partnered with former Beringer winemaker Ed Sbragia in the late 1990s to make Montagia Cabernet Sauvignon. Former quarterback Drew Bledsoe makes wine under the label Doubleback in Walla Walla, Washington, where he grew up. Green Bay Packer Charles Woodson owns TwentyFour Wines in Napa Valley (he caught the wine bug when, as an Oakland Raider, he trained in Napa). Retired Packer/Jet/Viking Brett Favre makes three wines, sold only within Wisconsin and in his restaurant. Even teams (Jets, Chargers) have collaborated on wines.

Racing legend Mario Andretti founded Andretti Winery in Napa in 1996. A couple of hundred cases turned into a full-fledged business, with a tasting room and 16 wines. Lewis Cellars (Randy Lewis), Bernardus (Ben Pon) and Bennett Lane (Randy Lynch) are also wineries owned by former race car drivers.

Hockey’s Wayne Gretzky produces wine under the No. 99 label. Golfers with their own wine labels include Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Arnold Palmer and Annika Sörenstam. Fuzzy Zoeller has an ultra-premium vodka: Fuzzy’s, naturally. Tennis great Roger Federer, known for serving aces, is now serving up Moët & Chandon Champagne as their brand ambassador. And Emmy-winning sports commentator Jim Nantz teamed up with Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits to create The Calling wines.

Real House-Wines?

Real Housewives of New York star Bethenny Frankel struck gold with her Skinnygirl ready-to-serve cocktails. She sold to Beam Global in 2010 and the brand has since expanded way beyond the original low-cal margarita. Now, branded wines/spirits seem practically contagious among the TV housewives.

In the case of Frankel’s RHONY costar Ramona Singer, her relationship with a type of wine preceded her connection to a brand. The transition was quite natural, explains Claudia Cogan, brand manager at Opici Wine Company. “Ramona Singer became synonymous with Pinot Grigio, regularly seen sipping it on the show,” says Cogan. “Fans would approach her asking if she preferred a specific one, but she never really had an answer. She saw this opportunity and seized it, coming to Opici with a proposal.”

Over in New Jersey, Teresa Guidice launched Fabellini, a pre-mixed Bellini in two flavors; and Kathy Wakile launched Red Velvet Cosmo, a pre-mixed cosmopolitan based on the flavors in red velvet cake. Down in Atlanta, three Real Housewives have gone mad for Moscato: NeNe Leakes (Miss Moscato), Cynthia Bailey (P.T. Rosé Moscato) and Kim Zolciak (Viva Diva Moscato). In LA, Vicki Gunvalson and Tamra Barney went a different route, starting a wine club, “Wines by Wives.”

Will these housewives put up numbers approaching Skinnygirl? Maybe not, but they can be solid sellers. With a Pinot Grigio released in 2011 and red blend in 2012, Ramona has become a 15,000- case brand, distributed nationally.

Selling Star Power

So, now that the wine and spirits industry is getting accustomed to the idea of celebrity endorsement in multiple categories, the question becomes how best to translate star power into sales. Here are some points to keep in mind:

Know what’s what even if you don’t know who’s who. Celebrity culture is powerful but not universal. Different generations, different ethnicities and different interests determine which “stars” sparkle for different individuals. While it makes little sense to stock every available celebri-brand, it is imperative that when you do, the whole staff should be aware of the relevant connection (because it’s not always on the bottle).

Signage can help move product. Some marketers are ready and able to support celebrity-linked brands with POS material (ask your distributor). If not, especially in cases where the star behind the liquid is not apparent, you can and should create your own signage. It may help spur impulse sales among shoppers who are fans of certain stars/genres but were unaware of the links.

Eye candy is still important. Some bottles act like stars in their own right. For example, bottles of Patrón Tequila featuring the guitar head bottle stopper designed by menswear mogul John Varvatos are just screaming to be displayed. Catchy bottles in a front window can grab the eye of folks who may not necessarily want that wine or spirit, but will be enticed inside by the display.


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