Madman behind Hendrick’s Gin says, “No one pays attention to ads!”
Perhaps one of the most unique content marketing efforts I’ve seen is that of Hendrick’s Gin. The 15-year-old spirits brand bills itself as being “not for everyone” and uses words like “unusual” “quirky” and “peculiar” in its copy. The art and design of everything from the bottle to the blog is very “turn of the century” (19th to 20th) and has a British feel. The content (copy) is designed to match that vibe.
With a blog called The Unusual Times and a series of characters who grace the storytelling tales, sharing facts and passing along odd tidbits, Hendrick’s is, in a word, unique. Its story is as well.
The brand was conceived by Steven Gasse and his firm, Quaker City Merchantile, as a work-for-hire. Gasse, a noted ad industry risk-taker, took on the project for William Grant & Sons in 1998. The brand story you see today is nearly unchanged from the brand he created. That consistency of voice and spirit has moved the spirit to one of the most successful in the Gin category.
We caught up with Gasse last week to talk about many things, including what came first – the story or the spirit – and found him sharing some interesting things about advertising.
Here’s the animation video we reference in the interview from Hendrick’s Gin:
The transcription of the interview is available below as well. You can find Steven on Twitter at @StevenGrasse. You should also explore Quaker City Mercantile and, of course, the unusual world of Hendrick’s Gin.
Thismoment In Content Marketing Interview Transcript:
Jason Falls: Hello, and welcome to Thismoment in Content Marketing, from our friends at Thismoment, where we talk to the movers and shakers, the cookers and bakers in the world of content marketing.
Today, we’re visiting with quite a legend in the advertising world and resident mad scientist in a world much closer to my heart, well, technically, I guess, closer to my liver, the spirits industry, Steven Grasse. He heads Quaker City Mercantile which is at its core I think a marketing agency. He and it don’t just market brands. They actually create them. Hendrick’s Gin, Sailor Jerry Rum, and Art in the Age craft spirits are just a few of them.
Steven, first of all, thanks for taking the time with us. I guess my first question should be did I describe Quaker City adequately or did I screw that up.
Steven Grasse: It’s accurate. It’s been in business for 26 years. We started as an ad agency, spent about 18, 19 years doing tobacco. I was that guy doing Camel cigarettes and Winston cigarettes. We always call that the Marketing Marine Corps, because you’re not allowed to do anything, say anything, and somehow you manage to get the message out there. That taught us how to do stuff. Now, we’re pretty much entirely a spirits company that’s very knowledgeable about how to market things.
Jason Falls: And you’re a company that instead of now being an advertising agency and marketing other people’s products, you create your own products and market them.
Steven Grasse: Yes.
Jason Falls: Is that accurate?
Steven Grasse: We create our own products and market them. We still consult with some brands we’ve created, like Hendrick’s Gin or Sailor Jerry. We also consult with some very big brands that I can’t tell you about, because we are very confidential.
Jason Falls: Sure, understood. I want to focus on Hendrick’s Gin, because as I told you before we started recording, one of your public relations social media folks sent me an animation which we’ll make sure is in the post so people can see it. I was sort of fascinated by it, because it had this very Monty Python feel which appealed to me. I thought it was certainly well done. Then, I started diving into Hendrick’s Gin’s website, the blog, the Facebook page. I’m a fan of good content marketing. I was fascinated with the content around this product.
How did that sort of brand environment come about? Tell us whether it was the target audience or whether it was the product itself as you were developing it. How did that come about? Because it has a very distinctive style and flavor.
Steven Grasse: Well, I would say a key ingredient to what we do at Quaker City is we’re very consistent. We created Hendrick’s I think 16 years ago. I’ve had the same team on that from day one.
Jason Falls: Wow.
Steven Grasse: So, the designer of the bottle also designed Sailor Jerry, and Narragansett, and all the brands we do. He’s been with me for 24 years.
Jason Falls: Wow.
Steven Grasse: We’ve been in business for 26 years. The first two years I didn’t have him. He’s been here for 24 years. My head writer, everyone’s been here for 20 years plus. We never change. We’re like The Rolling Stones. We keep touring. We know what the hell we’re doing.
We created that brand. It’s had a lot of consistency because we keep adding to it. It’s never changed. In 16 years, it’s the same. It’s the nucleus, the same brand. The company who owns it, William Grant and Sons, there have been a lot of personnel changes there. We’ve been with that company for 20-plus years. We’ve been there longer than anyone else who works there. They’ll have new brand managers and things on it, but no one really changes anything because we’ve been so remarkably consistent.
What’s great about the consistency is it means you can keep growing. The brand expressions can become more abstract and more interesting because we’re not constantly changing the message.
Jason Falls: Right.
Steven Grasse: You’re rifting on the same idea over and over again but in fresh expressions of it. I think the new spot we did, which we sent you, is just the latest expression of that, which is something I really like because it takes that brand world that’s been going along for 16 years and gives it a new depth. I think our partners on this, WeWereMonkeys, a great animation house in Brooklyn, brought a really fresh perspective on it. You literally step inside the world that we’ve created in a way that has sound and motion, and I really love it.
Jason Falls: So, certainly 16 years ago, there wasn’t Facebook, or Twitter, or any of these social channels. At some point, there had to be a discussion of okay, how do we take the advertising creative, the creative brief, if you will, the brand environment that we have built, and translate that into a more conversational setting. Take us through that conversation. What were your ideas, and how did you work the team through those changes in not the message necessarily or the brand environment but the channel?
Steven Grasse: I think content is content and that the way the channels change over time… Good content is good content. Yeah, Sailor Jerry and Hendrick’s were created before all the social media stuff. We’ve had a very easy time transitioning into those new media, because you’re just taking the stories and putting them in a new medium. Quite frankly, it’s a medium that we understand better than traditional mass media because it’s more personal and because you can go into more depth and it can be deeper. Also, Sailor Jerry and Hendrick’s both now have grown into quite big brands, and they can be on television. I’m glad we kind of didn’t go into these brands being able to afford TV, because it taught us to communicate without that luxury.
Jason Falls: Interesting.
Steven Grasse: When you get into social media, it’s quite frankly an easier way to reach out to people. What we’ve done, and I’m sure a lot of companies do this, is we have a whole team of people that work on, community managers. I have a 13 year old daughter who was in the office the other day and was blown away that somebody has a job where they do Facebook all day. She was like I want that job. I’m like yeah. I think a brand is a brand, a story is a story, and the way that the stuff is communicated changes over time.
Jason Falls: Sure. When you created this brand, I believe Hendrick’s was one of the first brands that you sort of created both the brand and the marketing and the story around it. Take me through that process, because you were an ad guy creating a brand. I wonder if the temptation was there to say I’ve got this really cool idea, I just need to fit a brand into it. Did you create the story first, or did you create the spirit first?
Steven Grasse: No. We always say it’s like a stream of consciousness. It’s all born at one time, and it doesn’t really make any sense. Or, it’s like creating a great recipe. Put a little of this and that in, and it makes something.
The idea for Hendrick’s came out of the fact that Sir Charles Gordon Grant, who was the guy who created William Grant and Sons, he passed away last year, he called me and said he wanted me to see his gin [Inaudible 0:08:55]. I had no idea what that was. I went to Scotland. It was this little shack that had these two ancient stills in it. It immediately struck me that it looked like something out of Jules Verne. I thought wow, this looks like Jules Verne.
That sort of started a stream of consciousness that led us into thinking about English apothecary, Victorian apothecary. The way the bottle came about is we went into, I think, Crabtree and Evelyn, and found a little bottle, and said wouldn’t it be cool if we blew it up and made it bigger. Then, the idea with the Monty Pythonesque cutouts simply came out of the fact that there was no budget. How do you make something out of nothing?
The tag line it’s not for everyone, the whole idea being curious, came out of the fact that the one focus group we ever did on Hedrick’s, we only did one, put the bottle down in the middle of the table, and everyone immediately sat up, and the moderator said what do you think. Everyone said we hate it. Why? It doesn’t look like gin.
But, it was fascinating their reaction. They reacted to it very strongly. We were like that’s the way to go, because it was disruptive. Yeah, same with Sailor Jerry. It sort of all happens at once. It all sort of tumbles out fully formed as one idea.
But, we say, too, it’s like writing a book. We equate something like Hendrick’s to a Tolkien novel. It’s a whole world that you step into. We have names for all the characters that we’ve created. Some of them go from from one expression to another and they reoccur. Yeah, it sort of evolves over time.
That goes back to that idea of consistency. If the same people are on a brand from day one, and they stay with it, and they have an intimate connection to it on a very deep conceptual level, then the brand has a real opportunity to evolve the way Hendrick’s has. You can’t create that out of nothing. Well, you can, but it takes time to feel organic, like it’s grown organically.
Jason Falls: Sure. It certainly has captivated me. I want to ask you a quick question about content marketing specifically as kind of a genre, a label, a discipline. Because I think that because you come from the advertising world, in my experience the agency folks think of social media and community managers and content marketers as yeah, those are those digital weirdos, we actually know what we’re doing.
My question, which I’ve asked a lot of people in this video series and will continue to ask, is content marketing, because of the social channels and the digital web being digital first for many brands these days because there’s a need for rich, engaging content online, are content marketers becoming the ad creatives of this new world. Are those two things merging together, or are they still completely different things?
Steven Grasse: I think they have to be one thing. I think being an ad guy doesn’t really exist any more, does it. I mean nobody looks at advertising. I don’t look at television. I watched ‘Peter Pan Live’ last night with my kid. It’s the first time I’ve watched television maybe in five years. I mean I watch everything on my iPad, download it. I think no one looks at outdoor, no one looks at print, no one looks at any of this stuff. At the same time, no one looks at your online content, either. Unless it’s created as true entertainment or as… I think it’s all invisible.
Jason Falls: Interesting, very interesting perspective.
Steven Grasse: I think it’s invasive, and I think people don’t want really to have much to do with it. We always say I don’t really think too much about marketing or advertising. I think about the story behind the brand and different ways of expressing that that I would like to see, and I hate everything.
Jason Falls: Very interesting. All right, I have one last question for you. It might be the most important question. Are you now or have you ever been related to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson?
Steven Grasse: No.
Jason Falls: Because there’s a shocking resemblance, of course.
Steven Grasse: There’s a shocking resemblance, yeah, and probably a similar intellect.
Jason Falls: There you go.
Steven Grasse: No, no I’m not.
Jason Falls: Very good. Well, I don’t want to take up any more of your time, very valuable time indeed. We very much appreciate your perspective. Thanks for hanging out with us today on This Moment in Content Marketing.
Steven Grasse: Great, thank you. Good talking to you.
Jason Falls: Good talking to you. Everybody, make sure you subscribe to the blog, and why not come back for more future episodes and future insights here on Thismoment in Content Marketing from our friends at Thismoment. See you next time.