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Special Report: How Celebrities Are Driving the Booze Business

By Gary Symons

TLL Editor in Chief

Acquisitions in the liquor business aren’t generally noticed by the general public, but the buyout of Davos Brands by industry giant Diageo rated a feature story in People Magazine, and pretty much every other entertainment magazine in the world.

The reason is that Davos is partly owned by Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds, who purchased a major share of Davos Brands’ Aviation Gin … and sold it just two years later for an astounding $610 million. In between those two milestones, Aviation Gin appeared in thousands of liquor stores around the world, racking up huge sales in North America and the U.K.

Reynolds’ new partners Christian Krogstad and Ryan Magarian are probably still pinching themselves to see if it’s all real. The rise of Aviation Gin is partly due to the quality of the product. After all, it earned a 97-point rating from Wine Enthusiast, the highest for any gin, but the real driver of its success from what was then a small craft producer is a testament to the power of celebrity brand ambassadors in the liquor business.

Ryan Reynolds used a mix of humor, fame and social media savvy to land a $610 million acquisition of Aviation Gin.

The story begins in Portland, Ore., where Krogstad and Magarian founded House Spirits Distillery in 2006 and began producing what they call an ‘American dry gin’. Aviation has less juniper flavor than many other gins, but adds lavender, orange peel, cardamom, coriander, Indian sarsaparilla, and anise seeds. Well reviewed locally, the product was sold to Davos Brands in 2016, with House Spirits remaining in charge of production.

However, it wasn’t until Ryan Reynolds had a cocktail with Aviation Gin that the brand exploded as a global phenomenon.

“Aviation is the best tasting gin in the world. Once I tried it, I knew I wanted to get involved with the company in a big way,” Reynolds said.

Getting involved meant buying a large stake of Davos in early 2018, and becoming the brand ambassador for the product. The breakout Marvel star leveraged his 36.6 million avid Instagram followers, and voilá, a global brand was born.

And it’s not the only one. Celebrity brand ambassadors in the liquor business have become so common that if you’re an action movie star or a musician without an alcohol company, people wonder what’s wrong with you. Reynolds himself joked about the trend when he bought into Davos, saying on Twitter, “In the long and in no way disastrous marriage of showbiz and alcohol, so happy to announce I’m the proud owner of a gin company.”

On that front, he’s in good company. Working with liquor companies has become almost a rite of passage for celebrities who gained fame in film, TV, music or sports. In fact, Reynolds doesn’t even rank first among celebrities in the business. That title belongs to George Clooney, who sold Casamigos Tequila for a round $1 billion, while Sean Combs, aka Diddy, has also scored a spot in the top two with his wildly successful Ciroc vodka. It’s worth noting the Ciroc brand was practically on life support before Combs stepped in, while today it is one of the world’s best-selling vodkas.

I’ll drink to that! George Clooney and his partner Rande Gerber sold their liquor company Casamigo Tequila for an astounding $1 billion, the largest celebrity liquor acquisition to date.

The rise of the celebrity ambassador

The alcohol business is hardly the only sector that focuses on brand ambassadors, or celebrities who buy or are given an interest in a company. The trend is many decades old, but it’s worth taking a look at the innovative work done by a pioneer in the celebrity licensing industry to see how celebrities went from paid brand ambassadors to part owners.

Before her death on Christmas Eve at age 95, Ruth McCarthy Manton worked in the world of fashion licensing through her company Aries Design Management.

Manton’s idea was to link up top designers directly with manufacturers to create wide ranges of products, and to use media and aggressive marketing to get those products in front of the public’s eye.

Early in her new career Manton concluded that reaching the mass market in America would require partnerships with celebrities, particularly those from TV shows and movies. Her close friend, the film producer David Gil, suggested Manton start by partnering with Jaclyn Smith, who had starred in one of Gil’s movies but was internationally known as one of the stars of the TV hit Charlie’s Angels.

Creating Smith’s fashion line for K-Mart established Manton on the front line of fashion licensing, and was the precursor for the many celebrity licensing deals that are now common in the fashion industry. She later worked with Elizabeth Taylor and Parfums International to create Taylor’s ‘Passion’ fragrance, and six years later the team released White Diamonds, which still generates a reported $80 million in annual revenue.

Today it’s common for celebrities to launch their own lines of clothing, makeup, or fragrances, and that trend has extended to other lifestyle products including alcohol, and in a town like Hollywood, where celebrities, producers and agents party hard with high priced wine and cocktails, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this industry has attracted more than its fair share of celebrity brand ambassadors and part owners. Today there are literally dozens of liquor companies that include high profile celebrities as part owners and brand ambassadors, including Jay Z, David Beckham, Bob Dylan, Drake, Cameron Diaz, Mary J. Blige, and many more.

In general, these relationships work out well for both the celebrity and the liquor producer. In Canada, for example, the country’s most famous hockey star Wayne Gretzky partnered with existing winemakers to start up his own wine and spirits company, Wayne Gretzky Estates. Today the company has wineries in Ontario and BC, and also turns out high end spirits like his Maple Cask Whisky. Every Canadian knows the number ’99’ from his hockey jersey, and with that number emblazoned on every bottle the sales for Wayne Gretzky Estates have made it one of the country’s top producers.

A recent report by Financial News Media says the trend is so powerful that it has become one of the driving forces increasing revenue for higher end wine, beer and spirit companies.

“The growth of the global alcoholic beverages market is driven by increase in the global young‐adult demographic, a surge in disposable income, and rise in consumer demand for premium/super premium products especially for those owned by and/or endorsed by very well-known celebrities, from Hollywood actors, entertainers and sports superstars,” says the FNM report. “The last decade has seen an ever-increasing number of A-level actors, directors, musicians taking on financial and creative stakes in the alcoholic beverages business. The manufacturers are operating under the belief that partnering with a celebrity (for existing and new products) can increase visibility and offer consumers a bit of insider status.

“As a well-known brand licensing insider said, ‘People are looking for some of the fairy dust to be sprinkled on them from that celebrity’s lifestyle’.”

 

George Clooney

Casamigos Tequila

Ryan Reynolds

Aviation Gin

Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs

Ciroq

Jay Z

Armand de Brignac Champagne

David Beckham

Haig Club Whisky

Justin Timberlake

901 Silver Tequila

50 Cent

Effen Vodka

Bob Dylan

Heaven’s Door Spirits

Matthew McConaughey

Wild Turkey Longbranch Whisky

Drake

Virginia Black Whiskey

Snoop Dogg

19 Crimes Cali Red Wine and Cuca Fresca

Cameron Diaz

Avaline Wine

Mary J. Blige

Sun Goddess Wines

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson

Teremana Tequila

Metallica

Blackened Whiskey

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie

Perrin Miraval Rosé

Dan Akroyd

Crystal Head Vodka

Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola Winery

Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky Estates (wine)

The Hanson Brothers

Hanson Brothers Beer Company

Jason Priestly

Black Hills Estate Winery

Kid Rock

Badass Redneck Lager

Danny Devito

Danny Devito’s Limoncello

Sammy Hagar

Cabo Wabo Tequila

Marilyn Manson

Mansinthe

 

Industry professionals, like Annie Moggach at Signet Branding, say celebrity endorsements are common throughout the retail licensing industry, so it makes sense celebs are diving into the lucrative, $1.5 trillion liquor business.

“From make-up brands to diet products, it seems that most big brands have a famous face behind them, promoting their products,” said Moggach. “This is considered quite a beneficial marketing tactic for brands, as endorsements help to get products out in front of the celebrity’s audience—often on social platforms—including people who previously might not have considered engaging with the brand in question.”

The social media factor

Social media posts by celebrities like George Clooney drove popularity and value of alcohol products without expensive advertising campaigns.

That link with social media platforms is likely the most important factor in the recent and dramatic increase in deals between spirit companies and celebrities. Unlike many products, alcohol faces a wide variety of marketing restrictions imposed by countries and individual states, so increasing sales can pose more challenges than those faced by standard products.

Celebrities, however, carry a built-in advantage in the age of social media. In short, they have the largest social media accounts in the world, and can promote a brand to millions of followers at no cost. For that reason, having a celebrity like Ryan Reynolds as a part owner or a brand ambassador extends your marketing reach, lowers your advertising costs, and sells your product to a dedicated and, in some cases, rabid fan base.

Take the example of Eire Born Spirits, founded in 2017 by Conor McGregor, the wildly popular UFC champion, to launch his own whiskey under the name Proper No. Twelve.

“Due to his popularity, Connor McGregor received massive amounts of support for his brand when it was released to retailers in the US and Ireland last year,” says Moggach. “So much so, that a six-month supply of the whiskey had completely sold out in just 10 days from supermarkets in Ireland after it launched. It has also become the most followed spirit brand on Instagram, gaining over 575,000 Instagram followers in five months.”

How did that happen? Pretty simple. Conor McGregor has even more followers on Instagram than Ryan Reynolds at 38.4 million, and when his new whiskey came on the market, sales simply exploded. By July 2020, reports emerged that liquor giant Jose Cuervo had exercised stock options to increase its share in the brand from 20 to 49 percent. Based on the amount paid for the shares, the sale valued the Irish whiskey brand at 200 million euros, roughly $235 million at the time.

It is that type of story that explains how and why the phenomenon of the celebrity part owner has taken off so ferociously in the liquor industry, as well as other lifestyle sectors.

“Over the last five years, brands have collaborated with social media influencers across channels to generate awareness, and influencer marketing grew from an ancillary marketing tactic to a $5 billion to $10 billion industry,” says Rochelle Bailis, pointing to a report from media influencer agency mediakix.

The agency says the increase in the importance of influencers in the marketing world is partly caused by their popularity, but also by the decline in importance of media advertising and even online ads. TV cable ‘cord cutters’ and the ubiquitous mute button have made TV advertising less effective as viewers switch to ad-free streaming platforms. At the same time, ad blocking software has lessened the effectiveness of digital ads online.

By contrast, billions of avid fans view posts by their favorite influencers every day. Rather than skipping the ads, those fans are clicking on them willingly, and because they want to buy products from the celebrities they follow, they also take action on those posts more often. In short, the posts put up by stars like McGregor or Reynolds are not only free; they’re also more effective.

That dynamic also helps explain why celebrities are taking ownership of companies they’re promoting. Simply put, fans are less likely to buy a product if it’s just endorsed by a celebrity, as opposed to cases where the celebrity owns that company and has skin in the game.

Brandy Rand, the COO for spirit industry analysts IWSR, says the move toward celebrity ownership has been particularly effective in the drinks business, but only when the celebrity is truly committed to the product.

“Consumers can tell if someone is being paid to promote a product versus really excited about sharing something they’ve had a hand in producing or genuinely love drinking,” said Rand. “In some cases, like Matthew McConaughey and Wild Turkey or Ryan Reynolds and Aviation, scripted commercials or video shorts actually reflect the actors’ talent for producing entertainment. If they can capture consumer attention through well-curated content, especially humor, it’s also a win.”

And that’s where Reynolds has really excelled, making it clear that he definitely works at Aviation Gin, even though he kinda doesn’t. I emailed Ryan at ryan@aviationgin.com, and got an email back that said, “Hello, I am currently out of the office in celebration of my birthday. It is not yet a national Holiday in Canada so I am spending the next month intensely lobbying for the effort.”

In an earlier auto reply, Reynolds wrote back, “My responsibilities here at the company are vast. I’ll spend my days being photographed intermittently clinching [sic] my jaw muscles while pointing at things and nodding. I’ll drink Aviation Gin. I’ll sit in board meetings, imagining my very own Red Wedding.

“I don’t know whose idea it was to allow me into the gin business, but I can assure you, there are smarter, more reasonable people in charge.”

And while that’s probably true … those people don’t have 36.6 million people on their Instagram account.

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