Trash or Treasure?

Celebrity-Owned Brands are Earning a Closer Look

There are enough celebrity-owned spirit brands on the market today to vanquish any doubts that harnessing the spotlight of a celebrity’s name, whether it’s an athlete, musician or film star, is a potentially profitable endeavor for brands and on-premise venues. But when it comes to celebrity brands, separating gold from gimmick can be a daunting task. Where does this flood of products leave the lonely bar owner? Bogged down with education, both in the form of sampling product and presenting it to patrons.

“When stocking any brand, quality is first,” says Kevin Ruder, president of pop star Justin Timberlake’s 901 Silver Tequila. Once you’ve determined the quality for yourself, a little background information on the product can’t hurt. After all, if the substance is there, a little sizzle can help with the initial sale.

The most recognizable celebrity-owned spirit on the market is Cabo Wabo Tequila. The 13-year-old brand is 80 percent owned by Gruppo Campari, with 20 percent of the share still belonging to Van Halen rocker Sammy Hagar and his partner Marco Monroy. While Hagar’s music career has hit troughs and peaks, Cabo Wabo’s star has consistently risen, earning an unchallenged slot on many a back bar.

But Hagar’s tequila now faces some star-studded competition. Timberlake launched 901 Silver Tequila this year, and Vince Neil of Motley Crüe added his face and star power to the existing tequila Tres Rios.

Getting Behind the Brands
Other celebs are jumping into a variety of alcohol segments and categories. Actor Dan Aykroyd now produces Crystal Head Vodka; he also serves as distributor of Patrón in Canada and launched a Canadian wine label four years ago, with a Sonoma County Wine added in 2009. In October 2007, Danny DeVito officially announced his relationship with an existing limoncello brand after telling Barbara Walters on “The View” that he had consumed seven limoncello cocktails the previous evening. And when rapper Jay-Z was offended by comments from a Cristal Champagne executive that he perceived as racist, Jay-Z responded by starting his own Ace of Spades Champagne label.

There is also rapper Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Cognac, country star Willie Nelson’s Old Whiskey River Bourbon and real estate mogul Donald Trump’s personal vodka label, Trump Super Premium Vodka.

Then you have the brands backed by sports celebs, such as golf icon Fuzzy Zoeller’s label, Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka. A vodka drinker, Zoeller decided to stay true to his personal tastes and also fill a niche: The game of golf attracts 21 million adults to the fairways in this country alone, but before Zoeller, no celebrity had tapped into the demographic with a spirit, although Greg Norman Estates Wines have had duffers toasting for several years. Another athlete joining the fray is Jeff Bagwell, baseball great with the Houston Astros, who retired his glove and bought into Riazul tequila in 2006, with the first bottles sold in October of 2008.

Turning Off the Spotlight
With so many celebrity-backed spirits to choose from, it’s easy to get caught up in the star power, but product quality must come before the allure of famous faces.

Justin Timberlake 901 tequila launch

“We feel celebrity spirits for the most part are gimmicks,” 901’s Ruder says. “Just because Justin Timberlake is who he is doesn’t mean he should tell you what to drink.”

To combat the celebrity cynicism, 901 leaves any mention of Timberlake out of the equation initially.

“We tell our distributors when they go in to an account to have [the client] experience the tequila. Sell them on it as a product. Then let them know who produces it afterwards,” Ruder explains.

While Timberlake is a strong presence on the brand’s web site and at brand-related events, he is notably absent from marketing posters and ads. For his part, Aykroyd is in the shadows with Crystal Head, never appearing in consumer ads or POS materials. “Separating the brand from the man was always the intent,” says Lucillia Crowe, vice president, director of marketing for Infinium Spirits. “He wanted to be in the background but heavily involved. He didn’t want to be the reason someone would buy it, so we don’t do any consumer ads now with photos of him. Dan felt that the vodka was strong enough to stand on its own. There are a lot of brands out there that once you take the celeb away, they have a quick lifecycle.” Aykroyd’s confidence was well-founded: Crystal Head is able to prove its worth with industry ratings, as Anthony Dias Blue of Tasting Panel awarded Crystal Head 91 points.

You also won’t see Bagwell’s photo with his investment. “He trains little league,” says Riazul Imports president Inaki Orozco, “and he doesn’t want to be on a billboard holding tequila. However, he has been an amazing source of networking for the brand, because he knows a lot of people with money and influence. He’s taken a very aggressive approach in helping out with POS and even designed baseball caps for us.”

However, the marketers of all these brands do realize a little face time is necessary to drive success; the involved celebs often attend bottle signings, launch parties and brand-sponsored concerts. And to sway key industry influencers, DeVito made the trip to Tales of the Cocktail in 2009 to promote his limoncello brand, which claims about a quarter of all limoncello sales in America at this time with nearly 25,000 cases sold since 2007, according to the company.

On-Premise Opportunities
Savvy on-premise operators are making use of the celebrity draw, too. Jon Warfel is the bar manager at Nobu in Las Vegas, where 901 is the house tequila.

“Justin did an event with us a while back. He came and spoke and we have a good partnership. We make a lot of Margaritas here even though it’s a Japanese restaurant. We like 901, and the response has been the same from a lot of customers.”

At The Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., Mac Gregory, director of food and beverage, stocks multiple celebrity brands including Cabo Wabo, Tres Rios, Crystal Head, Ace of Spades and Ed Hardy Vodka.

“We have the state’s largest tequila and vodka programs,” Gregory says. “We offer 500 tequilas and 75 vodkas, but everything we stock has a reason and a high level of quality. We stock Tres Rios because it has ties to this area, and that’s a story that can be shared with guests. We are getting a lot of reaction on Ed Hardy Vodka. It’s not a typical brand we carry — it’s flashy club-type stuff. But it’s really recognized, and we have people who want to be associated with the brand.”

At The Phoenician, what’s inside the bottle matters much more than the name on the label — or the label itself.

“Quality is first, and the fancier the package the more skeptical I am,” he admits. “I was skeptical of Dan Aykroyd’s product, and I was very skeptical of Jay-Z’s. We brought in our Master Sommelier to try it, and it’s great,” he says, noting that Jay-Z hosted a VIP party on-site for Ace of Spades. “Crystal Head has a really neat package, and the product inside is equal to the package. We’ve only had it for four months, but we are going through two bottles a month.”

Other places are finding success with famous-face-owned spirits by sending patrons home with a bit of celebrity.

Swanky’s Taco Shop, located in Memphis, Tenn., carries both Cabo Wabo and 901. There, management uses a “tequila of the month” promotion to offer specials on brands like these, and they recently gave away a logoed guitar from Cabo Wabo.

“Every time someone bought a drink with Cabo in it, his or her name was entered was in a drawing,” explains manager Matt Farmer. “The last Friday of the month, we gave away the guitar. We moved through four cases of Cabo that month.”

Whether through on-site appearances, signature drink promotions or simply a bit more chatter about your bar’s selection, hosting a celebrity-backed spirit on the back bar can be worth it — as long you’ve done your research. Stars may attract the crowds, but only quality will bring them back time and again. NCB

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