The Sledgehammer

Great Vodka? Nah, Just Great Marketing

May 21, 2020

At any given time, there are 200+ actual sledgehammers present in the Heartbeat office. To celebrate their first year on the team, each HB’er receives their very own sledge—a nod to our daily pursuit of tearing down tiresome healthcare marketing. To determine what is built in its place, we often turn to outside industries, cultural forces, and personal experiences. We eagerly share them with one another, and now we’re sharing them with you. Clear the way—here comes The Sledgehammer.

The vast majority of vodka, by definition, has no unique individual character; in fact, the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Code legally mandates that it must be made “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” The process consists of simply concentrating alcohol in a fermented substance and taking out all of the other stuff until you have almost pure ethanol. Just add water to make it 80 proof. Other kinds of liquor—bourbon, tequila, etc.—are made with the purpose of retaining character. Vodka? The distillation process removes character. So, quite literally, many vodkas are the same.

Yet, marketing makes us think otherwise. Take Grey Goose, the presumed best-of-the-best, who market their product as masterfully distilled and distinctively luxe, made with ingredients like “the softest wheat from Picardie” and “the purest spring water from Gensac-la-Pallue.” Oh la la!

In a great segment from Planet Money, the podcast’s hosts tested what makes any one vodka supposedly better than others. They did a chemical analysis of three vodkas to see which had the most propanol, which is the stuff that you don’t want creeping into your vodka because it tastes like nail polish remover. The vodkas put to the test were:

1. Grey Goose
2. Home-mixed vodka, using the highest-grade vodka base
3. A cheap bottom-shelf offering from the liquor store

The winner? #3, the cheap stuff! And the loser? Fancy-pants Grey Goose. Yet they’re still laughing all the way to the bank as the best-selling vodka in 2019. That’s marketing!

What does this have in common with pharma? A lot. The life sciences industry is full of brands that are hard to differentiate. More drugs are crowding spaces where clinical differentiators are barely there or even non-existent. And while the liquor industry feels like the antithesis of the pharma industry, booze can actually impart some valuable marketing lessons:

  • Claim it and own it: Tito’s vodka is gluten free! But news flash, folks: nearly all unflavored, non-wheat-derived vodka is gluten free (and these vodkas, usually distilled from corn or potatoes, make up a large chunk of the market). Tito’s simply did the best job aggressively promoting their gluten-free status: Google “gluten free vodka” and you’ll see Tito’s running paid search. They’ve become the de facto gluten-free vodka.
  • Hyper-target a segment: Would you believe that Jägermeister wasn’t always for partiers? Historically, it was a digestif imbibed by elderly German people, and before the 1980s, Jäger’s sales were only a few hundred cases a year. But they made the strategic decision to become the drink of choice for young, rowdy bar-hoppers, skillfully executing their plan with nightlife event sponsorships, bartender partnerships, promotional teams at clubs, and more… and now they’re selling millions of cases a year.
  • Partner up: What do people mix with Jack Daniel’s? It’s no accident that, 9 times out of 10, the answer is Coke; Jack Daniel’s marketed “Jack & Coke” heavily. Sometimes two brands are better than one.
  • Make it a lifestyle: What do you drink if you’re the most interesting man in the world? Dos Equis, of course. What does this campaign say about how the taste of Dos Equis compares to the taste of other beers? Nothing. But who cares? If you drink Dos Equis, you’ll be the most interesting man in the world, too!

Whether the product being sold is a cocktail ingredient or a cure for a disease, it’s a marketer’s job to make choosing their brand a no-brainer. Pharma consumers may not be buying litres of their prescriptions, but clever approaches to differentiation can help Challenger brands in highly competitive spaces nab the preferred shelf of the medicine cabinet.