When Phillips Distilling Co. launched Phillips Union Whiskey, it hoped to introduce a drink that was as palatable as vodka.
The brand, a blend of Kentucky bourbon and Canadian whiskey that is also available in cherry and vanilla flavors, was also about changing attitudes toward whiskey by creating a flavored product in a category that is generally seen as staid.
"The basic premise was that whiskey as a product is very old and tired," says president Dean Phillips, who points out that most whiskey brands are named after old, dead men. "The idea was to basically modernize and, most importantly, introduce women to whiskey."
StrategyRebecca Herbst, an account supervisor at Olson, notes that an analysis of the whiskey industry's marketing campaigns found common messages about heritage and tradition that focused on men, even as women comprise about 36% of whiskey drinkers.
Phillips is family-owned, but the company decided to steer clear of that image. Instead, it borrowed some of the tactics from its launch of the high-end Belvedere vodka.
"Spirits are very much like handbags or automobiles or jewelry," Phillips says. "It's influence that generally drives success."
The PR team, therefore, decided to put the drink into the hands of trendsetters, including celebrities and bartenders.
The company packaged Phillips Union in distinctive smoked Plexiglas cases, which it sent to about 200 celebrities, along with a high-end flask. "That packaging really fit [trendsetters'] lifestyle," Herbst says.
Adds Phillips: "It's more than the product now, it's the presentation. That was the 'a-ha' moment."
Sampling opportunities were then identified at celebrity parties, awards shows, movie premieres, and art galas.
The PR team reached out to fashion magazines, spirits trade titles, and major dailies, often pitching editors in the same demographic as the target audiences.
It also held deskside media briefings, where it conducted blind taste tests against Jack Daniel's and Maker's Mark. Herbst says the tests were particularly important because many people cringed at the thought of flavored whiskey. The tests also helped showcase Phillips Union as "the world's smoothest whiskey."
Media samples were packaged in "books" featuring the "next chapter of the whiskey revolution."
The effort garnered support from a number of celebrities, including Teri Hatcher, Justin Timberlake, Renee Zellweger, and Nelly. Kid Rock also created buzz for the brand when he chugged the whiskey straight from the bottle at the Cannes Film Festival.
In addition, Phillips Union captured 62 million gross media impressions, 95% of which included the "smooth" message, according to Olson.
The company sold 16,000 cases during the first six months of the launch and is on track to double its yearly sales target.
The PR team will continue to educate consumers about Phillips Union Whiskey. In addition, it is extending the campaign through a new Web site and through grassroots tactics to target the less obvious influencers.
PR team: Phillips Distilling Co. (Minneapolis) and Olson (Minneapolis)
Campaign: Launch of Phillips Union Whiskey
Duration: June to December 2005
Budget: Less than $100,000
The PR team behind the Phillips Union launch recognized that whiskey commands a larger market than vodka, but is marketed with a narrower focus. By zeroing in on these untapped audiences, the company was able to not only compete with the industry's current leaders, but also create new whiskey fans. The PR team similarly realized that it didn't need to market whiskey like whiskey. Trendsetters and celebrities want a product that's stylish - not one that's tired and stodgy. Yet the campaign was more than just hype; it also needed to get influencers to try the product and get past their initial skepticism about flavored whiskey.