Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Perils of Personality Brands

This column is not about the latest iteration of the Bulleit family tragedy, which has been ignited again by an article today in Neat Pour, in which Hollis Worth (née Bulleit) gives her first interview. Diageo, which owns Bulleit Bourbon and Rye, declined to comment for the article, as did Ms. Worth's father, Tom Bulleit.

All cards on the table, I know Tom Bulleit professionally. I have never met Hollis Worth. I haven't spoken to Tom in several years and we've never talked about his family.

My purpose in writing today is to look at another aspect of this, separate from the story itself, which is the risk any company takes when it ties a product or brand so closely to a living human being.

The most extreme example is Jared Fogle, principal spokesperson for the Subway sandwich chain from 2000 to 2015, when he was charged and convicted of sexual offenses against minors. Did Subway lose any business as a result? The company has struggled ever since Fogle's misdeeds became public. Starting in 2016, Subway has closed more stores each year than it has opened, for the first time in its history.

They can't blame all that on Fogle. Fast food is a brutal business and Subway's success spawned a flood of imitators.

Every situation is different. Fogle was never presented as anything other than a spokesperson. Mila Kunis has been the spokesperson for Jim Beam since 2014, a significant run, but if she got into some embarrassing trouble it's hard to imagine how the brand could be significantly damaged. Matthew McConaughey has been hawking Wild Turkey for about the same amount of time, and it's the same deal there. Both brands have their master distillers and other personalities. The risk is spread around.

A slightly different case might be made for newly-launched celebrity brands, such as Ryan Reynolds with Aviation Gin, Bryan Cranston with Dos Hombres Mezcal, or Bob Dylan with Heaven's Gate Whiskey. The only possible reason for a consumer to be interested in those brands is their interest in the celebrity owner. The celebrity is the brand.

In Diageo's case, the cautionary tale with Bulleit is be careful what you create out of thin air. Tom Bulleit is a real, living person and he really did create a bourbon brand named after himself. Hollis Worth is his daughter, also real and alive. That is about where the reality ends.

The Bulleit brand launched in 1995, via Buffalo Trace. That was a contract distilling arrangement, Tom Bulleit owned the brand. A few years later he sold it to Seagram's. They created the current bottle and brand story, including the legend of Tom Bulleit's ancestor, Augustus. Seagram's folded and the brand passed to Diageo in 1999-2000.

I've written about Bulleit many times over the years, starting with this one in 2008. Go here for more about the Augustus Bulleit origin story. Go here for a succinct summary of the actual Bulleit origin story.

In a very real sense, Diageo is hoist on its own petard, as they have gone to great lengths over 20-25 years to make Bulleit look like a family company, even though it's not. They took a name they liked because it was a homophone for 'bullet' and built an entirely fictional origin story around it involving currently living persons (and one dead one). They hired two of the living persons to front the brand throughout the industry, cast as founder and heir respectively. They overplayed the roles of those persons in the creation, making and marketing of the brand. As a result, Hollis Worth is very well known among bartenders, bar owners, and cocktail writers; and Tom Bulleit is very well known among distributors, retailers, and whiskey writers. They personify the brand.

You can do whatever you want with a dead or fictional person, but living people have real lives that can go awry and reflect negatively on the businesses with which they are associated, whether it's Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. It's something else again when you cast living people in fictional roles. The actual connection between the people and the brand is minimal, but the fictional connection is real enough to hurt you when something goes wrong.

Inevitably, the Bulleit family conflict is a problem for Diageo. How big a problem it is, and what Diageo will try to do about it, remains to be seen.


Christian Krogstad said...

Chuck, Aviation Gin is hardly a "newly-launched celebrity brand". It was around for ten years and selling well in many of the world's top cocktail bars before Ryan Reynolds bought into the brand, so consumers have many possible reasons to be interested in Aviation Gin that have absolutely nothing to do with celebrity. Its a great product on its own. The involvement of Reynolds as a "spokesman" merely brings media and social media attention to a product that is quite good, and relevant, on its own account. Maybe make some calls, do some more research, and make a correction? I know this one paragraph isn't a pivotal part of your overall thesis, but it is significant to me and some others.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The Aviation example may suit my thesis even better now, since the real owners of this existing brand are investing everything in "Ryan Reynolds, Owner," as the current advertising says.

Christian Krogstad said...

I'm not so much commenting on your thesis, so much as pointing out that some marketing company didn't generate Aviation Gin out of whole cloth, with Ryan Reynolds woven in at the get-go. It was around for years and well-respected for it's own innate qualities.

Chuck Cowdery said...

So the record shall now show.

NEAT News said...

Good article. Unfortunately the pariahs will continue to dig up dirt wherever they can. If it isn't dirty enough, fantasy can always step in to save the day for the smut writer. I am sure many celebrity spirits nervously wait for the disaster of their human.

morlock said...

I suggest, should Hollis have the enthusiasm for her legacy,
that, having been released from corporate thralldom,

she front for a bootstrap venture, eschewing debt load,
which pioneers craft / artisanal scale distillation

under a brand name drawn as directly as is marketable
from the spouse of Augustus B., her grandam,

with industry leading attention to staff equity in the enterprise
as has been scrupulously detailed in Artisan Spirit by Headframe
( Summer 2018 edition pg 32 )

and situate her undertaking, as near as affordable lease allows,
to short travel from the primary Bulleit tourist center &/or production facility.

Had I yacht-off-the-Monaco-coast fat stacks,
lamentably not the case,
I'd be delighted to underwrite such.

As it is, I'd probably part with a pittance
to a Kickstarter for sake of the poke in Diageo's eye,
as long as I got a " I stand with Hollis B." button for my centavos.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

There has actually been one "personality" whiskey I've been interested in buying. One of these days, I may actually spring for Heaven's Door Tennessee Bourbon. But the reason has very little to do with Bob Dylan.

From what I've read, the bourbon is most likely from George Dickel. I've been a lifelong fan of Dickel. This is an age stated bottle that gets very solid reviews. So, if I can get it on sale, I'll probably jump on it. Now if it was from a celebrity I didn't like, I might think not have even checked it out. But Bob's OK, mostly. Never understood those IBM commercials, though.

Unknown said...

A swing and a miss of an article. Ouch.

Anonymous said...

Enough, non-news from fake distillers about their fake products. Let's move on.

I had a long conversation in my distillery (yeah, a real distillery) the other day, with a retired chemical engineer from NASA. We were talking about blending, and he was of the opinion that by now the technology exits for large brands to hit representative sample favors of aged whiskey (say Makers 46, with A.I. programs and mass spectrometers.

I disagreed and opined that the last bastion of the "master distillers" was their expertise as blenders. That no distillery has yet (announced or otherwise) gone all the way from mash loading to bottling, with the push of a button and no human interaction (other than of course marketing slight of hand).

What say you ?

Richard Turner said...

I say: 'Sleight of hand'.....

Chuck Cowdery said...

It's not outrageous to predict that distilleries, at least whiskey distilleries, will continue to have humans performing organoleptic evaluation at various points in the process. Most food and beverage manufacturers do that. Maybe someday we will have cyber-tongues, but that's a long way off.