Observations on Brand Loyalty
When you work behind a bar one of the key things to do, to develop a loyal clientele, is remember peoples drinks. The surprising thing to me is not that my head has a database of hundreds of drinks and customers faces, but the fact that these people rarely ever change what they drink. Is it proper to go through life only drinking one brand of whisky? Is it ok to only drink a dry Grey Goose martini, up with a twist and never deviate? The other thing about brand loyalty is that it seems to apply to spirits and beer, but not wine. What is the psychological reason for this brand loyalty and if bartenders could break it, would it be good for the cocktail world.
Back when I was in college I was a brand loyalist. I liked Labatt’s Blue which was my beer of choice, probably because of marketing and single syllable name. Easily pronounced beers are best when you drink a lot because the bartender will understand you no matter what your intoxication level; “give me a Blue” or “give me a Bud” are a couple of good examples. But I eventually grew up and opened my mind to the hundreds of bottles that grace beer stores every where. I also started to appreciate good spirits.
At the current time I’m not loyal to any particular brand, but I do have preferences. I like Havana Club rum in cocktails and I like Forty Creek whisky in my Manhattans, but if someone offered me a Wiser’s Very Old I would happily take them up on the offer. One thing is for sure though, and it’s that I like premium spirits over rail spirits. Part of the reason is that I love to try new spirits and beers, much to my wife’s dismay. If I spot something shiny and new at the liquor store I’ll usually end up buying it at some point. Why? Because it might offer something exceptional that I’ve never experienced. It’s all about curiosity, exploring and the experience. To me spirits are like wine, each new bottle has something unique to offer.
For many people, liquor and beer are something that they define themselves with. If I say Jack Daniels, what image comes to mind of the person who drink this? For me it’s bikers in black. If I say Remy Martin XO cognac, you might think stuffy old guy, or hip hop artist. Like many manufactures, spirit companies try to define their market and appeal to a certain demographic. Brand loyalty is good for business, but not for life experiences. Crown Royal seems to be pushing the NASCAR demographic with their recent advertising campaign. Sure this opens up a new market for Crown Royal, but does it alienate another? Probably not, but it is the advertising that defines the product, not the stuff in the bottle. Remember Crown Royal was originally produced for royalty and NASCAR fans are a little different than royalty.
Wine doesn’t have this problem because each vintage year is different. Some vineyards have developed a reputation for producing great wines, but production is generally limited on a world wide scale, so oenophiles are forced to try new wines, because not every restaurant or liquor store will stock it. This openness about trying a bottle of something you’ve never heard of, and maybe paying a princely sum for it, is outstanding. Why can’t these people drink cocktails more often?
There are a couple of issues with opening peoples minds. First, people are naturally lazy, and we hate fighting inertia. It is easy to order a Crown and Coke, it doesn’t take any thinking and you know what you are getting. Also, the fact that many bartenders are pushy and want your drink order “Now!” which makes browsing the spirit selection a bit daunting. It seems people have a default setting and if someone pushes you, an automatic response is initiated: “Crown & Coke”. One other problem is that many bars stock way too few spirits. But that is changing with the realization of the super and ultra premium back bars. The final problem is the “association” of product to image. If you drink Jack Daniels you may be perceived as “tough”, if you drink cognac you’ll be sophisticated or snooty and if you are a guy drinking Hipnotiq on the rocks, well then, I’m proud of you for drinking what you like.
The best way to get people to try new things is to “up sell”. There are some great bartenders who will make suggestions, or in corporate speak “up sell”, for the benefit of the customer. This can be substituting a different spirit into a cocktail or just suggesting a better cocktail. But, this is very dependant on the establishment and the management. A well stocked bar is key to break brand loyalty and breaking the owners brand loyalties are also important. But most importantly, and this is for bartenders, don’t be so pushy. If you are busy just check with the customer politely, if they are still thinking, move on to the next customer, and then go back afterward. Don’t huff and puff and make it like it’s the end of the world. Let people enjoy what the bar has to offer.