smirnoff vodka brandingBrand experience is a pretty elusive concept: we know it when we see it, we know it’s important… but what is it? In the alcohol industry, the experience of a product and the culture around a specific brand is especially salient. Let’s take a look at a few lessons that businesses might take from this particular niche of branding.

Perception is Key

A vodka connoisseur might be able to do a blind taste test and cite the difference between Smirnoff, Ketel One, and Popov, but years of countless vodka taste tests have shown that most consumers can’t really tell the difference. Yet, we all know someone who orders by brand at the bar (I’ll be honest, I often do), and we all have different associations with different brands of alcohol.

Why? All of these brands have successfully targeted a very specific niche of the market, and have run campaign after campaign to develop a very specific image and gain brand loyalty. Regardless of your industry, take this first lesson to heart: good branding is the difference between distinguishing yourself from the competition and fading into the crowd.

Price Influences Taste

In an oft-cited study from 2008, researchers at Cal Tech and Stanford found that test subjects who tasted the same wine, but were told that it cost different amounts, rated the “high-priced” wine significantly higher in terms of taste than the “cheap” one. And this wasn’t just survey rating; the difference was clear even on fMRI brain scans.

The price of a product influences a consumer’s perception of it. Now, does that mean that you should jack up your prices and expect to see rave reviews and vastly increased income? No, of course not – the laws of supply and demand and market value still apply. That said, consider pricing as part of your overall scheme. A slightly higher price that it still within reasonable range may help you brand your product or service as “premium.”

Context Matters

Forbes recently reported on a rum brand, Brugal, that is seeking to market itself as that liquor’s equivalent to vodka’s Absolut or tequila’s Patron. Brugal’s brand director made a very interesting point about product context and branding: rum has not seen the type of premium branding that other liquors have enjoyed because of the context in which it is typically consumed. Think about it: while you might drink an Absolut martini at a business dinner, you probably wouldn’t order a strawberry daiquiri. Even a rum and Coke might be pushing you into frat boy territory.

What does this mean in other industries? The context of your product or service needs to shape your branding. Those in highly professional industries like finance or law will likely brand themselves with a more polished image, but someone in backyard fence construction might want to take a more “trustworthy local business” approach.

Mainstream Can Look Indie

That said, there’s some flexibility. If you think the size of your business or your financial success needs to dictate how well you can market to those looking for intimate, local service, think again. Just look at the beer industry. Countless brands that consumers perceive as “craft beer” or “microwbrew” – Blue Moon, Sierra Nevada, Shock Top, among others – are actually owned by industry giants like SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch.

So, even if you’re a larger company, you can still push specific products and services with a small-time, indie sort of feel. If you can pull it off without looking phony, this is a fantastic way to ride the hipster wave and appeal to younger crowds (or just those seeking to have a “more refined” taste).

Sharing Key to Experience

Finally, consider the alcohol industry’s focus on sharing the experience of a brand. No one wants to be the person sitting alone at the bar or, even worse, drinking alone at home. Most alcohol campaigns focus on bringing people together.

Social media marketing expert Brian Solis recently answered some questions about the shared brand experience, and what that means. Essentially, your whole marketing campaign should focus on that same mission of bringing individuals together, only instead of sharing a toast, they’re sharing the overall image of your brand. So make sure to create sharable content that your consumers will want to blog, tweet, post, like, and otherwise talk about with their family, friends, and colleagues.

Can you think of any other tips that marketers can take from the alcohol industry? Share them in the comments section!