Fireball: Stealth to Sellout?

In alcohol today, authenticity sells and everyone’s buying it. But what exactly is authenticity? Webster’s definition involves “genuine,” “not copied” and “true and accurate.” The alcohol brands that start out focused on their authenticity, and build the consumer connection around it, win. Quite often, their go-to-market process involves little to no marketing budget, whether due to necessity or a desire to simply fly under the radar and engage consumers more personally. These stealth brands are among the fastest-growing products in spirits, wine and beer.

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky is the latest stealth brand to hit it big. Rather than drive brand awareness via a sizable ad budget, Fireball’s marketers at Sazerac brazenly borrowed a page from Jägermeister’s early playbook and connected with young consumers in key markets (read: college towns) by personally handing out shots in local bars. Fireball also avails itself of a tool Jäger could not back in the day: social media. From Facebook to Twitter to Instagram, consumers and ambassadors alike keep fanning the flames around Fireball. The brand grew from 145,000 9-liter cases in 2010 to 3 million in 2014, according to SpiritsTAB.

At a time when craft, artisan, organic and other such terms are key authenticity cues, what’s authentic about Fireball? Simple: it is exactly what it presents itself to be, a “challenge” shot of whisky with a fierce cinnamon kick. Nothing more, nothing less. And it never deviates on said promise in its messaging, whether the delivery vehicle is a brand ambassador in a bar, a Facebook post, a T-shirt or an in-store merchandiser.

Now Fireball is facing competition. Cinge, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire and Black Velvet Cinnamon Rush are among those looking to tap into the cinnamon whiskey shot trend. Several have fairly strong momentum, but can they replicate the connection Fireball forged with consumers around those initial in-person experiences and that “in the know” feeling consumers get when discovering firsthand a brand that’s not splattered all over mainstream media outlets?

The other question around Fireball is when it will either sell out or burn out. At what point will the competition heat up enough to force Sazerac to allocate marketing and advertising dollars to protect its sizable share of shot glass? Sazerac eschews spending any money on traditional marketing, so the likely answer is never. By the time the Fireball trend cools, as most flavor trends eventually do, Sazerac will already be incubating its next stealth brand and is likely already doing so (perhaps a straight whiskey?). As long as authenticity is part of the brand DNA – essentially, just being genuine – the odds of success are good, not only for Sazerac, but for any adult beverage brand, bar or restaurant drink program or retail store offering.

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Donna Hood Crecca

A veteran of the foodservice industry, Donna Hood Crecca leads the firm’s Convenience Store Practice and is active in its Adult Beverage Practice. She develops research-based insights and recommendations for leading and emerging supplier and operator companies to enhance their go-to-market and product development programs and strategies.

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