CHICAGO – It's been said that, sooner or later, we'll all get our 15 minutes of fame — and it might come with a drink.
From rock legends and movie idols to porn stars to pop icons, the number of celebrity-branded beverages has burgeoned as alcohol marketers seek to leverage our fame-obsessed culture into liquid gold. While the concept is hardly new — think Billy Beer — the trend has picked up over the past few years, as more stars lend their names to the chorus of booze.
It doesn't seem to matter if they're living or dead — or even out of the public eye: The names Marilyn Monroe and Jerry Garcia are used to sell wines from beyond the grave; the teetotal Donald Trump has his own vodka, as does Ed McMahon; Sammy Hagar just sold his Cabo Wabo tequila brand to Skyy Spirits; and Willie Nelson touts his Old Whiskey River bourbon, complete with a signed guitar pick attached to the neck of each bottle.
With a few notable exceptions, the industry's true behemoths have shied away from linking their goods too closely to unrelated celebrity. Of course, they really don't have to: After all, Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel are in many ways bigger household names than any star of today.
That has left much of the field to smaller, niche players, companies like Wilton, Conn.-based Drinks Americas, which has focused much of its business plan on a single premise, according to its chief executive, J. Patrick Kenny.
"Beverages are as much a fashion statement as clothing or music," he said. "We are founded on the concept that you can use an icon to generate trial and deliver to the consumer an experience more than the price point they paid for it."
Trump Vodka and Whiskey River are among the brands the company markets via "business partnerships" under which profit is split either with the star or a charity of his or her choice. It is busily readying to launch a cognac with a yet unnamed hip-hop star. Nor is it neglecting the softer side of the business, currently rolling out Newman's Own Lightly Sparkling Fruit Juice, the latest entry from the movie star turned food-and-beverage marketer.
"It's really a very simple business plan," Kenny said. "Coke (KO) and Pepsi (PEP) will tell you it takes tens of millions of dollars to establish a brand image, but with Trump and Willie Nelson you get instant brand recognition."
But does it sell? Dozens, maybe hundreds, of new beverage brands launch every year, and many, if not most, are doomed to fail. The marketplace has become incredibly crowded and unforgiving.
Kenny said that Trump has been a "phenomenal success" so far and is on track to move 100,000 cases in its first year — and at a superpremium price, no less.
Clos du Bois, now part of Fortune Brands' (FO) Beam Wine Estates, launched J. Garcia wine in 2003, and it has steadily built annual case sales to about 30,000, growing by 13 percent in each of the last two years.
"The brand made sense because it allows us to tap into a built-in consumer fan base," noted Sarah Devaney, a Beam spokeswoman. "There is a natural demographic overlay between Jerry Garcia's fans and core wine drinkers, both of which are centered in the baby-boomer generation."
Further, she said, while people may be attracted to the label or by the Garcia mystique, they come back for the wine itself: "Quality is what is responsible for the brand's current traction in the marketplace. ... It's excellent wine, and I think sometimes people are surprised to find that this is not a gimmick wine."
Still, some top people in the beverage industry remain skeptical. Asked if he would put his company's marketing muscle behind a celebrity beverage, Alain Barbet, head of Pernod Ricard USA , replied, "I can't say never, but brands are built on other core values than the name of the people on them. And celebrities can be fleeting. Look at Paris Hilton: She is now more of a liability than an asset."
That said, Barbet added that the company's wine unit offers a Mumm Napa Santana champagne that the legendary guitarist Carlos Santana helped create.
For Kim Jeffery, chief executive of Nestle Waters North America, "Paul Newman is really one of the very few people who can do this. Everybody knows all the money from his business is donated to charity. But he is an exception. How many people can replicate that? There is often too much hype, too much sizzle and no steak."
David Fleming, editor of the alcohol trade magazine Impact, said that "a lot of this has been really gimmicky. And these are kind of long shots. We certainly haven't seen one that's been a big success."
He did concede that "Trump seems to be serious about it. They are advertising a lot, and they are spending a lot. I guess it has a shot."
David Chamberlain, executive creative director at the advertising and marketing agency Gyro International in New York, is particularly taken with one new offering in this niche: Danny DeVito's Limoncello, which launched in late April.
"It sprang from when he was on 'The View' and turned up drunk out of his mind last year," Chamberlain said. That inebriated appearance on the ABC daytime show — supposedly after a night of living it up with fellow actor George Clooney and at least seven servings of the citrus-flavored Italian liqueur — generated scads of publicity.
"It was either marketing genius or a cheap and dirty trick, depending on whether it was premeditated," Chamberlain said.
Steve Kaiden, who owns the New York liquor store Winfield-Flynn Ltd., said he's found that celebrity brands can be a tough sell "unless they're priced to move," he said, explaining that "the ones that are $30 and under have a better shot."
His customers have become, he said, "a little wary. People who come in for a $30-plus bottle of wine aren't going to buy something that says 'J. Garcia.' If it is done right, it can be successful, but it some of these celebrities might be better served by just endorsing the product."
Still, he does sell a fair amount of Marilyn Merlot, a wine named for the late sex symbol.
"In that case," he said, "you are dealing with a celebrity that is (a) dead and (b) has a cult following that has gone on forever."
Copyright (c) 2007 MarketWatch, Inc.