For two nights in October, an old-timey emporium suddenly popped up at the Cyclorama, a historic building in downtown Boston. Overnight Hendrick’s Gin created a magical world from scratch, inviting hundreds of Bostonians to experience, taste, and observe weird, delightful things.
At the event, you entered a curiosity shop where you could play with taxidermy, ancient magician’s manuals, and old photos that looked just a little bit odd. A shopkeeper in an elaborate, bustled dress took you through a secret passageway in the bookcases where you finally arrived at the party. There, something fun was happening in every corner: An in-house limerick writer was crafting poems on demand, a tightrope walker was tiptoeing on a row of Hendrick’s bottles, and everybody was tippling delicious old-fashioned cocktails.
Had you died and gone to hipster heaven? Not quite. The branding experts at Hendrick’s Gin have developed piercing insights into what makes today’s hipster’s tick. Hipsters have increasingly sophisticated sensibilities, finding ways to express their individuality by discovering beautiful, idiosyncratic clothing, music, and art from the past. Hipsters have always been into vintage, but lately, bartenders in trendy neighborhoods have had a decidedly Victorian sensibility, sporting waxed handlebar mustaches, pinstripe vests, and pocket watches.
Hendrick’s Emporium of the Unusual was designed with this quirky consumer in mind. The brand has made itself an expert on hipster culture, observing it with an almost anthropological fascination."Our target is driven by curiosity," says Hendrick’s senior brand manager Kirsten Walpert. "They are a bit provocative and daring; they love to discover new things and share these discoveries with friends. They are a little bit outside of the ordinary so mainstream brands might not be able to capture them."
Hendrick's, meanwhile, clearly has: William Grant & Sons, the Scottish distiller that owns the brand, as well as other higher-end liquors, such as Glenfiddich whiskey, saw its operating profit jump 10.6% last year. According to the Scotsman newspaper, when noting the sales spike the company "highlighted the 'phenomenal success' of Hendrick’s gin, which it said had been built on 'word of mouth and careful nurturing of the brand.'"
Walpert tells me that Hendrick’s strategically targets consumers based on psychographic qualities that relate to their attitudes and lifestyles, rather than demographics. The gin-slingers attract drinkers who veer away from mainstream brands, are attracted to the exotic, have a knowledge of culture and history, and have a high disposable income. This approach means that Hendrick’s has loyal drinkers from all age groups, but the vast majority of their consumers tends to be young city dwellers in their twenties and thirties. "We’ve grown through these urban hipster environments," Walpert says. "You find us in these trendy and cultured communities where people care about things like craft cocktails."
Much like it’s target demographic, Hendrick’s Gin is itself fairly young—launched only in 1999 in Scotland, though the company's website tells a longer, more colorful history—but it has found a way to embody vintage qualities. The drink comes in a dark, medicinal bottle that hearkens back to an apothecary right out of a Dickens novel. It also has a unique, botanical flavor profile, brimming with cucumber and rose petal. Hendrick’s played a part in revitalizing the gin category, transcending the stodgy gin and tonic to become a key ingredient in craft cocktails. The brand prides itself on appealing to a small community of consumers with discerning tastes. It’s motto: "It is not for everyone."
Companies trying to reach the hipster market have always been trapped in a Catch-22. The minute you become too popular, you lose them. Then there’s the fact that hipsters hate obvious marketing. Anything with a broad, general appeal is by definition too unsophisticated for their tastes. Products in Super Bowl ads will never find their way into hipster homes.
"Hipsters don’t respect money, they respect art," says C.C. Chapman, marketing expert and founder of social good consultancy Never Enough Days. "There’s a certain level of craftsmanship that goes into brands that matters to the hipster market. They buy into brands that have put effort into crafting their own story and identity." So brands like Hendrick’s must find creative ways to break into trendy, urban subcultures.
One way that Hendrick’s manages this is by showing up at cultural events that hipsters appreciate. Consider the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, for instance. It is an unusual space that explores the intersections of death and beauty, full of objects like natural history specimens, medical wax models, and artistic symbols of death from around the world. At museum events—which range from classes on anthropomorphic mouse taxidermy to lively academic talks to singles parties—Hendrick’s often creates speciality cocktails for guests, introducing the gin to new audiences who already intuitively understand the brand’s aesthetic. Then, interest in Hendrick’s spreads by word of mouth, from hipster to hipster, each one feeling like they have discovered it for the first time.
These kinds of partnerships often spring up organically. Hendrick’s employees are well versed in the brand’s hard-to-describe identity and can immediately sense if another company might be a good match. In the case of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, someone at Hendrick’s just happened to befriend the museum’s creative director, Joanna Ebenstein, which has led to an ongoing partnership. It is through similarly serendipitous means that Hendrick’s began to sponsor live events for Atlas Obscura, a travel website that showcases unusual, little-known destinations from around the world. The site has a small readership, but tends to attract tastemakers from the literary set: David Plotz recently left his position as Slate’s editor-in-chief to become the site’s chief executive.
"We’re always looking for really unique partners that share our philosophy of being unpredictable and provide experiences that most brands can’t replicate," says Walpert. "It’s a rare thing to find, so we like to keep these relationships going and nurture them."
Hendrick’s has borrowed a page from the Pabst Blue Ribbon playbook. PBR, as the beer brand is lovingly known by cool consumers around the country, was on the verge of extinction in the late 1990s. It had once been the favored drink of working-class Americans, but by the 1970s, Pabst sales figures had been in steady decline.
Then, something odd happened. Pabst executives noticed that the brand started to pick up in unlikely urban markets, like Portland and Pittsburgh, without any effort on the company’s part. It turns out that hipsters around the country were drawn to the beer’s lowbrow roots: It signaled a total rejection of the yuppie households they were raised in. They had grown up watching their parents throw bougie wine and cheese parties; as an act of rebellion, they wanted to spend their Friday nights at dive bars where you could buy Pabst for a buck.
Around 2003, Pabst Brewing Company decided to leverage this grassroots interest in the brand, but since it didn’t have much of an advertising budget, it sent ambassadors to hipster bars, art galleries, and music venues to gently spreading the word. This approach, borne out of necessity, was exactly what these anti-establishment consumers were looking for. Had the company been more aggressive in its marketing, hipsters would have thought PBR was selling out and would have gotten over the brand quicker than you could say Arcade Fire.
Over the last decade, PBR has continued to remain popular in hipster watering holes from Oakland to Williamsburg. Sustaining this growth without alienating customers has been a delicate task, Matt Slessler, a Pabst marketing manager, tells me. The company still relies heavily on sending employees into the field to deepen roots in cool neighborhoods, staying clear of traditional advertising campaigns. For this strategy to work, Pabst hires field marketers who are exactly like their target consumer, that is to say: hipsters.
"It involves building brand activators of true hipster, but never ever calling them that," says Karen Post, a branding expert and author of Brand Turnaround. "They identify the influencers, but don’t sell them out. "
These relationships sometimes lead to official sponsorship opportunities: Consumers might ask Pabst to support a small music show or a skateboarding competition. A field rep might notice a beloved local bartender has broken his leg and the bar is taking up a collection to help him out; Pabst is willing to donate to personal causes like this. And this kind of goodwill has a profound impact on consumers. "You can’t really fast-forward love from this subculture: You have to earn it and stay true to your brand promises," says Post. Slessler has amassed a collection of photos customers have shared with him of their PBR tattoos. "I don’t know of any other beer brand that people feel so connected with that they are willing to tattoo the logo on their bodies," he says.
Hendrick’s is also building a loyal cult following, but it appeals to a slightly different segment of hipsterdom. Today, the hipster universe is more complex than ever with a range of different, overlapping subcultures. There are the domestic hipsters, who have a chicken or two on their urban farm and spend their weekends knitting or tanning leather. Then there are the fixed-gear hipsters who bike around town with their messenger bags and optional ironic trucker hats. And let’s not forget the nerdy hipsters with their thick-rimmed glasses, tweed outfits, and optional ironic pocket protector. Within these communities, aesthetic sensibilities are constantly changing, so brands interested in reaching them need to be tuned in to their current obsessions. Hipsters are notoriously fickle and a faux pas can quickly get a company branded uncool.
While PBR has made itself an institution among grungier hipster types, the secret to Hendrick’s enduring appeal is how it constantly plays into hipster’s fascination with things that are both vintage and idiosyncratic. The brand has invented an elaborate world full of playful, unusual things that they have never seen before. After all, gin is just a drink; what brings it to life is the magical associations that consumers bring to it from events they may have attended. "We want our consumers not just to enjoy the terrific taste of our cocktails, but to jump into our brand’s world, which is a unique and special place," says Walpert. "This world has such a rich look and feel, we find ways to nurture and bring it to life each year."
For its most recent trick, Hendrick’s released a special limited-edition Kanarancuni gin made with scorpion tail sourced from Venezuela. To celebrate the launch, Hendrick’s had a spectacular garden party with experts dressed in safari hats and khaki suits introducing guests to exotic flowers, foods, and drinks. Snakes and scorpions were on display for the slightly more daring. Hendrick’s master distiller, Lesley Gracie, told tales of her intrepid and most perilous quest deep into the heart of the Venezuelan rainforest. It was enough to entice even the most seen-it-all, blasé hipster.