Saturday, May 5, 2018

Marketing Heaven's Door: Bob Dylan's Foray into the Whiskey Business

The masters of every field of endeavor set themselves apart by the attention to detail. As the saying goes, ideas are a dime a dozen. A good idea and a buck will get you a cup of coffee. For true artists it's all about execution, and attention to detail.

This past week Bob Dylan introduced a new line of whiskey called Heaven's Door. As a career marketing guy I was immediately struck by how nearly perfect this new product launch has been executed. What follows are some of my observations about this latest turn in the Dylan saga.

In digital marketing parlance, a landing page is a section of a website accessed by clicking a hyperlink on another web page, typically the website's home page. It enables digital advertising to direct prospects to a specific location that is uncluttered by other messages so the page can address the task at hand: selling.

For this reason, you do not direct whiskey prospects to the Home page because they might be confused there, seeing (at this moment in time) a large photo of Dylan during his Gospel phase with arms raised, singing about Jesus and preaching the Word. In a little while the home page will feature his next Bootleg Series, Volume 14... but for now we have Trouble No More "above the fold" as it were.

The landing page at Dylan's website, itself a first-class, content-rich website, has numerous special features that could be used as a textbook example of how to roll out a new product line. Let's examine this page and see what it tells us.

First, you see a fantastic action shot of a grinder throwing sparks serving as a backdrop to the beauty shot featuring the gorgeous packaging on these three new lines of whiskey. The industrial image has direct ties to Dylan's roots, raised as he was on the Iron Range, as well as to his late-in-life attraction to metal sculpture, constructions made from discarded iron that had no doubt been mined from the red iron mining pits of the Northland. Note the lighting as well. This was not a photo generated in Photoshop. It was meticulously crafted and lit so as to amplify the richness of the products themselves. You can almost taste it.

The designs on the bottles are Dylan's welded ironwork gates, serving as graphic elements as distinctive as the "Bat's Over Barstow" imagery that Ralph Steadman generated to define Hunter S. Thompson's look. The design not only pops, it also resonates with lifelong themes associated with Dylan's work. Workingman's Blues #10 comes to mind, as does North Country Blues.

And then there's the Name. What a perfect name. All of Dylan's ambiguity is contained in this product name, as it implies Heaven on Earth, but could imply Death's Door, another brand of spirits. After a lifetime of hearing Dylan sing "Knock knock knockin' on Heaven's Door" every Dylan fan will hear the echoes in this name. A line from a much later song also comes to mind... "I'm trying to get to Heaven before they close the door." (Time Out Of Mind, 1997)

Cropped and rotated.
That logo has panache, is likewise a primo design. Every company has its company colors. Twitter is associated with Blue. MacDonald's has its bright yellow Golden Arches. A number of companies have the classic All-American colors of red, white an blue. Dylan's gold is a burnished gold set against a black background that bespeaks of richness, thereby connecting with the flavors he's inviting you to experience. The logo design also has the feel of antiquity, implying ancient secrets involved in the development of these concoctions.

Scroll down a few inches and the announcement appears, uncluttered and straightforward: Heaven's Door Whiskey Is Here. It has arrived. As if we've been waiting for it all our lives, even though most of us never knew it was even coming.

Below the headline we have another fabulous image, and an endorsement by Mr Dylan himself. "We wanted to create a collection of American whiskeys that, in their own way, tell a story."

Let's break this down. The roots of modern advertising go back to Claude Hopkins' classic Scientific Advertising, a ground-breaking book on advertising that changed the face of modern advertising. What's the story? What is the unique selling proposition? What's the story?

Not only does the Heaven's Door product line itself have a story that flows out from Dylan's "American experience" dug up from American soil, but each of these unique products in the product line has a story, he tells us.

One of the features of Dylan's songwriting has been his storytelling ability. "Tangled Up In Blue" immediately comes to mind, as does "Scarlet Town" as does "Hard Rain."

Story telling is as old as humanity. The Exodus. The stories of the Patriarchs. "God said to Abraham..."

We're still working our way down the page here because the quote is in the upper left corner of a photo of Mr. Dylan reading a book, glass in hand, lit by a single light from above. He is attentive to what he is reading and, by the way, has a great drink in his hand. He's wearing his trademark bowtie, white shirt with black buttons, seemingly oblivious to the photographer, the studio, the outside world, enjoying a pair of diversions. It is a picture that itself tells a story.

The photo is 47kb so that the page loads fast. Digital marketers know that the longer the image takes to load, the more likely web surfers will leave beforehand, resulting in high bounce rates. The photo is just one more piece of information in the sale. It must load fast and communicate quickly, and this one does. It's beautiful. The chair is leather and like everything here it's chic, speaks of class.

This is advertising copy. It has only one aim: to draw you in and to encourage you to follow the three links at the bottom of a relatively short page. It's one paragraph in length, "right on target, so direct."

Heaven’s Door – a collection of American Whiskeys developed in collaboration with Bob Dylan and renowned craft distillers, will be available in May. Years in the making, the inaugural trilogy of expressions includes a Tennessee Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Double Barrel Whiskey and Straight Rye Whiskey finished in oak barrels from Vosges, France, air-dried for 3 years. The perfect blend of art and craft, each bottle showcases Dylan’s distinctive welded iron gates that he created in his metalworking studio, Black Buffalo Ironworks.

Robert Zimmerman in The Hematite, his high school yearbook.
The kid done good.
Power words include American, trilogy, Bob Dylan, renowned craft distillers, Tennessee Straight Bourbon, Double Barrel, Straight Rye, oak barrels from Vosges France, air-dried for 3 years, perfect blend, distinctive, and Black Buffalo Ironworks.

That's it. And then we have links. The first goes to the Heaven's Door website, which immediately corresponds to the look and feel of this intro page. Here we have almost no words at all, a story in pictures, which if you scroll through lead you to beautiful close up shots of the three products, below which are two options--"Read More" or "Order."

The URL is memorable: No doubt the marketing team had to purchase this URL since such a great name would not have been lying idle. I suspect, too, that whoever owned it was paid well for this piece of web real estate. I know a couple people who in the earlier days of the Internet would purchase URLs as investments to later sell for a profit. It's one of the ways Capitalism moved into cyberspace.

The second link jumps to a New York Times article about the new product line titled Bob Dylan's Latest Gig: Making Whiskey. The article includes a pair of publicity shots that are clearly staged but aim to look "natural." The latter features Heaven's Door executive Marc Bushala and Ryan Perry who are the actual people running the Heaven's Door enterprise. The article, based on information the Heaven's Door marketing team generated to help inform media, also has the appropriate measure of authenticity to feel like a news story and not a straight up puff piece, though to some extent a cynic could see it this way.

The final link takes you to a New York Times taste test by Clay Risen. (First thought: Is this a stage name? I mean, the "first Adam" was made of clay and we're talking here about Heaven's Door, opened by the "Second Adam.") But a quick Google search reveals that Risen is a pro journalist specializing in this category, has written about spirits for The Atlantic, Smithsonian and The Washington Post. Risen is a serious taste tester who knows the lingo, no doubt enjoys discovering all the nuances in a blend. ("The palate opens with a soft cocoa and buttercream note, then sharpens toward black pepper and cigar tobacco.")

* * * *
The Four P's of Marketing
If you've ever studied marketing in school or been in marketing yourself, you're no doubt familiar with the 4 P's of marketing: Price, Product, Promotion, Place. It waits to be seen how the rest of the rollout will unfold, but the look and feel of these initial paces has a measured classiness that's not entirely out of line with Dylan's persona. It waits to be seen how the product will be rolled out in the B2B marketing so that it ends up in stores. What we have here is the essential prep and PR.

This Grub Street article is a dialogue between four taste testers giving their own impressions of what these three whiskeys are like. It's a fun read, but it begins with a reminder that Dylan is not the first celeb to introduce a high end line of spirits. There's a hint of cynicism in some of the comments. For example, one taste tester says, "It doesn't seem like something he would do." And later, one says they thought Bob was more of a wine guy.

All this begs the question, what is the probability of success here? The odds are pretty good.

The initial response amongst Dylan fans may have been surprise, but not uncool. It's authentic enough to feel like Dylan, to reflect his character, both his roots and what he's become. It's not hard to imagine a certain number of Dylan fans purchasing the products even if they're not whiskey drinkers, just to have it in their liquor cabinets.

As for the photos, though, I can't help but think of the photo shoot in Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation with Bill Murray as a fading superstar endorsing a whiskey.

If nothing else, it has people talking.

Product, Price, Place, Promotion: The Four P's of Marketing
Bob Dylan: Content Marketing King 
The Bob Dylan Marketing Machine
Forbes: Music Icon Wins Rave Reviews for His Luxury Spirits
The Forbes & Grub Street links were found at ExpectingRain, courtesy Laura Leivick  

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Engage it.

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