The ins and outs of wrapping your brand in the flag.
Rogue Ales was recently told to bag the flag on its American Amber Ale. This spring, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) ordered the Oregon brewery to stop using the American flag on its beer taps, pint glasses, posters, t-shirts and even on its delivery truck, which was painted with the Stars and Stripes.
According to U.S. Code Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8, Item I: “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.”
Rogue says news media and beer fans across the country picked up on the TTB directive, surprised that the government was singling out the “little guy.” But the brewery’s chief executive officer Jack Joyce says they were quick to abide by it.
“Mine is not to reason why, mine is but to comply,” he says.
Joyce explains that the American Amber name and the brew’s promotional materials, which featured an illustration of an Uncle Sam-inspired character against a waving backdrop of the flag, originated as an educational tack.
“It was before microbreweries became popular,” he says, “so the point was to say ‘this isn’t Euro-style, this is American style’.”
Eventually, he explains, everyone came to know that American brewers were as creative as their German and English ancestors. “But, we just kept the name.”
The TTB’s order, though, meant Rogue’s American Amber point of sale materials and premiums had to go.
The bottle label was given the green light because it didn’t include an actual image of the flag, but the brewery switched out the “banned” graphics and worked out an agreement to give away some of the remaining flag-bearing merchandise at a ceremony welcoming the Oregon National Guard from Iraq. Rogue even developed a commemorative beer bottle with National Guard insignia on the label, which, it says, passes U.S. code because the product was donated, not sold.
Rogue’s experience illustrates the tricky nature of wrapping your brand in the flag, though it seems even a big brewery is apt to take the approach.
Patriotic messages ‘not great marketing’
In recent months, Anheuser-Busch has been pushing a pro-America message with TV spots pointing out that it is “the only major American brewery that’s still American owned.”
“They’ve probably discovered that patriotism is an important value their target group has, relative to other people,” says J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich Partners, a marketing research and consulting firm in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Whether it will sell more beer, he says, is another matter. “I suspect they didn’t go the additional step to see if that lifestyle value is predictive of brand choice.”
Smith says patriotism may be a way to stir up emotion, but it typically doesn’t communicate the unique benefits of a brand. “It’s not great marketing,” he says. “Most effective marketing and brand development and packaging ideas offer people real solutions. There’s no particular reason to pick one brand over another because they wave the flag of patriotism.”
Stars and stripes spur seasonal sales
Though, sometimes, there may be a tactical reason to sport an all-American package. Take Welch’s, which introduced a patriotic-themed bottle designed by The Bailey Group in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., as part of a larger effort to increase sparkling juice sales beyond the Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s peak.
According to Larry Keenan, senior marketing business development manager for Welch’s sparkling/specialty lines, the idea was to give retailers another reason to stock up on the sparkling juice product (and to merchandise it more prominently) outside its end-of-year peak, which, Keenan says, is when 65 percent of the line’s sales take place.
“We introduced them [the four designs] as a program so we could interest the retailer and show them a bigger profit potential,” he says.
The “Stars and Stripes” package was the first to market, launching in May 2001. Keenan says the red, white and blue Americana-style graphics tied in with patriotic holidays of the summer season like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July and turned the product into an impulse buy. Three other seasonally themed packages followed.
Since the program was introduced in 2001, the brand has seen its sparkling juice product volume increase by 20 percent. And, according to Keenan, the patriotic package is the best seller.
“Welch’s is such a part of America. The name evokes positive memories of childhood and family life, and of celebrations like July Fourth,” he explains. “Our sparkling product is a natural fit with that equity.”
Seasonal packaging has long been a strategy to spark incremental retail sales. And, for Welch’s, the stars and stripes specialty label was a smart offer for the flag-filled summer holidays.
On-pack politicking targets a niche
Some brands go beyond general American cues on their packaging and take what amounts to a politically charged approach.
Star Spangled Ice Cream Co., in Washington, D.C., positions itself as the right-leaning alternative to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with flavors and packaging that illustrate the company’s pro-military, politically conservative stance.
“The package graphics are unabashedly patriotic,” says Lisa DeLay of Ovation Enterprises, who designed the artwork. “With red and blue colors on a white background and a bald eagle on the side of the carton, it’s full-blown ‘God Bless the U.S.A.,’ as well as vastly different from any other current ice cream package graphics.”
DeLay designed fun cartoon characters that represent the branches of the military for flavors like G.I. Love Chocolate and Fightin’ Marine Tough Cookies and Cream. But there are also more risqué offerings and graphics, including a tie-die-shirt-wearing character that embraces a tree on quarts of Nutty Environmentalist and a bug-eyed Frenchman confined behind the graphic “no” symbol on packages of I Hate the French Vanilla.
Such tongue-in-cheek references are likely geared to the ice cream company’s more ardent political supporters, but DeLay says they don’t go unnoticed by others. “For being such a fun consumable like ice cream, the intensity of the political animosity is sort of surprising,” she says.
It doesn’t seem to be hurting sales though. Star Spangled Ice Cream began as a cult brand selling only quart-sized containers online, but demand has spurred the company to package their ice cream in one-pint containers for retail sale. The company currently sells in Farm Fresh supermarkets on the East Coast and in 800 7-Eleven locations in the Mid-Atlantic region.
DeLay credits a strong charitable component—10 percent of profits go to organizations that support U.S. troops, veterans and their families—for the success of the brand.
“It’s one thing for a company to say ‘Hooray for America’ to sell something, but it’s an entirely different thing to say ‘we support the troops with our profit money’,” she says. “It shows goodwill and authenticity behind the product”.
Authentic military branding
For some marketers, though, military support isn’t just a brand message. In the case of Hooah! energy bars, the military IS the brand.
Following a long line of products with origins in the armed services, including the Jeep, M&M candies and freeze-dried coffee, Hooah! energy bars are offshoots of military research and development efforts that have been licensed for civilian use.
Filmmaker Christian D’Andrea and his two brothers recently gained exclusive rights to manufacture and distribute the bars to the private sector. And as part of the agreement, the brothers also give a portion of proceeds back to military R&D.
“No matter what people think of the war in Iraq, everyone supports the troops,” explained D’Andrea in a recent statement to the New York Times.
The bars sold within the military come in camouflage packaging, but the D’Andrea brothers offer a flashier silver foil wrapper to target nontraditional energy bar consumers, and feature a blue-and-white star that emulates the U.S. Army logo and prominent copy touting the brand’s military origins on the face of the pack.
Unlike the cautions he offers for the patriotic stance of Anheuser-Busch, Yankelovich Partners’ Smith says Hooah!’s military branding can add value.
“You can use that linkage,” he says, “if it communicates something relevant to why people buy those products.”
The real danger of a patriotic message, Smith says, is in saying ‘we’re more patriotic than our competitors’. “Typically, that is not a good way to talk about your brand in any way that’s relevant to consumers.” BP
The author, Pauline Tingas, is Senior Editor of BRANDPACKAGING magazine.
Where to go for more information...
Marketing research and consulting. At Yankelovich Partners, contact J. Walker Smith at 404.808.5057 or email@example.com.