How far have we traveled since that bright day 30 years ago when Redhook Ale emerged from a former transmission shop in Ballard as Seattle’s and one of America’s first craft beers? I realized just how far as I was rolling down Aurora Avenue a few months ago. The answer was written on the wall — or, to be more precise, on a billboard, which revealed not just how much the craft beer industry had changed, but the whole damn culture. In fact, it's gone full circle.
That billboard showed three stubby beer bottles, elongated versions of the humble shorties that Pabst Blue Ribbon came in back when it was called Paddy Blue rather than PBR. They bore an unexpected label, and were accompanied by an even more unexpected message: “Redhook’s ok with you staring at his new package.” I did a doubletake
This ad is one in a series by the cheeky Seattle agency Frank unlimited, centered around a dude named Redhook who, in his first ad incarnation, circa 2008-2009, was “the loyal buddy who always has your back.” As in “Redhook will always confirm your alibi,” “Redhook would never move your favorite team to Oklahoma,” and “Redhook would never sleep with your ex. Even if you gave him permission.” An online contest solicited more answers to the question “What Would Redhook Do?” This concept, dubbed the “Liquid Goodness” campaign, built on a focus-group finding that folks saw Redhook Ale as “reliable” and “consistent.”
This message and those that have followed are reinforced in a Redhook Blog sharing the dude’s thoughts on matters ranging from action movies, same-sex marriage, and rabid Sounders fans (he’s fashionably for ’em) to the OKC Thunder, a.k.a. “Zombie Sonics” (agin’ for ’em). Although it’s written in the third person, which undercuts the blog effect and makes Mr. Redhook sound like Bob Dole and other politicians who talk about themselves by name.
But reliability can only take a product so far. As Forrest Healy, Frank Unlimited’s creative director, says, “the complement of ‘reliability’ is ‘She’s got a good personality.’” Reliable Redhook was a Volvo, not a Porsche — your father’s microbrew. Healy and his client and colleagues wanted to inject more pizzazz, as they used to say in the ad biz, or ’tude as they say now.
So Redhook stopped being the designated driver and started getting his own funk on. That’s led to such taglines as "Redhook isn't the type to use 'party' as a verb. This year he'll make an exception," "Redhook looks forward to the whole spanking thing on his birthday,” and, coinciding with the actual 30th birthday, “Redhook hears ‘bow chicka wow wow’ when someone says ‘chick flick.’” And of course that package thing. Good buddy Redhook has become a party animal. A laddy, as the Brits say. To paraphrase another ad slogan, what kind of beer reads Maxim?
All this is deeply weird in several ways — starting with the fact that Redhook is being advertised at all.
In the beginning, it and the craft/microbrewing movement were all about subverting the prevailing taste-Lite, advertising-heavy industry paradigm: uniform lagers battling for market share on billboards, TV screens, and Superbowl spots, typically with scenes of male bonding.
Redhook wouldn’t have any of that, and didn’t have the money to compete if it wanted to. But it still launched with a PR splash: Seattle’s mayor, King County’s executive and all the TV stations turned out for its opening party at the Jake O’Shaughnessey’s bar in the since-demolished Hansen Baking Company building.
I lauded the “savvy marketing” behind that launch in an article in the Seattle Weekly (then known as The Weekly). Redhook’s creator, Gordon Bowker, took it askance. What marketing? he asked. We don’t buy any advertising. (Disclosure: Bowker’s also a longtime friend of Crosscut and its founder.)
I guess I should have said “publicity” instead of marketing, but Gordon also sees it a bit differently now. “Maybe that is, or was, the smartest marketing — that we wouldn’t buy any advertising but would get people to talk about it.”
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