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What would the Redhook dude do?

Gordon Bowker (on right) with Redhook president Paul Shipman and brewmaster Charley McElevey in the offending Weekly article. Credit: The (Seattle) Weekly, Aug. 11, 1982. Photo by Dan Lamont.

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.”

So, I asked, what does he think of today’s Redhook advertising? “It makes me glad I’m not in the beer business today.”

Indeed. At the start, Redhook and the other micros enjoyed all the advantages of asymmetric marketing warfare. They were rare, novel and distinctive, purveying a product rich in nostalgia and mystique. Only about 50 breweries survived in the United States: a couple dozen regional brands, many of them struggling; a handful of fading national brands and two juggernauts, Anheuser Busch and Miller, which were crushing everyone in their paths. In that thin pack, the micros could hardly help but stand out. They didn’t need to buy media space; people like me were eager to give it to them — and, needless to say, to perform the exhaustive research this entailed. 

Today, Busch and Miller are parts of international conglomerates fighting it out on a global field. The United States, a former ale desert, now has around 2,000 breweries, many more than any other country. Two hundred and fifty opened in 2011 alone, according to the Brewers Association, a craft-brewing trade group. Half of them are brewpubs and most of the rest are micros, a category Redhook outgrew many years ago.

For an established, midsized “regional craft brewer” like Redhook, this presents several quandaries: How do you stand out in such a crowd? And maintain your micro street cred? And appeal to a market that, now as ever, is disproportionately young and male when you’re the old guy on the block?

Against these challenges, advertising is inevitable, and the “What would Redhook do?” theme may be a canny gambit; it’s certainly fresher and cleverer than any other ads I’ve noticed lately. And it may be working; according to Frank Unlimited, Redhook’s sales have risen 15 percent, and its Long Hammer has grown 20 percent to become the best-selling IPA in the country. (The Brewers Association reports that craft beer sales overall grew 15 percent by value last year and 13 percent by volume, while total beer sales fell 1 percent.)

Still, the ads are a jarring break from the past in other ways as well — in particular, a break from the subversive school of beer advertising that Gordon Bowker helped pioneer before he created Redhook. Despite his ad-free Redhook strategy, Bowker came to beer not only as an aficionado but as an ad man in the 1970s. He was a partner in the upstart Seattle agency Heckler Bowker Associates. Its signature client was Rainier Beer, a regional brand holding out against the Bud/Miller invasion.

Rainier gave Bowker, Terry Heckler and Ed Leimbacher the freedom to create an anti-campaign, gleefully unmoored from fixed themes like the Redhook dude and from grandiose claims about fresher water, finer grains or better hops. Their ads winked at the viewer and tacitly acknowledged two taboo truths: That bland American lagers all tasted the same, and that the other standard model of beer advertising — the promise that drinking Schmlatz would make you manly or help you make friends and score chicks — was also hooey. So let’s forget all that and have some fun. “Our intention was to try to force internal comparisons with the ads,” Bowker recalls. “Instead of comparing the beers, people would compare different Rainier ads.”

And so we got hand jive and a mile-long row of bottlecaps falling like dominoes to form a giant R, frogs croaking “Rainier Beer” and a motorcycle roaring “RRRRRRainier.” Mickey Rooney chased the Mountain Fresh Rainiers — giant, leggy beer bottles, mimicking Pamplona's running bulls — through the hills and dales. Rainier posters and spots parodied every pop icon of the day, from Star Wars and Lee Iacocca to Saturday Night Live’s Coneheads.

Some spots pointedly defied the masculine mystique of conventional beer marketing. In one spot that spawned a local meme, a Folger’s-worthy young wife pours herself a Rainier Light, coos over the “burly guys in all those light beer commercials,” and sweetly intones, “You don’t have to be macho to enjoy a light beer….” Her offscreen husband tells her to bring him one, and she roars back, “Get it yourself, Bob!” In a later iteration, Cheetah the chimp tells Barzan of the Apes, “Get it yourself, ape man!”

That defiance of beer’s manly stereotypes carried through to the old Redhook, which distributed coasters that asked, “Are you person enough to drink Redhook?” But the stereotypes have returned, in hipper, more easygoing 21st century form. And that recalls an ominous precedent.

In the mid-20th century, Schlitz was the bestselling beer in America. But in the 1960s and 70s a catastrophic series of missteps laid it low. Among them were the most obnoxiously macho ads in the business: An ax-wielding mountain man, a glowering boxer, and other menacing types would growl, “You want to take away my Schlitz? You want to take away my gusto?!” and threaten various forms of mayhem. The street dubbed it the “drink Schlitz or I’ll kill you” campaign. Drinkers acceleratingly switched to Bud.

Okay, that’s a far cry from our hearty-partying Redhook dude. But he’s still a “Do Not Enter” sign for anyone lacking the proper package or clocking much past 30. “What would Redhook do?” is a reprise of the classic strategy by which advertising snags the young, unformed and insecure: “Drink this beer and be like him.”

The construct of brand-as-fictive-character recalls an even more ominous precedent. Rainier’s great regional competitor was Olympia Beer, whose labels proudly proclaimed, “It’s the Water … from our artesian springs.” Oly went national in the 1970s, but it struggled against the big brewers and, at home, against resurgent Rainier. Seeking to counter Rainier’s popular spots, Olympia attempted its own whimsy: Echoing the wild Rainiers, it posited cryptic, unseen sprites called “Artesians” that had something or other to do with the beer. “It’s their water,” the tagline read, evoking unfortunate plumbing associations.

It was all too cute. The Artesians failed to win back the drinkers. An improbable sex scandal drove the stake in Oly, and it joined Schlitz on the ash heap of fallen beer brands.

I hope Redhook’s on to something better with its attempt at self-personification. And, skeptic and fogey though I am, I can testify that, like it or not, the Redhook dude can work his way into your head, which is what all spinners of ads and other fictions crave for their creations. The other week, in some since-forgotten barroom situation, I found myself idly wondering: What would Redhook do?

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