Exclusivity Doesn’t Mean a Big Price Tag

By Eric Layer

“Take an old boot. Burn it. Soak it in seawater.”

Not exactly the kind of language that’s usually considered flattering ad copy, but it’s exactly its lack of general appeal that makes it so effective for the Scotch whisky brand Laphroaig.

The liquor category is often defined by promises of great tastes and good times. So Laphroaig’s campaign—built on brutally honest reactions to the product from fans and foes alike—defies conventional wisdom. The brand has proudly advertised a comparison of the Laphroaig experience to “eating some burnt barbeque driftwood,” a statement that it’s “like drinking from a wooden medicine cabinet while it’s on fire” and a claim that it tastes like “burnt Harley engine oil.”

Needless to say, Laphroaig is a Scotch-drinker’s Scotch, with one of the strongest flavor profiles on the market. It’s never going to be a hit with anybody looking for an easy-drinking, trendy summer cocktail. But Laphroaig’s audience takes special pride in enjoying something that the rest of the world considers downright nasty. By emphasizing that fact instead of ignoring it, Laphroaig earns special credibility among its target market. To those people, it defines itself as the strong, smoky Scotch brand, rather than one among many. When they’re ordering a drink, they could order another brand—perhaps even one they really enjoy more—or they could order one that gives them insider status as an elite, serious Scotch drinker. The benefit of that shift is enormous, and the expense is minimal: all it costs Laphroaig is admitting it doesn’t have an audience that it never had anyway.

It’s a tried and true strategy. Google once famously ran a billboard campaign that featured no logo, no website, and no contact information; just a math problem that, if solved, would lead the target to a job application. Google, like Laphroaig, appealed to its target precisely by driving away everyone else. But by doing so, they won the attention and admiration of the few who were in on the joke.

The principle of exclusivity is easily understood: people will pay extra money for certain brands because they assign value to owning something that not many people have. But too often brands assume that if they’re not Porsche or Omega, there’s no room in their strategy for an exclusive approach. The reality is that exclusivity is driven as much by people’s tastes and lifestyles as by their wallets. Everybody wants to be unique—not just the rich. The brands that understand that are the ones that people don’t just buy, but adopt as part of their lifestyle.

Workwear brand Carhartt is a great example. They’ve made a point of boasting that their brand is “Designed where function meets fashion – then punches it in the face.” Carhartt’s heavy canvas jackets are never going to be the choice of the style-savvy. But by openly saying so, the brand buys extra credibility among its target, who proudly sees himself as too tough, hard-working, and function-focused to care about the latest trends.

Mountain Dew gets it too. Their “Puppymonkeybaby” spot in the 2016 Super Bowl was not only the most talked-about campaign on social media, it was also one of the most hated. But the wacky, juvenile humor of the bit wasn’t supposed to appeal to the fifty-something pundits who scrutinized it in postgame takedowns. It was aimed at “Dew Dudes,” the hyper-focused target the brand identified decades ago in its now-legendary turnaround. The spot’s tone and humor were perfect for a brand whose social media replies routinely include phrases like, “DM us for more info, dude!” along with “Dig it!” or “Sick!” Mountain Dew’s language, content, and design intentionally read as off-putting and sophomoric to those outside the target audience, but that’s exactly what makes the brand so appealing to those within: they see a company that not only understands them, but that rejects other crowds to be a part of theirs.

Conventionally, brand focus means ignoring those outside your audience. But brand strategists need to be thinking a step further: how do we take those who will never buy our product, and turn them from a neutral into an asset?

The approach takes guts. Sometimes it means burning bridges with people you might have hoped would come around to you eventually. But fortune favors the bold: you can keep your fingers crossed that you’ll garner a broad following, or you can go all-in and find the few who will passionately make your brand a part of their personal identity.

Too often, traditional branding issues a sweeping promise that reads as a dare. If Burger King claims they have the best fries, or if Tylenol swears to banish my headache, then they’re challenging me to prove them wrong. And if I don’t think they deliver, then I’m disappointed.

But Laphroaig, Carhartt, Google, and Mountain Dew all do the opposite. If you tell me up front that I probably won’t like what you’re selling, then human nature takes over, and I instinctively want to prove that I’m sophisticated enough, tough enough, smart enough, or unique enough to love you. At worst, I’m going to agree with you and admit—perhaps wistfully—that your product isn’t for me. But at best, I get something extra when I buy your product: I get to be part of the “in” crowd—something you’ve already told me is for the few, the proud, the best, and the brightest.

What you charge for that extra benefit is up to you.


Eric Layer

Partner and author, Eric specializes in building things faster and better than mere mortals. Call Eric when you have an impossible mountain to climb. He’ll get you to the top.

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