From the editor's desk

When ‘edgy’ marketing goes over the edge

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

The Bearded Brewery photo
The Bearded Brewery photo

Related tags Marketing Beverages Sports nutrition

The case this week of a beverage brand making a supposedly tongue in cheek reference to suicide points to the risks inherent in swinging for the fences in product marketing.

The name of the beverage, a hard cider, is Suicyder, manufactured by The Bearded Brewery.  The brand ran afoul of an industry self regulatory group in the UK this week, as detailed by my colleague Rachel Arthur​.

The beverage is a high alcohol version of hard cider, at 7.8% ABV, a fact listed prominently on the box.  According to the brand, which is based in Cornwall, the name was meant to be an allusion to this high alcohol content. We laugh in the face of death as we sip our carefully crafted, powerful beverage!

Standing by the message

After the branding was labeled as “highly irresponsible,” by the industry review panel, the brand issued a statement:

The Bearded Brewery stands by its branding and choice of name of the product Suicyder. In the current climate we realise that it is important to discuss and share and create awareness for such a sensitive topic. Depression and mental illness are subjects that are commonly discussed over a drink and we feel our product encourages that dialogue which then often leads to a good resolution. We understand that just like our cider, our brand may not be to everyone’s taste, but we know as business owners that our clientele base and regular customers commend us for being so upfront about these issues.”

Word play as a branding strategy

There are a couple of things at work here.  One is the play on words.  There is a notion that when consumers understand that wordplay—Oh yeah! I get it! It’s a cider!​—they will feel as if they have been admitted to the club.  It’s a point of contact.

This was a strategy favored by my dear late brother who had his own PR and branding firm he called GreySunderPrescher. Say it out loud and listen to how it sounds and you’ll get it. I’m abashed to admit I can be so literal that I didn’t, at first.

This naming strategy has some precedent in the alcoholic beverage realm. In Colorado, one of the birthplaces of the craft brewing movement, a well loved IPA is called Hazed and Infused. It’s a wordplay on a well known coming of age comedy movie, which of course featured a lot of drinking.

Then there is the notion of being edgy.  Bold. Provocative. The nice, quiet people, advertisements, brands you don’t remember.  The screamers, you do. 

While there are few wordplay type brandnames to point to in the supplement realm, the sports nutrition sphere is chock full of screaming marketing, and labels festooned with pictures of biceps laced with veins as big as bullwhips.

 I get why that is important.  If you can’t gain traction with your consumers, your brand won’t last long in today’s marketplace.  It doesn’t matter then how good it might be.

Edgy humor vs. poor taste marketing

I get, too, that laughter is one way that humans deal with some of the horrors this life can dish out. I’ve seen some highly skilled comedians walk that edge and tell jokes about very difficult subjects and pull it off.  I have a family history with suicide and even I have chuckled at the odd comedic reference to this act.

But in my book that’s different, though, than just persuading consumers to buy a product. Adept comedians manage to make people laugh about ugly things and think about them in a new light at the same time. But this notion that selling a cider is somehow shedding light on the issue of suicide? I don’t buy that for one second. Just for reference, one of the brewery’s other products is branded as Agent Orange.  To me it’s just poor taste and someting I don’t condone, just as I wouldn’t the use of a host of other provoctive, seemingly taboo subjects that could similarly be used to move product.

I’ve never spoken with the proprietors of The Bearded Brewery. Let me give them the benefit of doubt and assume they mean well, and are doubling down on their point of view because all that branding money is already spent. This exercise is not meant to excoriate them in particular in any case.

Being truthful at the core

Rather, the goal here is to consider what the end goals of marketing in this sphere ought to be.  Spin is part of marketing, of course.  You want to take what you see as the facts about your brand and assemble them in a way so as to tell the most positive message. But poor taste and outright deception shouldn't be part of that.

 Take those muscle building products, for example.  It’s no secret that even the best muscle builders don’t look like that all the time;  those photos are generally taken at the peak of training, just before or just after an event, when by excruciating effort the strength athlete has stripped the last possible grams of fat away. Is it realistic for the average consumer of that product to look like that?  In most cases, no.

So, my take:  Make a good product. Be honest about what it can do.  And then do your best in an engaging but not deceptively overblown way to communicate that to consumers.

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