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The Marketing Power of a Red Cap

Perhaps one of the best case studies in social networking and meaningful marketing comes from a brand that has been around at least since 1703. This brand creates incredible followers in a true community of shared passions. And it does it without blogs, Facebook, or Twitter. Welcome to the story of red caps from Mount Gay Rum.

More than two years ago in an offsite with the executives of Bridge Worldwide, I first introduced my draft thinking on this Marketing with Meaning concept. I had assigned our small group to bring in examples of marketing that had a personally positive impact on their lives. My idea was for this to help spark the conversation around marketing that people choose to engage with, marketing that itself improves people’s lives. I best remember the example brought by our Chief Operating Officer, Michael Graham. Michael brought in a red hat branded with Mount Gay Rum, and he couldn’t wait to tell me its story.

Michael told us about how Mount Gay Rum has a long history with sailors. The brand was first launched in Barbados when a trip to the island was challenging, and ship captains would bring back barrels of Mount Gay as proud proof that they had successfully landed at the island. Since then, Mount Gay has continued to be closely associated with sailing events. It is a sponsor of more than 100 regattas each year. What’s special is that at these regattas, Mount Gay distributes its iconic red hats with the specific regatta name sewn under the logo. Only regatta participants get the hats, so it is a modern-day proof of sailors’ skills. Instead of another piece of marketing swag, these hats are prized trophies from a very special event. And they become collectors’ items for the recipients.

Michael also described how these hats become a kind of social networking trigger as well. Fellow sailors use the hats as a way to broadcast their common interest in public places. Sailors who see someone wearing one at the airport, beach, or baseball game will just walk up and start a conversation.

What’s interesting is that every sailor knows and repeats the story of Mount Gay Rum, so not only does this core group of high-income, passionate people stay incredibly loyal to the brand, but they become walking, talking ambassadors to the general population, many of whom are attracted to the story. A quick Google search brought me to a blog (captured above) where an identical story is told. And when I shared this story with a marketing class at Miami University last week, one of the students talked about how a friend she went with on spring break wore her Mount Gay hat and ended up meeting a dozen fellow sailors on the trip.

I believe these are the keys to take from Mount Gay Rum’s success:

1. Embrace your brand’s history and backstory – or create a brand with a story at its core.

2. Focus on a very specific, core customer group that shares a common passion.

3. Go beyond focus; be selective and exclusive.

4. Do something to encourage social connections among your target customers.

5. Don’t just sponsor; add some unique value to the event itself.

My final takeaways from Mount Gay are that this kind of marketing doesn’t take a giant ad budget or rely on the spread of new digital technology. Instead, it comes from standing for something and creating meaning in people’s lives. And don’t you dare buy one of those hats on eBay!

UPDATE: I got a great email from one of our readers, John Irving, who shared the following story:

This weekend, our community had a picnic to celebrate the return of Captain Richard Phillips from his ordeal with the pirates off Somalia.  (He lives about 2 miles from me in Vermont).  When I went up to shake his hand and congratulate him, I was wearing my red Mt Gay hat from a race from Havana years ago.  He looked up with a big smile and said ‘Nice hat, that’s my rum’.”

5 Responses to “The Marketing Power of a Red Cap”

  1. Great story! And it’s so true – encouraging social connections so your items/brands/events are immediately recognized can’t help but build buzz.

  2. Marc Connor says:

    I would add a 6th takeaway…meaningful marketers should ask themselves, “how can we enhance our consumer’s personal brand?” The concept of personal brand has been talked about as if it only started in digital and social media…but marketers that wanted to create a following have known the value of sharing a “badge” to wear…and something as simple as a hat is a great way to do it.

  3. @kdoohan says:

    Nice read Bob. The Mount Gay Rum “earned” hats remind me of Red Bull’s approach although Red Bull consumers have typically not even been able to earn Red Bull gear. Red Bull hats, etc. have always been reserved for sponsored athletes or friends or consumer facing employees like our wiiings teams. If you have a Red Bull branded cap you’re someone special. Part of an exclusive club for sure. And you did earn it…by being the one of the best in your sport or one of the most accomplished within your passion. Either that or you’re working for Red Bull helping provide energy at selected events or venues.

    Like Mount Gay Rum, you can sometimes buy knockoffs of our stuff on eBay but you’re a loser if you do.:) Interestingly, we have been selling Red Bull authorized branded gear for our teams and selected events (Red Bulls teams in Austria and NY, Red Bull F1 & NASCAR, Red Bull Air Race, Red Bull X-Fighters) at http://www.redbullshop.com and http://store.redbullracing.com for while now. The items are like the items you could buy at one of the races or events or at a Red Bulls hockey or soccer game.

    Consumers frequently ask how they can get Red Bull gear. We recently posted links to our stores on our facebook and twitter accounts. Most of the reactions I’ve seen when we shared the stores on twitter and facebook are positive. Like “Yeah! Finally!” or “OMG I wanted that jacket since I saw Vettel wearing it. YES!”. But there were a couple comments referencing the “good old days” when the public couldn’t get Red Bull gear at all. It’s interesting how very important exclusivity can be for a brand.

    I believe Red Bull strikes a nice balance with strict exclusivity remaining for most items and, at the same time, offering event or team oriented goods for purchase by fans as you would expect for any professional sports team or event that you attend. But I’m biased of course. ? Curious on your thoughts here and your readers’ thoughts as well.

  4. Bob says:

    Thanks for adding this great POV from Red Bull, Kevin. Frankly, I think you’ve got the right approach to limit the distribution and make the branded products highly exclusive. It’s completely against the gain of what other brands are doing, which both makes it more successful and helps Red Bull continue to stand out.

    I’m reminded of two things from my youth:

    1. Concert TV Shirts: you had to go to the concert to get a shirt from your favorite band, and couldn’t wait to wear it the next day at school to prove that you were there. The concert itself is a personal, live experience between you and the band/brand and the shirt is a treasured symbol of that bond.

    2. Hard Rock Cafe Shirts: This used to be a big deal when you could only get a shirt from an actual Hard Rock and there were few of them. At some point, these became available much more broadly and lost a ton of the cache. I know a little of the inside story of Hard Rock…the owners basically got greedy and wanted to cash in.

    The big question for Mt. Gay and Red Bull is whether the exclusivity is a limiter on the brand’s growth. I’d say the answer to both is probably “yes”. Just as Hard Rock grew rapidly, both brands could take their brands and merchandise to a much broader level. BUT I believe this would end up alienating the core fans and turning the brands into just another soda or rum.

    I don’t believe either brand will go there unless there is a major change in company approach. Mt. Gay is part of Rémy Cointreau, which has a nice stable of luxury alcohol brands. Red Bull is a private company, which means it has more freedom to grow at the pace that it wants to.

  5. Scott Jacob says:

    Update on the Status Symbol – now among sailors those red hats have become a bit too common – so the guys to look up are wearing the hats sun & salt bleached pink…

    It’s a great club and I truly hope it isn’t diluted by imitations from China or Puerto Rico :)

    Too bad to hear Mt Gay is owned by Cointreau… I always assumed they were too small to distribute to all local bars. Maybe they have just chosen not to…

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