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’.”