Tito’s versus Sailor Jerry (new cliches in the world of marketing)

A few years from now I think we will look back on the artisanal trend and spot a cliche.

Artisanal products believe themselves to be intrinsically interesting. They are in fact massively self absorbed. They do not tend to carry culture meanings except about themselves. Artisanal products, it’s all about them.

Exhibit A

Tito’s is a small run vodka now being made in Austin, Texas. It was recently written up in Wall Street Journal Magazine. The first thing that Tito’s wants you to know about itself is that its hand-made. I am never sure what this means when it comes to certain products. It sounds more laborious than crafted. What does it matter how the grain was stirred? A machine or by hand, it can’t matter to the vodka. Right?

The WSJ Magazine article is a marketer’s dream. This kind of coverage for this kind of audience!  Who could ask for anything more? This is hand made marketing!

But the story reads as all the artisanal stories do.  It recites the new cliches:

1. This brand is made in tiny batches in an obscure place. Check.

2. It is made by some guy who used to work for a giant corporation. Check.

In the Tito’s case, the guy is Tito Beveridge, a geophysicist worked for an oil company. Every time someone tells me about an artisanal chocolate, the maker seems to be a former NASA  or airline pilot.  And I think we are supposed to marvel on how this individual is found his or her artisanal salvation.They have followed their bliss out of the big bad corporation into something kinder and gentler. I’m not sure but I think we prefer to think of our artisanal producers as large and ambling, if men, and little and pretty, if women.  Look, not a threat to anyone!  Nit wit, please. 

3.  It is always premium priced and incredibly high end, because well someone seeking their artisanal salvation is not going to look for it in price cutting or any thing so vulgar as market competition.  The artisan is, it turns out, too good for capitalism of any conventional kind. Check.

4.  There is always a long period in the wilderness when the artisan struggles to keep his or her dream alive.  What a brave, devoted soul!  And finally of course there is triumph. Because the Romance playbook tell us that all acts of self sacrifice result in an apotheosis. Virtue becomes celebrity.  (Pursue the intrinsic and the world will reward you with the extrinsic.)  Check.

5. There is an odor of vanity and self importance about the brand and it’s maker…and, sorry, it’s consumer.  We are all so very special.  (Bitter?  A little.  Being a month without a blog hurt me, clearly.)  Check.

Traditionally, marketing has been about meaning making.  And recently we have seen marketers define brands with meanings ever more subtle and interesting.  But the artisanal trend seems to run against the flow.  There is only one meaning contained in an artisanal brand, the artisanal one.

There’s no question that this myth is a potent meaning and it adds to our story telling at the bar at a time when we like to be telling stories at the bar.  But damn it if it isn’t always the same story.  For some reason, the artisanal trend gives us license to make the back story the front story, even when it isn’t very interesting and even when we have heard it before. I guess it’s better than connoisseurship ("so very peaty!") but for how long?   

Which brings me to Sailor Jerry’s.  I got to hear its creator at the recent Piers Fawkes’ PSFK recent conference in New York City, and it was pretty interesting.  Steven Grasse struck me as being a bit of a mad scientist, my highest compliment these days.  But the brand isn’t about him.  It’s about Norman Collins, the man they call the master of the old school tattooing. Here’s what the Sailor Jerry website says about him

If you really want a true classic tattoo, you’ll have to go back in time and cross the Pacific. When your tramp steamer hits the port of Honolulu, jump ashore and head set straight to Chinatown. Soon, you’ll hit Hotel Street. You’ll know this by the sudden progression of wide-eyed sailors, foul-mouthed roughnecks, and general sanctioned mayhem. And there, tucked away on a steamy side street, you’ll see the bright red neon glow of “Sailor Jerry’s”- the tattoo shop that marked the fighting men of the Pacific for nearly 40 years.

Now that’s what I call a story.  Not some NASA engineer looking for redemption but a rough neck who lived surrounded by mayhem and the low life. Not a brand but a brander. Please start your story engines now.  


Carrigan, Janelle.  2010.  Proof of life.  Wall Street Journal Magazine.  March.  pp. 30-31.  

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  The Artisanal Trend and 10 things that define it.  This Blog. November 9.  here.

The source for the Sailor Jerry passage here.


Thanks to Michael Margolis, I am thinking more about story telling these days.  See his website here.

10 thoughts on “Tito’s versus Sailor Jerry (new cliches in the world of marketing)

  1. Patrick

    So glad somebody finally said this. It’s all very coy, quaint, formulaic — and leads to the ridiculous faux-Romanticism of things like Starbucks and Panera. It’s also entirely infantile, in the most Freudian of ways: “look…I made this.” Every effort is not art; every worker is not a craftsman. And that is the second and more insulting implication of these “artisanal” lies: they suggest the paying of false honor to the often less educated and thus provide self-engineered forgiveness for those who throw their disposable incomes to “this really great local” whatever whilst still tearing through Costco every other Saturday.

    1. Grant Post author

      Damn, once more the commenter does better than the original. thanks!

  2. Rex

    Protagonist immerses themselves in corrupt world – protagonist undergoes crisis of conscience and wanders in the wilderness — protagonist finds pure unadulterated self and true vocation in slightly self-absorbed way: this is the classical formula of hagiography, no?

    1. Grant Post author

      Rex, brilliant, branding as hagiography, you have created a new approach.

      1. Patrick

        One can’t ignore the brilliance of this intersection and the role of icon(ography) central to both.

  3. Pingback: White dogs vs. the big dogs « The Package Unseen

  4. tito

    great comments! in my case, “the story” of oil guy turned environmental guy turned mortgage guy turned vodka guy does make a good story to tell at a bar, or in the wsj. i didnt contrive it. i didnt think about it as i was doing it. most of it was not my desired outcome. no one would put money in (i wanted them to), did it on my own with no employees (that was a major ass pain), blah, blah, blah. i know, its alot to take in, i promise it sucked living the “wilderness” part of it. But it’s better than rolling over and believing that the American Dream is dead, that corporate America has jimmied the system where you cant make it anymore and showing up to your cubicle everyday wishing you could change your life but not having enough life left in you to make a change. insert gun to head here. i came up with the label and logo on my computer and make vodka that i like to drink. i am very thankful that my taste is in the bell curve of what others like to drink. by the way, we make our vodka by taking our hands and bringing a test tube to our lips and tasting it. no gas chromatograph mass spectrometer bs. anyway, i do understand your comments. i will have to say that at times i have felt like i am Col Sanders out peddling chicken (im thankful its vodka not chicken) and so i can see the self absorbed issue, but, thats what i do for a living and i love it. i love making it, drinking it, selling it, its all good. i just wish people would quit copying me so you wouldnt be so sick of it! i promise if you just drink 3 or 4 Titos you will get over the whole “handmade” thing. keep up the good work, cheers, Tito Beveridge
    founder, owner, distiller, Tito’s HANDMADE Vodka!

  5. Nat Guy

    Nice article. I agree wholeheartedly about the pretension built into many artisan brands. But it is true that people like myself want authenticity and passion from products we buy. We’re looking behind the packaging for the story. What’s the story at a big brand? “We hired a firm to do a 6month market analysis and they have found that market X is where we should see the greatest capacity for growth.”

    The issue is authenticity. But digging into the story behind these 2 brands I come to a different conclusion. This comparison seems more about authenticity vs borrowed authenticity.

    I dig the heck out of the Sailor Jerry visual identity. But from the little I know about these 2 brands I’d say this: one brand bought someone else’s authenticty while the other is slowly building his own.

    Which seems more authentic and worthy of a respectful story when belly up at the bar: a professional marketer buys the estate of a tattoo artist Jerry Collins, crafts a brand around that purchase, and sells rum, ashtrays, playing cards, shoes and other shwag?

    A marketer who co-opts “authenticity” by making a purchase? Or on the other hand a guy, Tito, who is trying to build his own story from the ground up by what he has created himself?

    Not to knock the Sailor Jerry brand. Again I dig the heck out of it. And I respect what that Philly marketing agency has been able to build and accomplish. But if you are talking about authenticity: it is built on the foundation of someone else’s authenticity. They didn’t create Jerry Collin’s authenticity: they promote it.

    I’m sure Tito’s story isn’t as vivid as Jerry Collin’s. But then again, Tito actually has to live his story. Maybe he should consider buying the estate of someone more colorful than himself and subsume that identity? Ha. Really a colorful life and brand is his for the making.

    Digging your blog Grant. Bookmarked.

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