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Can new ads for Drake’s whiskey translate into bigger sales?

Just over a year after Virginia Black officially launched, the team behind it is stepping up marketing efforts in a bid to double its first-year sales of 30,000 cases in its second year.

As a young man, he occasionally backed up Jerry Lee Lewis on the drums. On first dates, he always insists on splitting the bill. He wears glasses, but they aren't prescription. He is not the Most Interesting Man in the World.

He's Drake's dad, Dennis Graham. And he's coming to your TV screen in the near future – as the "realest dude ever" – happily borrowing the cachet of that long-running Dos Equis campaign to promote his son's Virginia Black whiskey.

Just over a year after Virginia Black officially launched, the team behind it is stepping up marketing efforts in a bid to double its first-year sales of 30,000 cases in its second year.

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Those sales make it very much a niche player – brands such as Suntory Ltd.-owned Maker's Mark bourbon and Heaven Hill Brands' Evan Williams bourbon sell millions of cases a year – but the team behind the brand is betting that there's room for growth.

Canadians are drinking more spirits than they were just a few years ago: Sales volumes rose 4.2 per cent between 2013 and 2016, according to industry association Spirits Canada. And whiskies have driven some of that growth. For years the second-biggest selling spirit in Canada behind vodka, by 2016 the two were almost tied, each commanding roughly 28 per cent of the liquor market.

Drake's whiskey is sweet, and at 80 proof is milder than most competitors. "With whiskies, the higher the proof is like a badge of honour," says Brent Hocking, an entrepreneur in alcoholic beverages and the rapper's business partner.

By contrast, the brand is pitching itself as easier to drink and is deliberately taking a more lighthearted approach.

"You want to know who's not worried about the Most Interesting Man in the World? The realest dude ever," Drake says in the first video, launched in mid-July. The camera then cuts to the elder Mr. Graham sitting by a fireplace in a three-piece Champagne-coloured suit accessorized with a gold necklace and a velvety brown fedora. "First date? Aw, you know we're goin' Dutch," Drake's dad says, then delivers the tagline: "Virginia Black. One sip, and woo!"

In just four days, the first two videos amassed more than eight million views across YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Rapper and mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs praised the brand and shared the campaign on Twitter. On Friday, two more hit social media. They were intended as "teasers" for the TV campaign, which is due to launch in the next couple of months in the United States and Canada.

By now, hawking liquor has come to inhere to the very nature of being a celebrity – particularly in hip hop. Diddy is in business with vodka giant Diageo PLC to sell Cîroc vodka, and the partners also purchased DeLeón Tequila – created by Mr. Hocking. Jay-Z has an ownership stake in Armand de Brignac Champagne, also known as Ace of Spades, and has endorsed D'Ussé cognac.

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But while other celebrities have delved into whiskies before – Mila Kunis has been the face of Jim Beam for three years, Jude Law has appeared in an ad for Johnnie Walker and last year actor Matthew McConaughey was named creative director for Wild Turkey bourbon – Mr. Hocking and Drake decided it was still a relatively underdeveloped category for a rapper. Drake invested in the venture and has an equity stake, though the team would not disclose ownership percentages.

Drake's influence in branding is undeniable. In 2014, during the Toronto Raptors playoff run, he was spotted as a spectator using a lint roller on his pants. Lint rollers were suddenly cool. IKEA Canada announced a giveaway near the Air Canada Centre before the next game. Meanwhile, Procter & Gamble Co.'s Bounce brand – the official and only promotional lint roller "endorsed by both the team and Drake," according to a Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. spokesperson – made their own limited-edition rollers printed with the Raptors' logo and Drake's owl logo.

"Someone who represents what's hot is someone you want on your side," said Tom Koukodimos, executive creative director and partner at ad agency Sid Lee in Toronto and part of the team that worked with the Raptors and brand ambassador Drake on the team's "We the North" rebranding starting in 2014.

Mr. Koukodimos believes that the Virginia Black ads align with the image Drake has built for himself. "People really look for authenticity, what's real," he said.

Some critics have raised issues with Virginia Black's authenticity. The packaging has frequently been compared to a cologne bottle, and the brand itself almost refutes the idea of the usual importance of a liquor's geographic provenance: It's actually made in Indiana and a disclaimer "Not from Virginia" appears on the back of the bottle. The name, Mr. Hocking has explained, is just meant to sound sexy and glamorous.

"People are just taking themselves too seriously," Mr. Hocking said. "If you go to any whiskey website, it's a bunch of old men in the back woods. It looks like The Blair Witch Project. Look at the Matthew McConaughey commercials for Wild Turkey. No hash on them, but we wanted to make it more relaxed. This is easy to drink, you don't have to be in a special club. We're just having a good time."

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About the Author
Media and Marketing Reporter

Susan covers marketing and media for Report on Business. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2009, Susan worked as a freelance reporter contributing to the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and other publications, as well as CBC Radio's Dispatches and Search Engine. She has a Masters degree in journalism from Carleton University. More

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