"We’ve always been interested in creating our own brand," explains Mark Aver, a Design Director at Mother. "We do so much for existing clients but we never get to really live the business." The agency launched White Pike, a clear whiskey designed to compete in the crowded craft liquor market, in March. Suddenly, Mother found themselves in a role typically occupied by their clients. And as Aver and Mother partner Andrew Deitchman recently told Co.Design, the experience has changed their perspective as a company.
Mother’s first foray into the business side of things came in 2005, when they launched a good-for-you-fast-food cart called Dogmatic. After rousing success as a mobile truck, the stand later opened up permanent shop in Union Square (it’s still going strong, with 3.5 stars on Yelp). As partial owners, Mother’s partners found themselves tackling a complex industry from the perspective of both the client and the agency. The firsthand experience with the ultra-competitive restaurant industry ended up being invaluable with their other clients—and they wanted to know more.
So the team went looking for their next product venture. They found it in craft liquor, a market nearly as competitive as food trucks. Working with Finger Lakes Distilling, a third-generation company in upstate New York, the team developed a whiskey that stands out in its simplicity: a clear, mixable whiskey, aged for 18 minutes total.
How does a creative agency go from branding liquor to owning a liquor brand? Not without a steep learning curve. "You really have to come together as a team," says Deitchman, who led the project. "You have to reach out to government agencies to get the bottle approved, you have to run the distribution—you dig into it, and you figure it out."
And manufacturing and bottling the stuff was only the beginning. Marketing a whiskey in the New York nightlife scene proved to be a huge challenge. Support from bartenders and restaurant owners is the lynchpin of a successful liquor brand, and most vendors already stock dozens of whiskeys. After a certain amount of trial and error, though, things started to click—right now, there are about 70 White Pike vendors in the city alone.
Next to launching it as a business, branding White Pike was a comparatively simple process. Aver explains that having the latitude to experiment led to an aggressively pared down logo, based on the shape of the bottle itself. "Typically, you’ll spend weeks and weeks and weeks refining a logo that looks good on paper, then apply it to the product. We flipped that around, and put the emphasis on the bottle." White Pike comes in a tall, thin-necked bottle—half clear (better to show off the contents) and half blacked out.
"As a designer, you get used to suggesting things like that, and eventually being disappointed when it doesn’t happen," says Aver of the matte black bottle. "But when you’re acting as the client, you really have to go through the paces to figure it out—things like going out to the bottle factory for meeting after meeting about it." But ultimately, dealing with how to manufacture and sell the product itself is more rewarding than simply sending off a set of image assets to a client. "It’s a cool moment, when people understand that."
Right now, White Pike is mainly available at New York bars and restaurants. But according to Deitchman, all of Mother’s clients will get a taste at meetings. "Any time you can get a client drunk," he adds, laughing, "it makes them that much more malleable."