Spencer Hoddeson wants you to say “gay.”
“Our mission has always been to destigmatize the word ‘gay’ in spaces where there’s no representation,” the Gay Water founder and CEO told Marketing Daily.
Today, Gay Water is officially coming out as a hard seltzer brand created by, and for, the queer community, initially available through the brand’s D2C channel.
Hoddeson explained the idea for the brand name emerged from the realization that the term “gay water” in reference to vodka and soda was widespread enough that a straight, cis friend told him she was familiar with it. It seems a fitting one for the brand’s mission and goal: finding queer community in a crowded marketplace long populated by straight, cis white men.
Hard seltzer is a particularly crowded category, but in addition to its branding, Gay Water has a few other attributes to help it stand apart. Unlike most hard seltzers, it’s not a malt product, but rather a vodka soda. That also means it has fewer calories, as the unsweetened drink’s ingredients are solely soda water, vodka, and fruit essences. It also clocks in at a 4% ABV, lower than many other hard seltzers.
Feeling in a rut in his career in media and tech, Hoddeson began what he described as a side hustle creating social content about queer life during the pandemic, building up a community of followers. Then he began channeling that following into an alcoholic beverage brand.
When it came time to develop brand identity, Hoddeson immediately thought of designer Ryan Sagawa, whom he knew through employee resource groups at Yahoo. The aim was to spark joy as one of the brand’s core values, while avoiding corporate pride cliches. Hoddeson knew Sagaw was the right partner to bring that to life.
“A lot of references for the brand were to create something that’s fun and inviting, but not necessarily rainbows, unicorns, and traditional Pride monikers,” Hoddeson told Marketing Daily. “Something colorful, nostalgic, [taking inspiration from] things like pop art, vintage candy, categories that are fun, playful and colorful.”
Gay Water will initially be available in select stores in New York, New Jersey, and California, with the D2C offering available nationally where state laws allow. It’s launching with four flavors: lime, grapefruit, peach, and watermelon
Hoddeson decided to wait until Pride Month was over for the brand’s debut, to underscore its goal of representing the queer community year-round.
“All these companies are rainbow-washing for the month, and then like rainbow chalk on a blackboard, they spray water on it and it goes down the drain,” he said.
This year, the performative nature of many brands’ Pride Month rainbow-washing was especially transparent in corporate responses to bad faith boycotts coordinated by far-right figures online, and disturbing threats, vandalism, and violence sparked by bigotry and disinformation.
“The awful news cycles that came out of that reassured me that a product like this needs to exist,” Hoddeson said. “We need to create these brands and communities for ourselves.”
Gay Water has been able to build up a community of about 100,000 followers since a soft launch of the brand identity this past November.
Hoddeson explained the fragmented nature of digital channels and social media means there’s no longer a need for a massive launch campaign: “The best launch you can do is getting the product in the hands of people,” he said.
Aside from expanding where the brand is available via retail, Hoddeson said Gay Water would engage its community to shape its evolution, hinting that such feedback may lead to a stronger version of the drink in the future.
“We are a small, self-funded, queer-owned brand right now, so a lot of retailers are waiting for us to show that the community wants a product like this before they commit,” Hoddeson explained. “Hopefully, within the next couple of months we’ll prove that out.”