Cuervo Goes Nation Building

With its reputation as a "party catalyst," tequila is associated by many with fond if fuzzy memories (or fantasies) of collegiate wild times involving single shots, spring flings, and other youthful antics. Cuervo, the world's leading tequila brand, believes that that image gives its drink far too little credit and fails to reflect the fact that millions of people now enjoy Cuervo Gold well beyond graduation day into mature adulthood - not only for Cinco de Mayo parties, but year-round.

It's a lag the premier tequila maker has been keen for some time to rectify.

"Our fundamental goal in evolving Cuervo as a global brand," explains Sam Chadha, global integrated marketing manager for Jose Cuervo International, "has been to take the perception of tequila to a different level. To have it become seen more clearly as an expression of an upscale young-adult lifestyle. Frankly, we've always been impressed with the way other premium spirits brands such as Absolut have positioned their products for those more sophisticated and adventurous in their tastes. We've long believed that what they've done for vodka, Cuervo Gold can do for tequila."

Finding the right platform for this transformation, however, was a long time coming, even for a brand with Cuervo's wide reach. "The first step toward taking Cuervo where we wanted to bring it was taken several years ago," says Chadha. "In fact, it has its roots in a public relations effort called 'The Republic of Cuervo Gold' which began in 1996."

In this early PR effort, Cuervo introduced the notion of a nation-state in 1996, purchasing a tiny eight-acre island in the West Indies and christening it CuervoNation. Cuervo designed the island from the start as a showpiece devoted to the joys of the Cuervo lifestyle, encouraging local distributors around the world to refer to it in their Republic of Cuervo promotions. Unfortunately instead of one nation indivisible, Cuervo Republic's ad campaign in its initial version was more akin to a mélange of far-flung tribes.

"The Cuervo Republic," Chadha remembers, "struck an immediate chord. The problem we had was that each of our many distributors revolved individual campaigns around their own local activities with their own emphases. That was great for stimulating grassroots involvement, but what we lost was any kind of coordination."

"As a brand, in terms of awareness and equity, there was an incredible amount of duplicated effort," he continues. "The whole wasn't greater than the sum of its parts. It couldn't be. Not when you had 27 different URLs, at least 10 in the U.S., saying different things. And none of them connected to our radio and print promotions."

What Cuervo needed to do, Chadha recalls, was to tap the tantalizing concept of an island nation-state in a truly global way, and that meant creating a strategic platform to unify the brand message. To realize this goal, Cuervo in 2002 teamed up with Draft Digital to develop, an extension of its legacy website,, designed to embody a unified brand vision in the context of a fully integrated media strategy.

"What we tried to do," Chadha says, "was reinvent the Republic of Cuervo as a platform capable of fitting in everything we wanted to do with all media. The major challenge globally was to pull in all our local distributors and sell them on the platform, committing everyone to have all brand communications focused on and convergent with"

The first key component of the change was to distinguish's mandate from that of Where had just been about the product, the CuervoNation site from the start has been about the brand's identity and the social experiences associated with the brand. The site is virtually devoted to evoking and chronicling the pleasures of its real-world island counterpart.

At the CuervoNation site, visitors can take a virtual island tour complete with many photos of the actual island, learn about the island's history and even read its "Declaration of Independence." Among the features of the site are a steady stream of recipes for Cuervo-based drinks, tools for allowing visitors to send text and/or video greetings to friends, and CuervoNation TV, an online network webcasting from the island. On CuervoTV viewers can see a series of programs on five channels, each covering different "outpost" promotional events from around the world or the island itself. Customers can enter regular contests to win trips to attend events. Visitors can also opt in to subscribe to a regular newsletter.

Another key transformation of CuervoNation was the use of the website to focus a media placement strategy that had previously been scattered and fragmented.

"Demographically," says Chadha, "we've always tried especially to reach the 21-to-29-age group, and for this generation online is home. Broadcast, radio, and print remain important but they're not the core of this campaign. All media advertising is utilized concertedly to converge attention and traffic on"

To accomplish this Cuervo devoted one-third of the space in its print ads to publicizing Print ads were placed in a variety of venues popular with younger readers, including Playboy and Sports Illustrated, "laddie" magazines like Maxim and FHM, and urban culture publications like Flaunt, City, and Paper. Radio promotions focused on local CuervoNation events and parties, which often featured popular DJs doing live remote broadcasts. At point of sale, there were CuervoNation posters, and Cuervo Gold bottles prominently displayed information about the CuervoNation site.

Online ads ran not only on the larger mass market portals and big-name venues like, but on more esoteric sites like and B.ThereTV, sites often dismissed by big marketers as too "fringe." Cuervo's embrace of these sites marked yet another fundamental component of the campaign: its willingness to go against the grain in media placement.

"In placing our online buys," explains Maria Mandel, vice president and director of integrated marketing for Draft Digital New York, "we didn't just want to follow the beaten path to the high-traffic portals. For two reasons: There's far too much clutter there already and, more importantly, we wanted to target the more specific group of young influentials, people who represent their general demographic but who tend to be ahead of the curve in their tastes and whose opinions influence their peers. The way to find them is on the smaller niche sites where new trends and tastes are emerging." For Mandel, the success of the CuervoNation campaign was based on "moving the needle on how Cuervo Gold was perceived" and the fact that it "demands and rewards those who can find the road less traveled in media placement and stay ahead of the crowd."

When feasible, radio and print placements were targeted to reach outside the predictable venues. "We still put an emphasis on reach in print and broadcast, but we also work hard to locate places like Flaunt, which early-wave trend-setters are likely reading," adds Chadha.

By mounting a unified messaging strategy, Cuervo has thus far exceeded its own optimistic hopes for transforming brand awareness and traffic. The online campaign has registered 200 million impressions and a phenomenal 3 to 7 percent click-through rate average. Within the first year, ads were driving 100 million unique visitors to the site.

In addition Cuervo has found that the site lends itself easily and naturally to launching ad hoc attention-getting promotional events that increase not only brand awareness and buzz but database relationship marketing potential, an area held to be key to building value per customer.

Last summer, for instance, Cuervo and Draft Digital used the site as the centerpiece for its "Endless Summer" campaign. Heavily promoted in print and radio and at point-of-sale, the campaign focused on getting customers to sign an online petition to force the government to postpone Labor Day until the official end of summer on September 21. The petition, which collected thousands of signatures, was delivered to the steps of the U.S. Congress. Visitors who got the most friends to sign the petition won Cuervo "Summer Party Prize Packs."

Beyond driving traffic, a major accomplishment of the promotion was to add tens of thousands of names to the company's database which has grown to nearly 100,000 names. "Visitors signing up for the program were asked not only the standard demographic questions but also their tequila preferences, tastes, and habits," explains Mandel. "This information not only helped build dialog, but was invaluable for enhancing's potential as an online community."

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