Bar Code: How Spirits Brands Are Using Augmented Reality

Big-name companies like the Macallan and Patrón are employing high-tech marketing strategies to reach consumers.

By Michele Laufik January 29, 2018, 7:00 AM EST

With the Patrón Experience app, users are able to “plant” a field of agave on any flat surface viewable through the phone, as well as tour the brand’s hacienda in Mexico where its tequila is produced and bottled.

Photo: Courtesy of Patron

Many liquor and spirits companies like the Macallan, Patrón, and Beam Suntory are now redefining their concept of “beer goggles”—thanks to augmented reality. From extensive art exhibitions to cutting-edge mobile apps, innovative and immersive AR experiences have become a major component of these established brands’ marketing plans in hopes of reaching the next round of consumers.

“We’ve always been a very innovative brand in terms of technology,” explains Samantha Leotta, senior brand manager for the Macallan. “We always try to look out for the latest trends, but we look for technology not for the sake of technology, but if it can really bring our brand to life in a unique way that’s going to connect to that new generation of drinkers, new generation of consumers.”

Creating AR Environments
The Scottish spirits brand debuted its immersive augmented-reality art exhibit called Gallery 12, showcasing the Macallan Sherry Oak 12 Years Old and the Macallan Double Cask 12 Years Old whiskies, in New York this October. The mixed-reality experience combined the almost-200-year-old company with thoroughly modern, cutting-edge technology via Microsoft’s HoloLens. Described by Microsoft as a “self-contained, holographic computer,” the headset device allows wearers to engage with digital content and interact with holograms within a real-life environment, as opposed to virtual-reality headsets that broadcast an entire imaginary visual world for users.

After being fitted with a pair of HoloLens, guests were able to explore the immersive art installation, which featured custom pieces created by Santa Monica, California-based production company Tool of North America. Window frame structures looked out onto the American and European oak forests where the company sources the wood to make its casks, a deconstructed cask filled up with sherry, and flavor notes such as honey, citrus, cinnamon, and ginger rained down from suspended casks. The mix of physical and augmented elements seemed to delight guests, adds Leotta, with “some actually trying to grab [the citrus fruit].”

Leotta says that the augmented-reality experience allowed the brand “to tell the story of the whiskey-making process, from the forest where we harvest the trees that make our casks, all the way to glass, and that was really appealing to us.” In addition to New York, the Gallery 12 exhibit made stops in Miami, Chicago, and Houston, wrapping up its four-city tour on November 15 in San Francisco.

Designing Mobile Apps
Along with its Gallery 12 experience, the Macallan also launched a complementary augmented-reality app that’s specifically designed for Apple’s latest ARKit platform on iOS 11. “We wanted to extend the reach and the impact of this great technology,” explains Leotta. Similar to the gallery, the app gives users a glimpse into the wood-sourcing process, along with the whiskies’ natural colors and flavors—simply by scanning a bottle of the whiskey. “It’s something that anyone can use, whether you’re in a retail store, restaurant, or at an event. It’s a great conversation starter and a great way to engage with consumers in a really cool, unique way,” adds Leotta.

“Since we can’t bring millions of tequila drinkers to Mexico, AR allows us to bring Mexico to them.”

Since it’s built directly into the iPhone iOS, Apple’s ARKit platform is bringing augmented reality to mainstream consumers more easily, and will prove to a powerful tool especially with the new iPhone 8 and iPhone X. The Macallan isn’t the only spirits company putting this tech to use. Patrón recently launched its own AR app called the Patrón Experience. Users are able to “plant” a field of agave on any flat surface viewable through the phone, as well as tour the brand’s hacienda in Mexico where its tequila is produced and bottled. A bartender also provides a guided explanation of the tasting notes and barrel-aging process for each featured product in the app.

“Our mobile app is part of a larger strategy to re-imagine how consumers connect with the brands they love to drink by changing what they think,” explains Adrian D. Parker, vice president of marketing for the Patrón Spirits Company. “Even though Patrón is 70 percent of the U.S. tequila market, most people don’t know we have an artisanal production process used by less than one percent of tequila brands. … Since we can’t bring millions of tequila drinkers to Mexico, AR allows us to bring Mexico to them in a fun, engaging, and entertaining mobile experience. We’re a big brand with a small-batch process. It’s ironic that technology like AR, VR, and voice helps us showcase how old school our methods are.”

Earlier this year, the app Shazam launched its own augmented-reality platform for its brand partners, artists, and users. The app, which is best known for its popular audio-recognition feature, incorporated visual-recognition capabilities in 2015, making AR the next obvious leap in its offerings. By scanning “Shazam codes,” users are able to bring marketing materials to life with 3-D animations, product visualizations, mini games, and 360-degree videos. For example, in April, Shazam partnered with Beam Suntory (makers of Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Hornitos, and others), allowing users to scan in-store marketing to reveal an interactive 3-D tequila-theme memory game around Beam’s Hornitos and Sauza brands. After playing the game, consumers were awarded a discount for the products.

“[Beam Suntory] has always been innovating and in search of new ways to engage with their customers, and Shazam AR was the perfect platform for them to provide an immersive experience on the occasion of Cinco de Mayo festivities,” says Giovanni Bossio, senior public relations manager for Shazam.

Educating the Consumer
As is the case with many immersive experiences, one of the main goals with augmented-reality apps and exhibits is to educate the consumer—in a cool way.

“We know that there is a demand for whisky knowledge, and that’s something we want to bring to our consumers,” says Leotta. “People want to learn about it. They want to learn how it’s made. They want to know where it comes from. They want to know why the casks look this way. … We tried to deliver our message in a way that’s resonating with these consumers.”

Parker echoed those thoughts, saying that AR and tech help satisfy that thirst for knowledge among consumers. “Mobile and digital technology is really efficient at helping us reach the tequila-curious customer. The guy who knows about margaritas and shots but would never think to put Patrón in a
mojito. The lady who loves a Bloody Mary at brunch but hasn’t tried it with tequila, [known as] a Bloody Maria. We call these customers ‘knows’ because they are discerning, connected, and motivated by discovery and experiences.”

In addition to its AR app, Patrón is also building out artificial intelligence-powered experiences on Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, and Microsoft Cortana, as well as chatbots on Facebook, Twitter, and the company’s website. “We’re a tequila company that uses technology to accelerate storytelling,” says Parker.

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