In a season that saw Entourage incorporate more celebrity cameo appearances than could be seen in all 10 seasons of Friends, perhaps the most memorable walk-on role was delivered by a bottle of tequila.
From episode four through Sunday night’s finale, the seventh season of HBO’s breezy comedy took on a decidedly darker cast, as actor Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) begins his long day’s journey into night. Riding shotgun with the Aquaman and Medellín star as he cozies up with a porn star and the Physician’s Desk Reference is Tequila Avión, an upscale spirits brand that gets so much screen time it’s practically an ancillary character.
Despite the number of impressions Avión racked up with its big non-speaking role––the August 28 episode alone drew a season-high 2.86 million viewers––the principals behind the brand didn’t have to cough up a single peso for the integration. According to Ken Austin, co-founder and chairman, Tequila Avión, the placement was the result of a handshake deal between Entourage creator Doug Ellin and Avión co-founder Kenny Dichter. (Ellin and Dichter grew up together on Long Island; the two 42-year-olds have been friends ever since.)
“Kenny and I were in Nantucket a year ago, and Doug was telling us about how he was going through the process of plotting out the seventh season of Entourage,” Austin said. “He needed a business for Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), because he had already decided that the limo service was going to fail. While Doug was planning Entourage, we were getting ready to launch Avión … so it all came together from there.”
The trade-off for the millions in free brand exposure was putting Avión’s image in the hands of a showrunner rather than an agency creative director. “Doug told us that if we let him use the brand, we had to agree to give him total creative license,” Austin said. “A big company like Seagram’s would not have taken that chance. But we said, ‘Look, we’re entrepreneurs. We know all about risk. Let’s go for it.’”
As Turtle became more enmeshed in the distribution business, Vince, Drama and the rest of the gang began to wet their beaks in all the free samples. In one recent episode, Vince and his adult film star girlfriend (Sasha Grey) took a few restorative shots of Avión after an all-nighter. In a later installment, a long night of tequila and cocaine consumption lead Vince to badly blow a meeting with Braveheart director Randall Wallace.
Along with the inherent pitfalls that come with associating a brand with Vince’s increasingly louche lifestyle, having Avión written into the storyline each week mislead many viewers into believing that the tequila was as imaginary as Drama’s (Kevin Dillon) green-lit cartoon strip, Johnny Bananas. “Ninety-five percent of the people who watch the show still don’t know that Avión is real,” Austin said. “At the same time, the early adopters who have had a chance to try our tequila keep coming back for more. The stores can’t stock enough of it.”
Austin and Dichter are no strangers to the demimonde of high-flying celebrity, having launched Marquis Jet back in 2001. Among the bold-face names that are Marquis card holders are Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Matt Damon. (Incidentally, both James and Damon had walk-on roles in the season-six finale of Entourage, and at the end of the episode, the actor and the basketball star were seen boarding one of the planes in the Marquis fleet.)
Avión’s understudy work has led to some decidedly less party-intensive daytime encounters. Last month, during one of his regular segments on the Today Show, party planner Colin Cowie extolled the virtues of the tequila, saying it was a great gift to bring to your Hamptons hosts. Al Roker went Cowie one better, sampling the liquor and declaring that, “tequila is the new vodka.”
“These opportunities are changing the paradigm of how we go to market,” Austin said. “As a small independent, we know all the big boys could crush us if we try to compete by making a bunch of traditional media buys. … But we know a lot of folks from the entertainment business, and if we can keep people talking about us without having to spend a lot of money on TV and print, we’re just going to keep growing from here.”
And the big boys are spending. Last fall, Proximo Spirits launched a $15 million ad campaign in support of its 1800 Tequila brand. In a spot that first bowed on ESPN and Comedy Central, actor Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) bemoans the “posturing” associated with boutique tequila, grumbling that when he partakes, he wants to “kick back and be myself.” Staring down the camera with his familiar glower, Imperioli kicks a bottle of Patron from the table and acknowledges the gaffe with a sarcastic “oops.”
Accounting for approximately 36 percent of US tequila sales, Jose Cuervo spends north of $25 million per year on measured media. And while Avión is competing in the rarified air of 100 percent blue agave tequilas, even boutique brands like Heaven Hill’s Lunazul can sell as many as 45,000 cases per year. In other words, Austin and Dichter are entering an already well-served market.
Luckily for the Avión founders, America’s taste for tequila has never been more profound. According to the Beverage Information Group, tequila sales in 2009 grew 1.3 percent to 11.2 million cases.
It’s been just about two months since Avión began appearing on liquor-store shelves in New York and California, and while the company planned to hold off on making inroads with any additional markets until early 2011, the demand has been sufficient for the brand to start cropping up in New Jersey.
“We will expand to seven markets as soon as we can,” Austin said. “Although we’re with two of the biggest distributors, we literally can’t produce enough right now to meet the demand.”
Much of that has to do with the distillation and filtration process, which can take up to ten times longer than traditional methods. “We’re ramping up the best we can, but we’re not going to rush our tequila,” Austin said. “We’re a small company that thinks big, and one of the biggest changes we want to make is how Americans think about tequila. When people try Avión for the first time and they realize that they’re not going to make the tequila face––that’s when we convert the next vodka drinker.”