How Patron’s CMO Found Success In Selling Its Substance Over Its Style

Adweek’s 2015 Brand Genius winner for spirits

Two years ago, when Lee Applbaum joined Patrón Spirits as CMO, the casual observer might have thought he had a breezy job ahead.

After all, in the '90s Patrón had already accomplished the hitherto impossible task of getting tequila—the dorm-room and Sunday brunch choice for high-potency margaritas—onto the top shelf. With its hand-numbered bottles trimmed in silk ribbons and fitted with round head corks, plus aged, small-batch varieties like Patrón Reposado, the company recast tequila as a complex liquor worth savoring—and ponying up $49 for.

Consumers bought in, and Patrón achieved a market share in the 60 percent range.

But Applbaum, as it turns out, had his work cut out for him. The global marketing chief saw trouble lurking in the status quo, believing that Patrón's marketing strategy had created a perception of "all style and no substance," he recalls.

"When I came in, the challenge was how to maintain the status of the brand but back it up with all the key attributes and the product's authenticity," he says.

The fact is, Patrón is much more than just a fancy bottle. The brand follows the tahona process, a painstaking method of tequila production whereby a volcanic stone wheel crushes Weber blue agave fibers, the juice then fermenting in pine casks. The process happens to be centuries old, and Patrón does it all by hand at its home base in Jalisco, Mexico.

But even though Patrón is about as authentic a tequila product as there is, at the time Applbaum came in the public wasn't aware of it. He set out to make sure it did.

Applbaum believed that the Web should be Patrón's main marketing platform. He built a digital identity and a social media staff from the ground up, as, at the time, Patrón didn't even have an active Twitter account. "We were nonexistent to nascent at best in digital and social," the marketer admits.

The beefed-up digital presence played a key role in the launch last year of Roca Patrón, a line of ultra-premium artisanal tequilas. Rather than going the traditional media route, Applbaum put the company's marketing budget into creating experiences that would both instruct consumers about Patrón's artisanal production process and give them something to share with their friends via social channels.

The Patrón Tequila Express

The highlight was Roca on the Rails, an event featuring food and tequila pairings served aboard the Patrón Tequila Express, a 1927 Pullman railroad car owned by the company's co-founder John Paul DeJoria and furnished like a pasha's palace. The train traveled the country, with each event producing a torrent of tweets, blog mentions and Facebook posts.

This summer, Patrón took the digital-experiential concept to a whole new level with the launch of The Art of Patrón Virtual Reality Experience, which let consumers virtually tour the Hacienda Patrón in Jalisco. "We've always said that if we could get every consumer to our hacienda, game over," says Applbaum, adding, "It's a transformational experience."

Partnering with creative agency Firstborn, Patrón used Oculus Rift technology to create a combination of drone-recorded and live-action video that takes viewers from the agave fields to the bottling process, all from the point of view of a bee.

A virtual tour of Hacienda Patrón

Logically enough, it created lots of buzz.

Today, more than 1 million Instagram posts feature Patrón. Among spirits makers, Patrón has become the No. 1 brand on Twitter and No. 9 on Facebook in terms of fans. Most importantly, its market share has grown from 60 to 70 percent.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.