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Some Lessons About Branding Distilled From the Life of an Old-School Moonshiner

Some Lessons About Branding Distilled From the Life of an Old-School Moonshiner
Image credit: Neal Hutcheson | Flickr
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His tombstone reads: Popcorn Says F**k You. That’s all the evidence you need to see that the moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton didn’t care what anybody thought of him. He lived life fearlessly on his terms for 62 years and made his illegal “likker” into a national consumer brand.

Entrepreneurs like us should take note.

Sutton was from the Great Smoky Mountains, a center for the illegal distillation and distribution of alcohol since the days of Prohibition and before. He descended from a long line of moonshiners, brewing up liquor untaxed and unregulated.

Moonshining is hard work. He hand-made all of his distilleries, welding parts together with painstaking precision, lugging 100-pound sacks of sugar on his back and hacking through the Tennessee and North Carolina backcountry. He made a conscious choice to take on the punishing job of moonshining, even when safer, more legal vocations may have been presented.

Related: The 3 Ways Entrepreneurs Fail at Personal Branding

But making moonshine wasn’t enough for Sutton. With unprecedented boldness, Popcorn was also building a brand. First known as Popcorn Sutton’s Moonshine and sold in makeshift jugs, today’s trendier, micro-distilled legal version of his recipe is now known as Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey and adorns shelves in hipster neighborhoods across the country.

Popcorn’s brand path-to-success included a fistful of search warrants, arrests, and even a lawsuit by Jack Daniels. A relaxing of state regulations also helped open up opportunities for small distilleries like Sutton’s. But, the product’s dramatic ascent can be most-directly tied to  Sutton’s ’s passion and surprisingly astute planning.

Sutton proved the old marketing saw that word of mouth is the best medium, selling his jugs of “mountain dew” out of the back of his truck. But, his motto, “You can’t sell it, if nobody knows you got it,” drove him to dive deeper, publishing an autobiography/moonshining guide called Me and My Likker. And well before the arrival of You Tube, Sutton was featured in the documentary “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make” which he released on VHS and sold at his junk shop. A cult hit, the video sparked newspaper features, meetings with celebrities, and eventually a high-profile role in a 2007 History Channel documentary. Today you can find Sutton all over You Tube with plenty of reviews of his whiskey.

Related: On the Rocks: Jack Daniel's and Liquor Giant Diageo Feud Over 'Tennessee Whiskey'

Sutton even embarked on direct marketing, proffering business cards with a cell phone number so customers could place orders without leaving home.

Most importantly, he was passionate about what his brand stood for, which is also what he stood for: freedom. Popcorn became an embodiment of “America’s rebel spirit”—something his customers loved about him and which is the tagline for the brand.

This kind of clarity of vision and conviction is pure gold for brands. It’s behind every great brand from Go Pro (sharing experiences) to Honeymaid (wholesomeness). This awareness of purpose can color in every detail of a brand’s expression and can be determined through this 5 step discovery process:

1. What is your brand’s absolute conviction?

If you’re having trouble answering that question, examine how your brand is expressed through products, customer service, employee culture, and communications. You may find a golden thread that expresses an unwavering commitment.

2. What would be missing if your company didn’t exist?

There’s something in what you do and why you do it that’s magically you and nobody else. What would customers miss about you? Answer that and you’re close to what makes you special.

3. What is your customer's experience?

This is “the afterglow.” What shifts for your customers when they have enjoyed the full experience of your product or service? You are looking for an intangible experience, beyond product or service, that your company can stand behind for decades. It’s easy for your competitors to create a like-product with like-features to compete with you. But if your brand’s conviction lines up with your customer’s values—that can’t be duplicated.

4. Are you brave?

As a brander, are you ready to take the kind of stand that could be seen as the toughest, scariest and most taxing journey in business? Are you ready to willingly travel this dark, pathless and often lonely forest?

5. What’s your exit plan?

How will your brand survive your departure (either from the world or from the company)? Today you’ll find Sutton’s moonshine packaged and perched on store shelves across the country. That’s because Sutton passed along his methodology and brand ethos to Jamey Grosser, now master distiller of his ages old recipe. Grosser was joined in the continuation of Sutton’s brand legacy by country singer Hank Williams Jr. and Sutton’s widow Pam Sutton.

Related: What Artisanal Brands Can Teach Us About Using Technology to Humanize Business