Guerrilla Marketing Genius: Is It The Beer Or The Band?


A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

What happens when you release a CD in the form of a bottle of beer? Telegraph Brewing and the California band Buellton asked themselves this question and decided to answer it by doing it.

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The Sounds Of Silent Partner

One of the reasons I made a small Angel investment in Telegraph Brewing several years ago was because of my confidence in the beer brewing creativity of its Founder, Brian Thompson. What I didn’t know at that time was that Brian’s inventiveness extended beyond hops and barley, into the world of guerrilla marketing.

Brian carried out one of his most clever marketing campaigns earlier this summer, when he partnered with the band Buellton and created a new saison brew, called Silent Partner. As noted on the label, each bottle of beer, “includes the full length album” in the form of a download code displayed under each cork.

The combination of beer and music undoubtedly harks back to primitive man’s discovery that fermented fruit tasted funky but resulted in a desirable buzz. More recently, Dogfish Head continued this beer / music alliance by paying homage to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew album with a custom brew.

I recently caught up with Brian over a couple of cold ones and asked him to share the lessons he learned from Silent Partners’ rollout.

John Greathouse: Brian, I must say that the Silent Partner go-to-market strategy is pretty original. What was the original genesis of the idea?

Brian Thompson: “I wish I could take credit for the idea, but the band approached us. I’ve known John Nygren, Buellton’s lead singer, for years –we’re good friends. He was looking for a way to make an impact with their new record without having to tour for the next 18 months straight. They’re all guys with jobs and families, and they simply can’t put that all on hold to live the rock-n-roll lifestyle. They’ve all done that in their younger years and they knew they would need some new marketing hook to get attention this time.” 

Greathouse: OK, it’s a cool idea, but was it profitable? Would you do it again?

Thompson: “Absolutely! Not only has it worked out that everyone makes a little money—trust me, the band and the brewery aren’t getting rich from this by any means—but it’s been so much fun. We would absolutely team up with another band to do this again if the connection was there. They’d have to like our beer, and we would have to like their music.”(laughs)


Greathouse: I recently read that in 2002, the average sales of a CD from a major label were less than 12,000 units, while independent releases averaged about 1,700 units. I am sure these figures are even smaller today. In light of these figures, how did Silent Partner do?

Thompson: “Wow, those numbers are shockingly low!  I knew the music industry had dramatically changed with the digital age, these figures are pretty weak. Based on those numbers, yes, I can say with certainty that we will beat the average sales of a major label release.”

Greathouse: Creative marketing ideas are great, but without proper execution, they are doomed. Was the devil in the details when you rolled out Silent Partner?

Thompson: “Yea, the hard work usually starts after you have a good idea and Silent Partner was no exception. We were initially concerned that there might be some legal prohibition on this; would an album download be seen as some improper inducement to buy a beer? It turns out there was no issue whatsoever; the label was approved without any problem. Another wrinkle was that we couldn’t directly share the revenue from the beer’s sales with the band, due to restrictive alcohol laws. We worked around this by simply purchasing the download codes from the band. In essence, what we’re doing is giving away an album download with each bottle of beer; it really is no different from those gift boxes of vodka or Scotch with logo glassware or a branded cocktail shaker.

Once the beer was released, we found that when all the players in the distribution channel ‘got it,’ the beer sold well. It was priced at about $15 at retail — pretty expensive, even for a 750-ml, cork-and-cage bottle of beer — so it was important that the folks working in the stores could explain the higher price, how the songs could be accessed, etc. A couple distributers just didn’t understand the concept and took small allocations. But with the media exposure we’ve gotten and the sales numbers, I am hopeful that now that we have proven the market for a beer / album combination, and those distributers will pick up our next collaborative brew with more enthusiasm.”

Greathouse: I think you have started a trend here. Apparently Jenny Lewis released her CD in the form of a bottle of wine a couple months after your shipped Silent Partner. I guess someone in Colorado or Washington will soon release a CD with each pot purchase.

Thompson: <laughing> “Yes, we saw Jenny’s wine release and were flattered; her camp may not admit it, but the timing certainly makes it look like they borrowed our idea. Look, we don’t own this concept and we have no issue with anyone who wants to distribute music in this manner. Frankly, we’re surprised it hasn’t been done before. I am an indie music fan myself, so the more the merrier.”

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I’ll never tweet about lousy beer or that killer burrito I am about to devour – just startup stuff.


John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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