The ultimate brand experience: Insights from Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey
Why do thousands of Coloradans work for free for this craft whiskey maker?
Photos by Sarah W. Frazier
Imagine having a database of 30,000 contacts who are willing to work for free. Just to clarify, that’s a list of people who will change their busy schedules, take a vacation day from their regular jobs or even take unpaid time off just for the opportunity to work four to five hours for your brand without financial compensation and with little advance notice.
Sound crazy? It’s reality for Colorado craft whiskey maker Stranahan’s.
While many of us struggle with building our email lists and growing our social media followers, Stranahan’s has a database of more than 30,000 residents who voluntarily registered (as in no gimmicks, contests or incentives) to work on their bottling crew. Two to four times a month, 50 names are chosen on a lottery basis, and the first 32 to respond to the email invitation are in. It can be weeks—or years—before you get your chance to join the ranks of the coveted bottling crew.
So what IS Stranahan’s secret? What are they doing that makes people give freely of their time, their most valuable asset?
I was about to find out. Yes, after four years on the list, my name was finally drawn.
As I met my fellow crew members from various locations across our state, visions of the I Love Lucy chocolate episode filled my head. We all started by preparing the metal bottle toppers and then off to our stations—I was part of the labeling team. No pressure—just place the label on the bottle mid-height, make sure it doesn’t have bubbles and it looks appropriate for a $60 bottle of whiskey. Easy, right? And off we go…
Empty bottles loaded onto conveyer belts, bottles cleaned, filled with whiskey, corked, labeled, topped and finished, a quick QA inspection, six bottles to a box and load the box onto a pallet. That’s the process we would repeat for the next three hours while classic rock from the 80s and 90s competed with the roar of the machines and clanking of glass. And when each pallet was filled, we all celebrated for a brief moment with a group shouting of, “Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray!”
And so the day went, bottle after bottle and pallet after pallet. It wasn’t too far into our shift that my hands began to smell of the smoky charred oak barrels and the sweet amber liquid they once contained.
We worked hard (and swiftly!) during our shift, emptying 10 barrels of whiskey, filling 2,400 bottles and loading five pallets. And when it was over, we got the ultimate reward: a tour and tasting, pizza, and the best trophy of all: a bottle of whiskey to take home.
Reflecting back on the day and attempting to answer my question of how Stranahan’s attracts such a large volunteer database, I decided it was a combination of a few things:
Product excitement generates customer excitement. If you were to visit Stranahan’s and take a free distillery tour (likely a huge lead source for their volunteer database), you’ll quickly notice their staff is genuinely excited about the whiskey they make. I’ve always told my staff, if you can’t get excited about your product, no one else will, either. The Stranahan’s crew lives that advice. From the tour guides to the distillers, there’s pride in Stranahan’s hand-crafted whiskey, and it’s contagious. Everyone (or at least 30,000 people) wants to be associated with a winner.
Offer a unique brand experience and then deliver on it. As I learned during my shift, assembly-line work is monotonous, tiring and not glamorous. In spite of that, I’d do it again. And, I’ve shared my experience with countless people. Unique customer experiences generate chatter—don’t be afraid to think outside the box. If you can offer your customers an uncommon experience, it will be remembered and will spark a deeper brand loyalty. I lived the Stranahan’s process—I’m sold.
Their “secret sauce” IS their sauce. Without question, the main lure to sign-up for Stranahan’s volunteer bottling crew is the admiration for Stranahan’s whiskey itself. Product and marketing beautifully in synch, their volunteer bottling crew approach perfectly illustrates that fine whiskey making is a personal, hand-crafted art.
Kudos to Stranahan's on a job well done. Thanks for the experience and of course, the bottle of whiskey.