Why This Whiskey Brand's Ads Are Military in Their Precision

The story of Travis Barnes and Hotel Tango

For its first major campaign, artisan whiskey distillery Hotel Tango eschews hyperbole and ad speak, adopting instead for a utilitarian look and feel, along with oddly precise, slightly stilted language that sounds almost military in its cadences. 

That's because recently drafted creative shop Young & Laramore embraced the U.S. Marine Corps background of Hotel Tango founder and CEO Travis Barnes in developing the work. 

Barnes served three tours of duty in Iraq, which included extensive combat, ambush missions and raids on high-value targets. Hit by several IEDs during those deployments, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Back in the U.S., Barnes graduated from law school, began making whiskey with his wife Hilary and their friends, and launched Hotel Tango in 2014.

With that backstory in mind, Y&L hit on the idea of fusing brand standards and quality with Barnes' commitment to serving his country. This led to a visual identity program based on MREs—"Meals, Ready to Eat"—aka standard rations, as well as packaging for other military-issued items, such as ammunition and uniforms. 

"In both design and language, they're incredibly straightforward and no-nonsense," Bryan Judkins, Y&L's principal and group creative director, tells Muse. "The package plainly states what's inside, how much of it there is, what it's supposed to be used for, etc. And in true bureaucratic fashion, there are often plenty of arcane numbers and abbreviations."

That aesthetic, playfully tweaked at times, as befits a spirits brand, informs the campaign, of which the ad below serves as a prime example:

"For civilian display," indeed! We don't want the brass polishing off too many at the O Club.

We debriefed Judkins on the tactical plan. Here's what he told us:

"The 'Hotel Tango Print Advertisement' takes the military approach to its logical conclusion. It plainly says what it is up front—'Hotel Tango Print Advertisement'; what the ad contains—68 words, the actual word count; and contains a comically flat-footed message explaining what this ad is to be used for—persuasion, of course. The other elements on the page—from the ID number (PC-401), to the revision number (7A), to the fake 'Department of Strategic Communications'—simply reinforce the idea that this is a highly vetted, government-issued item: something that will do the job it was made for." 

Here are some more examples, ranging from posters and packaging to logos and billboards, that fall into the same formation:

And in case you're wondering about the brand name—yes, there's a military connection.

"When I came back from serving as a Recon Marine, I was in law school and met my now wife, Hilary," Barnes says. "Hilary is a pilot, so she knew the military phonetic alphabet, and we started using it as a way to communicate—my attempt at romance, which worked. She called me 'Tango' and I called her 'Hotel,' so when we started Hotel Tango in 2014, drawing on the similar practices I learned in the military for distilling, it seemed befitting that the distillery have a military-inspired name." 

Client and agency believe the target audience "will engage with the brand and share Hotel Tango's story with their guests and friends," says Y&L associate account director Dave Theibert. 

That audience consists mainly of affluent 30- to 60-year-olds, living in cities or nearby suburbs. This demo includes lots of progressive, left-leaning folks who might not necessarily embrace a military mindset. Plus, alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse remain persistent problems for veterans and active-duty personnel.

So, is there any concern the military theme could actually backfire with some consumers?

"Hilary and I are very proud of the fact that Hotel Tango was born because of our meeting and my time in the military, but we've worked very hard over the years to inject a sense of new-age camaraderie to the brand," says Barnes. "Our goal is to showcase the military-inspired beginnings of the distillery, through the lens of our spirits, but our company mantra is based on a 'Come one, come all' mentality and spirit. That will never change, and we hope that continues to be communicated through our brand creative."


Client - Hotel Tango
Agency - Young & Laramore
Tom Denari – President and Chief Strategy Officer
Carolyn Hadlock – Principal, Executive Creative Director
Bryan Judkins – Principal, Group Creative Director
Scott King - Creative Director/Writer
Dan Shearin – Associate Creative Director/Designer
Derek Hulsey – Designer
Cassie Conklin – Social Media Manager
Lynn Kendall – Director of Production
Jeff Durham – Production
Kari Peglar – Director of Consumer Insights and Analytics
Marie MacWhorter - Consumer Insight Strategist
Bess Browning – Associate Media Director
Colleen O'Mara – Media Assistant
Dave Theibert – Associate Account Director
Sam Hanes – Account Manager
Nils Ericson – Photographer

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