• Bill Petrie

The Problem with Jim Beam

Are you trying to be everything to everyone?

People who drink bourbon have opinions – strong, passionate opinions – about the potent potable. When describing a beloved bourbon, you’ll hear words and phrases like “nutty,” “smokey,” “spicy,” “fruity and floral,” “notes of vanilla,” and “smooth.” These phrases evoke a certain sophistication and understanding of the subtle nuances that different strains of corn, malted barley, rye, wheat, fermentation, and the aging process have on the final product.


The most popular bourbon in America, Jim Beam, has quite a different set of phrases bourbon connoisseurs use when describing the lager: “weak,” “forgettable,” “flavorless,” “zero-depth,” and, my personal favorite, “bottled horse piss.” Yet, even while Jim Beam sold more bourbon in the United States than any of its competitors in 2020, demand for the bland beverage has been declining sharply in the past few years as interest in craft spirits has skyrocketed.


Jim Beam’s biggest problem is that by trying to be everything to everyone, they end up being nothing to no one.


In the world of promotional products, many make the mistake of trying to be like Jim Beam, thinking that simply because “everyone” buys branded merchandise, everyone is a potential client. Trying to be everything to everyone is a precarious position that undermines your brand as the following happens:

  • Cease to show differentiation

  • Deliver mediocre work

  • Give your target audience a sense of desperation

Instead, it’s far better to narrow your niche by reducing your target audience. To someone who wants to sell more, it may seem counterintuitive to reduce the size of your potential customer base. But you want to narrow your audience for two reasons:

  1. You can’t please everyone – The sooner you accept that it’s okay that some people may not be interested in buying from you, the better. You need to talk to people who want to listen to what you have to say. Don’t waste your time trying to convert people or change their world views. As master marketer Seth Godin wrote in his book, All Marketers are Liars, “You need to realize that changing a worldview requires you to get your prospects to admit they were wrong. This is awfully hard to do.”

  2. Define what you offer and be true to it – even if it means losing people along the way. Remember, your goal isn’t to sell promotional products to organizations that don’t see the value in them as a messaging vehicle. Instead, your goal is to speak with prospects that have a similar worldview and are already open to the concept of leveraging promotional merchandise to achieve their organizational goals and want to work with an expert in the industry.

Humans desire specific solutions. For example, if you're thirsty and went to the liquor store, would you buy a bottle of bourbon simply labeled “bourbon?” Even though it’s in the general category of what you want, it’s far too broad to be a real solution. What about the bottle that’s labeled with phrases like “barrel proof,” “small-batch,” “aged in charred oak casks,” or “bottled in bond?” Most likely, you would buy this over the first bourbon. Given a choice, people will almost always go for the one that specifically addresses their problem.


If you market yourself as simply another promotional products distributor, you will get lost in the ocean of the other 23,999 who also sell the same merchandise. Instead, seek to provide a specific solution to a particular set of people. For example, promoting yourself as a “medical marketing expert” instead of a promotional products distributor not only leverages your unique expertise but allows you to sail away from the crowd.


If you refuse to narrow your niche, you run the risk of becoming as generic – and memorable – as Jim Beam. Remember, the most remarkable brands will not appeal to everyone. In the craft bourbon world, Jefferson’s makes a standout whiskey that has cultivated a fanatical fan base who celebrate the fact that the spirit is “aged at the mercy of the sea – aboard the deck of a ship, traveling to 25 ports, five continents, and across the equator twice.” As you might suspect, the brown liquor isn’t cheap – and it’s not meant to be. They don’t try to make bourbon that people who prefer to drink Jim Beam will buy. Instead, their audience is the discriminating bourbon drinker that demands a more complex and aged beverage. In the 24 years since Jefferson's founding in 1997, they have experienced wild success by staying true to their brand, not trying to please the masses, and narrowing their focus.


To be clear, Jim Beam isn’t horrible – it’s a decent pour and fine mixer. However, with apologies to my friend Rick Greene, it’s neither bold, different, nor memorable. Don’t be afraid to limit your targets – find your specific niche and speak to it continuously. When you try to be everything to everyone, you miss opportunities to share your particular message to an audience where it will resonate. More importantly, you end up being nothing to no one with sales as bland as a house-pour bourbon.

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