November 2011

Sake Advertising - Where's The Beef?

Posted by Beau Timken in 2011, Newsletter, November
Leave it to me. I have the sake industry covered. It's actually what I've been working on from the get-go. Yup, for ten years I've been formulating the perfect marketing slogan and ad campaign that best typifies the most splendid of all ancient beverages. Taking into consideration its glorious and storied past and the fact that sake is actually the essence of a culture reduced into a liquid - a nectar if you will - I have rationalized that the slogan or message must be both powerful yet extremely graceful. The task has been daunting to say the least.

How does one go about encapsulating 1,000 years of brewing history in a word? Where does one start in an attempt to combine the unique qualities of at one point in time over 10,000 individual sake breweries scattered all over most of Japan? What phrase can capture the purity of so many lives dedicated to producing handcrafted goodness in a bottle? The people, the sake makers, the townsfolk, the owners, the transporters, the sellers, the rice farmers, the consumers they all play a role they all have a part in the "process" known as sake, but how can somebody honor their "sake beings" in a sound bite? If sake were on its deathbed, what one phrase would it utter - what "Rosebud" moment would unfold? And if sake were dead and gone, what sentence or set of words would be on that sad gray tombstone glistening with recent raindrops, slightly molded, slightly grimy?

Turn 180 degrees!

Let's look to the other side of the equation. How best can sake call for help? Instead of saying what sake is how best can one say what sake "could be"? What words or "Cha-Ching" catch phrase can sake scream out to attract attention? It's a large and angry libation world out there. There are lots of nasty and loud beasts in a jungle filled with super sexy and super charged slogans pitched at all - and I mean all consumers. How does sake compete with these "professionals?" How does The Little Libation That Could keep up with the million-dollar/yen ad spends? How can a 700 year-old sake brewery with 9 employees attract attention over the jet engine roar of a multi-billion dollar concern with people who actually wear coats and ties and have strange groups of staring eyes called "shareholders" looking over their shoulders? Who out there can hear a whisper in a typhoon?

It's been my job - no - duty to figure this out. It has been my mission to crack this nut. Nobody asked me. Not one brewer has asked "Hey Beau will you please gain some attention for my sakes!" No the Japanese Sake Brewers Union has not asked "Beau-san, will you please save the sake industry with a powerful catch phrase that looks good on a billboard!" Nobody has asked, and yet I feel compelled to do so. I feel compelled to broadcast to the world, to all of those over the age of 21 at least, that there is an amazing substance out there; a substance that will fulfill all of their wildest and most passionate liquid dreams. The problem is that this slogan or message or phrase must be one part honoring of the amazing history and noble players of sake, one part explanation of the elegance of the libation, and one part thigh-high stocking sexiness of a modern drink shrouded in mystery and intrigue.

But how?

"Got Sake?" There I said it. You were all waiting for me to write that! "Got Sake?" I said it again. I mean that's it isn't it? That's the super cheesy classless slogan on a black T-shirt with white letters that we have all grown to detest right? "Got Rice?" "Got Chocolate?" "Got Crabs?" Been there done that! No "Got Sake?" was nowhere near my radar screen. Not even close. In fact it is the anti-Christ of the mission. It is the complete opposite message that the ultra super classy beverage known as sake needs. Polar opposites. So what is the opposite of "Got Sake?" Hmmmmm! That is the question. Remember Colt 45 Malt Liquor "It works every time"? God I loved that one, but could never really figure out the "works" part as in it gets you completely shitfaced or it puts your date in a mini coma perfect for nefarious "roofie"-like activities? "Sake - It works every time!" Yah, no that one is not happening.

But we are getting closer.

"Sake To Me!" Just so you know I actually punched myself in the face after typing that! This one "phrase" has been the bane of my retail sake existence. Year one - okay it was sort of funny. The media used it a lot when interviewing me or writing stories about sake. Year 2 - yah a little less funny. Year 3 - I wanted to scream. Year 4 - one of my closest friends started a line of sakes called "Sake 2 Me." Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh! Please I beg of you never mention that phrase again, or maybe that's it! Maybe it is so obnoxious that people feel compelled to comment on it like the commercials with the worst songs ever that you find yourself humming for hours on end. Bad = Good? No I could not do that to my precious sake. No way!

Oh the industry has flirted with attempts: "Nectar of the Gods" "Water From Heaven" "Water of the Gods" but they are - in a word - ummmm lacking. Not fresh, not relevant, not hip, not now, where do I begin? Sake needs to up its game.

Sake - "The King Of Bevs" "The Quicker Picker Upper" "Over A Billion Sold" "Taste The Magic" "The Un-Cola" "A Newer Taste Sensation" "The Other White Drink" "The Rice And Water Treat" "It's The More Real Thing" "Mmm Mmm Better" - Nope not working! Not doing justice to the essence of greatness. Wait - wait a second! "Sake The Essence of Greatness" Un-uh! Not happening. Words don't do justice. Ummm wait another second - "Sake - Words Don't Do Justice!" No that's stupid because there are words - don't, do and justice.

If words don't do justice, and a slogan cannot capture the brilliance of the sake siren then what? That's when it hit me. When words fail what do you do? You make a gesture, a hand-sign, a movement to express feelings and emotions, in other words you make a visual caricature of your meaning. And voila I immediately thought of "Spuds MacKenzie" the Budweiser spokes-dog of note. And then to the Taco Bell Chihuahua. Then back to the Budweiser Clydesdales. Then to the silver bullet train. Then to the bald headed cleaning guy in a white T-shirt. Then to Ronald freaky clown in yellow McDonald. Then to that horrible salamander posing to be a gecko. Then back to Bud Man! Do you remember Bud Man? Oh yah a beer swilling dorky super hero with a mask on a very long face. Talk about people going crazy on Joe Cool the camel that smokes - as a horrible example of a cartoon character trying to appeal to kids, then Bud Man would take the cake. Super Hero = Booze. Nice! Very nice. But that's it - the sake industry doesn't need words. It doesn't need a catch phrase to woe customers. It doesn't need that motto to stand out above all of the other bottles. No! What sake needs is a mascot!

Honjozo Joe! - Junmai Guy! - Duke Daiginjo! - Rice Man! - Koji Ken! - Ginjo Glen! - Polishing Pete! - Fermenting Frank! - Mr. Masu! - General Genshu! - Major Mold! - Nama Mama! - Nigori Ned! -

But what we really need is dignity! We need class. We need sophistication in a stylish package that appeals to several generations. We need old school hip with a dash of modern panache. We need an image that says, "Hey darling it's me it's all good!" or "The moment is now - let go and reach for me" or maybe even "I'm the best - you know it dog!" Well actually those all are horrible, but the point is the mascot need not say a word. The mascot is the image, the history, the pageantry, the regality, the essence of sake in one little form. And then it hit me.

I have had several goals in my sake trials and tribulations. The first is that I cannot die until any restaurant that has a wine and beer menu has to have at least one sake offering on that same menu. The second is to have a 30 second sake industry commercial during the Super Bowl. Where's the Beef? No we can do better, because we have: "Sake Dude"

Bud Man meet Sake Dude! Ronald say hello to Sake Dude! Aunt Jemima this is Sake Dude! Mr. Clean let me introduce you to Sake Dude.

Drawing of Sake Dude by N. Fujimori
Yes, a 1,000 years of brewing history is modernly transformed into "Sake Dude" a cool, clean and confident libation guy. "Sake Dude" is the face of sake! He is what every woman wants and what every guy wants to be; he is, in a word, "it." Stand down tequila guy, move over whiskey jack, be gone vodka geek, get away bourbon boy, piss off beer bum, shove off wine geek, because "Sake Dude" is there on the shelf, there on the menu, and there on the tip of the consumer's tongue. "Hey everybody check out Sake Dude! This place has sake! Yeaaaah! Let's all get sake, because Sake Dude is in the house!"

OMG! I cannot type anymore. I cannot keep up the charade. Sake Dude? Really? I don't know what is more laughable, Sake Dude or the mere fact that the sake brewing industry would actually market or advertise their product on a national scale. They don't do it in Japan! (Never have and probably never will, so why would they do it overseas?) Yes of course the large or macro breweries advertise in Japan on a national scale via print and or video campaigns. But for the most part the small guys do not on a national scale. The cost benefits are not there - or are they? I did go to a brewery in Yamagata Prefecture - Ohyama - and watched a series of 1970's commercials that the owner made and showed me over and over (think Monty Python, Yellow Submarine, and Mt. Dew in a visual blender of sorts) but these were the exception.

I do want the Japanese Brewers Union to start a serious ad campaign extolling the virtues of sake in an attempt to win over a new wave of sake drinkers both in Japan, the US, and abroad. I do want them to realize that yes there are a lot of drinking options out there for young and old consumers alike, and it takes a bullhorn to get their attention. I do want them to get aggressive and differentiate themselves from the larger - top 5 - sake breweries and pitch themselves as micro-breweries. I do want a collective of sorts where a series of commercials and ads represent them all as a great drink, a wonderful departure from the common, and quite simply a new and pure form of enjoyment.

Sake is an old drink, but it is a new day! The industry must aggressively attack the market with the same vigor as wine, beer, and spirits. Obviously they cannot do it alone as small little individual breweries scattered throughout Japan, but with an epic ad campaign they could collectively make some noise. And both Sake Dude and I are at their service! We are there for them! And we will rock the Super Bowl. Just give us a chance. Well, give somebody a chance!

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