linked in facebook twitter rss

  • Interbrand
  • Brandchannel

your chance!
your chance!
Black Death - killer
Also of interest...

Black Death - killer

  Black Death
by Abram Sauer
April 3, 2006

Don’t describe, distinguish—or so naming experts recommend. Some would say spirits brand Black Death has successfully done both. So, where is it?

The brand probably started out as moonshine. A clear, potent drink developed in 1906 by a family called Sigurdsson, the spirit got its moniker from the local Icelandic, “Svarta Daudi,” or “Black Death.” One surmises this name must be the outcome of the pre-distinguish “describe” phase. For the next 80 years, Black Death would stay largely out of the spotlight.


Having bounced from distributor to distributor, reliable information on the brand’s history is slim at best. It was in 1987 that the beet-based Black Death Vodka made its mark, winning a London International Wine and Spirit Competition gold medal and launching itself into a tumultuous half-decade of ups and downs.

Its bottles distinguished with a smiling, top-hatted skull, Black Death began to see problems in 1990 when the Scarborough Football Club was banned from wearing jerseys sponsored by Black Death. Then, in April 1992, reporting on the then Belgian-produced Black Death, Time magazine stated that “the [US] Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms [ATF], with exquisite literalness, is blocking the liquor on grounds of misleading advertising, since the brand seems to promise poison and plague but delivers only vodka.” Though the ATF lost its lawsuit against the brand’s US distributor, the agency ultimately seemed to have won the battle.

In October 1996, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Saul “Slash” Hudson, a brand spokesperson at the time who was often photographed in a Black Death Vodka T-shirt, told the unofficial Guns N’ Roses website, “Black Death paid me a bunch of money to endorse them and then disappeared.”

Today UK distiller G&J Greenall distributes Black Death in several varieties, including vodka, tequila, and gin. Not to be confused with Black Death Premium Deer Urine, a hunting decoy, the spirits brand can be found in 70 nations and claims annual sales of over 120 million bottles and cans. (Supposedly, it is the only vodka available in cans.) Greenall also asserts that Black Death has won 27 medals from the International Wine and Spirit Association since 1990.

Humble attempts to learn more concrete information about the Black Death brand proved fruitless. Though G&J Greenall provided brandchannel with Black Death’s US distributor, with which Greenall has no working partnership, all attempts at contact have gone unanswered. An extensive search through some of the most well-stocked liquor stores in New York City not only produced no Black Death, but also no knowledge of where it might be found. Ditto the Internet, where the most common response from online spirits shops was “Temp Out of Stock” (though there appears to be nothing temporary about it).

Recent news about the brand hasn’t been good. A massively destructive distillery fire in October 2005 followed a May 2005 fine of £2 million for illegal distribution of Black Death Vodka. One might say a pox is on its house.

Clearly the ATF did not understand, or did and ignored, the correlation between brand preference and personal identity. Choosing to drink Black Death Vodka does no more to make a man (or a woman, but probably a man) plague-friendly than using an Apple iMac makes one a health nut. However debauched it seems to the majority, it’s more likely that a Black Death fan has cultivated a personality befitting the brand identity than that Black Death Vodka’s branding has shaped said personality. Conversely reasoning, if you don’t eat Life cereal, does that mean you have a death wish?

In many ways Black Death was a branding trailblazer. Its early-nineties scuffle with the law coincided with the emergence of a disaffected culture that defied eighties excess by overtly insulting the status quo—shock for shock’s sake. Lead singer of the aforementioned band Guns N’ Roses was fond of wearing a T-shirt with murderer Charles Manson’s visage. The year before the ATF took on Black Death, rapper Ice-T’s song “Cop Killer” put even the most strident champions of free speech on shaky ground. Defending his song much the way one might imagine Black Death could have defended itself, Ice-T said that he was no more a cop killer than “David Bowie is an astronaut.” These stunts would hardly rate a mention ten years later.

So Black Death got wrongly bullied 14 years ago. The bigger question is, Why hasn’t it come back in the US? It certainly cannot be because of potential naming problems. One of the most popular microbrewed beers in the US is Delirium Tremens, named after the potentially fatal complications of symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Non-alcoholic energy drink names include Bong Water, Pimp Juice, Bottle Rocket and Bomba, the latter two of which come in bottles resembling a missile and a grenade, respectively.

Black Death would seem to be the perfect fit in a US marketplace anesthetized to shock, where viral campaigns are the norm, ex-Presidential candidates hawk erectile dysfunction cures, and porn stars shill shoes while half-naked socialites sell hamburgers. In a marketplace so increasingly filled with identical, indistinguishable brands and messages, consumers are drawn to individuality. Its initial foothold even remains, with eBay doing a healthy trade in Black Death Vodka T-shirts, key chains, and the occasional Black Death coffin (a special packaging once available for the bottles).

Later this year US markets will see Kalashnikov Vodka, namesake of one of the most well-known man-made tools of death in history. Why not a vodka named after one of the most natural?


Abram Sauer is brandchannel's resident sin correspondent.

 commenting closed Add Social Bookmark bookmark  print
 suggest topic  recommend ( 15 )  email

  brandchannel profile archive   2011  |  2010  |  2009  |  2008  |  2007  | 2006  |  2005  |  2004  |  2003  |  2002  |  2001
Dec 18, 2006 Appaman - hip kids -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  Appaman wants your kids to be the hippest on the block.
Dec 11, 2006 Capital One - pocket protector -- Renée Alexander
  Capital One takes on the big banks in Canada with a humorous approach: poking fun at the banking industry.
Dec 4, 2006 Dabur Real - fruity juice -- Preeti Suchanti
  For Indians seeking portable but healthy beverages, Dabur Foods' offering promises the Real thing.
Nov 27, 2006 Miami City Ballet - raising the barre -- Vanessa Horwell
  When it comes to focusing on a younger audience, Miami City Ballet stays on point as it stays en pointe.
Nov 20, 2006 Toyota FJ Cruiser - all-terrain -- Alycia de Mesa
  How does Toyota keep its brand fresh? By putting a modern spin on an old favorite.
Nov 13, 2006 Louis Vuitton - king -- Slaven Marinovich
  The Louis Vuitton brand is known for luxury items that are coveted—and counterfeited.
Nov 6, 2006 Baby Einstein - smarty pants -- Alycia de Mesa
  Has its acquisition by Walt Disney diluted the genius of the Baby Einstein franchise?
Oct 30, 2006 Borat vs. Kazakhstan - identity crisis? -- Abram Sauer
  Borat Sagdiyev may be a fictional character, but his affect on Westerners' perception of Kazakhstan is very real.
Oct 23, 2006 Panera Bread - flour power -- Anthony Zumpano
  With free WiFi and an extensive menu, Panera Bread bakes a high-rising alternative to the coffeehouse giants.
Oct 16, 2006 Cheetah Power Surge - breaking all the rules -- Renée Alexander
  D'Angelo Brands hires Ben Johnson, a formerly disgraced Olympian, to endorse its newest energy drink. Will a cheater sell "Cheetah"?
Oct 9, 2006 Verizon LG Chocolate - handy candy -- Alycia de Mesa
  Will people seeking an all-in-one phone/media player are be sweet on Verizon's Chocolate?
Oct 2, 2006 Domo Gasoline - sustainable? -- Renée Alexander
  Domo Gasoline pins its focus on customer service to tangle with the titans of the petroleum industry.
Sep 25, 2006 Marks and Spencer - losing its spark? -- Jackson Mahr
  Retailer Marks & Spencer extends its branding but maintains its British roots.
Sep 18, 2006 Alienware - abducted -- Abram Sauer
  After being acquired by Dell, will Alienware be able to maintain its outsider status and skeptical customer base?
Sep 11, 2006 Teas' Tea - nudie tea -- Alycia de Mesa
  Steeped in the tradition of Japanese tea making, Teas’ Tea enters American waters.
Sep 4, 2006 Lacoste - snappy -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  Lacoste takes a bite out of the luxury market
Aug 28, 2006 AOL - crashing -- Abram Sauer
  AOL dumped America but it seems America just cannot dump AOL. Will the brand survive the shambles or is it clicking through to its final log off?
Aug 21, 2006 K-Y - keeps it up -- Abram Sauer
  Most medical brands strive to enter mainstream use and grow their market base. K-Y Brand of personal lubricants took awhile to ease into its move from doctor’s office to bedroom.
Aug 14, 2006 Gawker Media - squawker -- Abram Sauer
  Gawker Media puts snark in the lexicon.
Aug 7, 2006 YouTube - me watch -- Abram Sauer
  Is rapidly growing video hosting site YouTube in danger of being eclipsed by rapidly growing imitators?
Jul 31, 2006 Nike + iPod - track meet -- Alycia de Mesa
  Nike and Apple: two peas in an iPod?
Jul 24, 2006 Bugaboo - high rollers -- Alycia de Mesa
  Bugaboo strolls through the playground with an elitist air.
Jul 17, 2006 Steam Whistle Pilsner - chugs -- Renée Alexander
  Steam Whistle Brewing hopes to stand out at the bar with an attractive green bottle and an instant heritage.
Jul 10, 2006 Las Vegas - cashes in -- Abram Sauer
  Las Vegas: If your tagline doesn’t alienate somebody, something must be wrong.
Jul 3, 2006 BP - energetic -- Jackson Mahr
  BP shines bright against other petroleum brands.
Jun 26, 2006 Comedy Central - funny business -- Abram Sauer
  Comedy Central’s success is no laughing matter
Jun 19, 2006 Eos Airlines - in business -- Alycia de Mesa
  Eos Airlines flies in the face of current low-cost flights
Jun 12, 2006 Lowrance Australia - net gain -- Ian Cocoran
  GPS mapping and sonar brand Lowrance reels it in down under.
Jun 5, 2006 Coca-Cola Blāk - mystique -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  Coca-Cola’s new product looks to appeal to fashionable, figure-conscious twenty- and thirty-somethings
May 29, 2006 Budweiser - budding in -- Slaven Marinovich
  Anheuser-Busch and Germany’s Bitburger beer are not buds
May 22, 2006 TIAA-CREF - continuing education -- Gabriel Stricker
  After studying the retirement services field, TIAA-CREF is determined to demonstrate why it is on the Fortune 100.
May 15, 2006 BlackBerry - out of season? -- Gabriel Stricker
  BlackBerry must overcome the threat posed by newfound competition and its own complacency.
May 8, 2006 WestJet Airlines - high times -- Renee Alexander
  WestJet Airlines takes off, causing congestion in Air Canada’s skies
May 1, 2006 Bangbros - hardcore -- Abram Sauer
  Bangbros: Makes its bed in a crowded industry.
Apr 24, 2006 adidas - offensive stripe -- Slaven Marinovich
  Trademark Trials: adidas declares stripes off limits
Apr 17, 2006 Budgy Smugglers - brief case -- Ian Cocoran
  Budgy Smugglers: A small irreverent brand in Australia packs a laugh down under.
Apr 10, 2006 Google - g-nius -- Gabriel Stricker
  As the first “stem cell” brand, Google has the genes to grow its interests however it sees fit, but where else can it inject its DNA?
Mar 27, 2006 Moritz - another round -- Joe Ray
  Another Round? Spanish brew Moritz pours on the nostalgia to relaunch its brand.
Mar 20, 2006 Evian Spa - spring break -- Doris Ho
  Does brand extension Evian Spa water down the brand?
Mar 13, 2006 Skype - speaks volumes -- Chris Grannell
  Skype is looking to become the category benchmark for consumer VoIP, but with its early success and increasing competition, can it keep up with the hype?
Mar 6, 2006 The Pedagogs - teacher's pet -- Adeline Chong
  The Pedagogs stick to identifiable characters to motivate early learning in the classroom and at home.
Feb 27, 2006 Shark Shield - bites back -- Ian Cocoran
  Shark Shield’s message is that it’s safe to go back in the water.
Feb 20, 2006 Harrods - legendary -- Jackson Mahr
  Harrods shelves the re-brand, à la Harvey Nichols or Selfridges, and somehow thrives anyway.
Feb 13, 2006 lululemon athletica - in shape -- Renée Alexander
  Active wear brand lululemon promotes yoga as lifestyle.
Feb 6, 2006 Hong Kong Disneyland - it's a small world -- Doris Ho
  Mickey hovers between East and West at Hong Kong Disneyland.
Jan 30, 2006 RBC Dexia - freshly minted -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  RBC Dexia Investor Services joins Canadian financial services and European investor services into one fresh perspective.
Jan 23, 2006 Geek Squad - screen savers -- Alycia de Mesa
  Geek Squad promises to inspect your gadgets.
Jan 16, 2006 The Guardian - unfolds -- Jackson Mahr
  Black and white and read all over? The read on the Guardian’s current layout, font and editorial content.
Jan 9, 2006 USPS - return to sender
  Federal agencies often miss an opportunity to connect with their customers. The US Postal Service has a strong heritage but fails to deliver on the brand.
Jan 2, 2006 TiVo - changing channels -- Diane Murphy
  DVR pioneer TiVo fast forwards in the face of competition.