Photos courtesty Aviation Gin/Ryan Reynolds

Aviation Gin has grown rapidly in recent months, emerging as a category leader and electrifying the previously sleepy gin space with viral marketing and innovative messaging. The catalyst, unsurprisingly, was the brand’s acquisition by actor Ryan Reynolds in February, 2018.

Reynolds joins an ever-growing list of celebrities tied to liquor brands. Sean Combs has Ciroc. Justin Timberlake has Sauza 901. Bethenny Frankel has Skinnygirl Margaritas. And who can forget George Clooney and Rande Gerber, who sold their Casamigos brand for $1 billion. While celebrity ‘side hustles’ (because even celebrities need some extra income?) have been around for ages, they seem to be gravitating more and more toward the beverage industry.

For the ‘Deadpool’ star, however, the acquisition isn’t about what’s trending, or about following in his peers’ footsteps. It’s about passion.

Reynolds has taken Aviation Gin and run with it, melding the label’s identity with his own witty humor. From a marketing perspective, Reynolds is a case study in branding; he’s repositioned the product to reach a broader audience by giving it a sense of style it simply didn’t have before.

“It’s the best gin on the planet,” Reynolds began. “The taste is incomparable and there’s a reason it’s become the fastest growing gin on the market.”

Aviation American Gin was conceived in 2006, when Bartender Ryan Magarian and Portland Distillery Owner Christian Krogstad trial-tested and ultimately produced a winning mix of seven botanicals: lavender, sweet and bitter orange peel, cardamom, coriander, Indian sarsaparilla, anise seed, and of course, juniper. The two founders grew the brand substantially over the years and sold it to Davos Brands, LLC in New York in 2016, though production continued (and continues) in Krogstad’s House Spirits Distillery in Portland.

Reynolds repeatedly speaks to the product’s quality as fueling his drive to buy the brand from Davos (‘After falling in love with Aviation Gin, I didn’t just buy another bottle…I bought the whole company,’ he says in one of his viral videos). But for Aviation Gin to succeed in the way it has over the past 18 months, a lot more groundwork has had to be laid.

And in Reynolds’s eye, the celebrity aspect is just a very small factor in the brand’s grand ecosystem. 

“I can get people to try Aviation ONCE,” Reynolds stressed. “The celebrity component will only get us so far. We have to back that up with an honest-to-God superstar product.”

Despite being one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors, Reynolds has hustled just like any entrepreneur looking to get the next great app off the ground. He does acknowledge, however, that he has a bit of an advantage over the average Joe.

“Having some sort of name recognition helps because it allows me the opportunity to meet king-makers who love Aviation the same way I do,” Reynolds said. “The king-makers are the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies who put our gin on the shelves of their hotels, restaurants and stores. But again, the gin does most of the work for me.”

Reynolds’ acting career may be a financial safety net, but with his dedication to the brand, it’s as if that net didn’t exist. The level of seriousness that Aviation draws is certainly a different side of the Ryan Reynolds people are familiar with on-screen.

The results speak for themselves. Aviation Gin is distributed across the US and in 15 countries worldwide. And Reynolds can certainly mix business with fun.

“I’m just the tipsy host cracking jokes and making introductions,” Reynolds said.

Marketing has played an instrumental role in Aviation Gin’s growth, and Reynolds has been the focal point of that movement.

“We have a limited marketing budget,” Reynolds said. “We needed to create viral videos which earn the same amount of eyeballs a Super Bowl commercial would receive.”

Now wouldn’t that be a dream for every entrepreneur? This is where Reynolds’ celebrity status has really paid dividends, not to mention his built-in skillset for being on camera.

Reynolds has integrated his personal brand almost seamlessly with Aviation Gin, finding a perfect balance that emphasizes the product’s key selling points while weaving in his iconic humor. This process has achieved a dramatic level of repositioning that would otherwise require a much more heavy hitting marketing budget.

Nearly everything that Reynolds creates seems to achieve that viral effect, giving Aviation Gin a sense of ‘unicorn status’ that brands aspire to.

Aviation Gin’s ‘The Process’ video has more than 2.4 million YouTube views and more than 83,000 engagements: impressive metrics by any measure. On its surface, the video follows a relatively straightforward formula that most brands follow: Show the viewer how the product is made, promote the care devoted to each step of the process and prove that you’re about creating the best product possible without cutting corners. What took this video from standard to viral, however, was modifying the structure to Ryan Reynolds’ natural style.

‘People come up to me all the time and they ask me what makes Aviation Gin so delicious? Most of the time I run away, because non-celebrities frighten me,’ Reynolds says to kick off the video. It only escalates from there, incorporating electric scooters on dirt roads, ‘apologizing’ to the juniper berries before beating them mercilessly with wooden paddles, and giving Sarah McLachlan a cameo.

Reynolds doesn’t just rest on his own laurels either. He brings in partners and new personalities to further ignite his brand’s awareness and shareability. This approach shines in a video titled ‘Truce,’ where Reynolds and Hugh Jackman teamed up to earn more than 7 million views and more than 330,000 engagements.

The video brings both actors’ personalities out in a natural, yet wildly entertaining way that just happens to put their respective brands in the spotlight. Reynolds and Jackman, who owns Laughing Man coffee, agree on a ‘truce’ to put an end to the alleged rivalry between their respective businesses by creating ads for one another. Reynolds’ ad for Laughing Man is shown with incredible production value, while Jackman’s is a slap in the face to Reynolds and Aviation Gin. While Reynolds may appear to be a victim on camera, each member of the duo undoubtedly came out on top.

These videos define the foundation of content marketing: content first, brand second. The story focuses on a fictitious (or is it?) rivalry between two celebrities, with their brands leveraged in a utilitarian manner that makes the ad seem like it isn’t an ad at all. Truly engaging content is where the marketing landscape has been heading for a long time now, and Reynolds and Jackman’s first loves are in creating that engaging content. The process is natural, and it shows.

The crown jewel of Aviation Gin’s viral marketing, at least so far, is Reynolds’ fake Amazon review, which garnered so much press that if an agency were responsible for such a tactic, it would receive just about every industry award to be had.

For context, Reynolds submitted a review about his own gin on Amazon, under the alias Ry. Champ Nightengale, and then Tweeted about the review as if it was news he’d just received. The review discusses how Aviation Gin fueled a wild night out, with the reviewer waking up in Seattle (he's from Coral Gables, FL) with his new wife Linda (who he doesn't remember meeting).

“The unintended side effect has been that we’re having the time of our lives with the marketing campaigns,” Reynolds said about managing the brand.

Marketing is still just one facet of the business, however. Reynolds acknowledged that there’s certainly a learning curve, and relationships, like those he’s formed with the ‘king-makers,’ as he calls them, are integral to Aviation Gin’s growth.

“The liquor industry is, in my limited experience, a tried and true ‘handshake business.’ So much of what I do as owner, is getting on planes and meeting people face to face. A lot of what happens in the industry is built upon relationships and integrity,” Reynolds said. “No amount of clever marketing will ever take the place of meeting someone, looking them in the eyes and shaking hands.”

Learning curve aside, Reynolds seems to be steering the ship in the right direction. And yes, he’s having a lot of fun in the process. And being the head of a major liquor brand may have some unexpected benefits for his acting career as well.

“All I know is Aviation American Gin has written about a third of the jokes in Deadpool,” Reynolds said. 

When asked about his goals for the brand, Reynolds was able to embody his entire approach as a business owner in two short sentences. He keeps things serious. His eye is on the prize and he’s well aware of the work that needs to be done to get there. But at the same time, he’s being himself. He’s comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t need to veer away from his core identity to be a successful business owner. Reynolds can lead a multi-million dollar enterprise and remain so witty and provocative that you just have to shake your head and laugh. 

“It will be the number one gin in the world within five years,” he said. “10 years from now, it’ll finally defeat water as the number one liquid on earth.”