How Sam Adams used video to boost brand perception and drive revenue

Video is a powerful branding tool, whether you’re looking to educate your audience, tell your brand’s story, or boost brand perception. Video enables marketers to forge emotional connections with their audience, as well as capture the attention of would-be customers on the sidelines.

Matt Whittington, senior director for Truly Hard Seltzer, knows first-hand that leveraging creativity and cultural connection through video really works. His impressive resume includes being a key architect behind Sam Adams’ wildly successful “Your Cousin from Boston” campaign. The buzzy online video series helped turn declining sales around for the storied brand and double its number of young drinkers. The hit campaign helped earn Matt the Ad Age 2022 Brand Marketer of the Year award.

Matt recently joined Storyblocks’ Director of Performance Marketing Lauren Zoltick for an in-depth conversation on how video can impact brand perception. This article will highlight some of the biggest takeaways from their discussion. You can also watch the full webinar in its entirety for free right here

Approaching the problem

The first step in addressing a brand perception problem is to diagnose it. Matt and his team at Sam Adams started by taking a long, hard look at the health of the brand. The process included getting an honest view of its deficits, as well as those of the market as a whole. At the time, the craft beer segment had been in decline for five years, signaling there was a clear disconnect between brands and their intended audiences.

Matt and his team knew that before they were ready to take the brand into the future, they had to examine its past. Together, they took this deep dive to help them make sure they were “asking the right questions and solving the right deficits,” Matt said. “It’s just such a critical initial step to get right in any [brand] renovation effort.”

It’s inevitable that times change, and tastes change right along with them. Just because a brand has its fingers on the pulse of cultural relevance today doesn’t mean that’s a permanent state. “The loss of that relevance doesn’t really happen overnight. It’s sort of slow and gradual,” Matt warns.

After all, branding is a balancing act. When a company focuses too much on short-term success, brand perception and cultural relevance can take a hit. It can also be tempting for a brand that made a big splash early on to just keep doing the same thing. As time marches on, this often leads to a misalignment between the brand and its core audience. When a brand loses that edge, it’s usually “because you’ve misaligned your brand to culture and sort of missed the prevailing cultural codes that emerge as time evolves,” Matt says.

Such misalignments can be reversed, but it requires a keen awareness of shifts in the culture. At Sam Adams, they also looked at the “timeless and true” elements of their brand that would still resonate today. Matt and his team explored how to bring those elements into the new cultural context to “reconnect with our audience and drive relevance again.”

Forming a solution to address their brand perception

Once the team understood the source of their brand perception misalignment, they were ready to take steps to course correct. The process took an even harder look at the brand and its audience. Matt identified two core things brands in innovation mode need to look at. The first is to understand your audience and how they see you. Not how you think they see you, Matt stressed, but what they actually think of you. The second is making sure you actually understand your own brand. What it stands for, its core strengths, what needs it can most credibly serve.

Sussing out these important details will take more than just observations or data. The richest insights, Matt says, come from talking to both your brand’s biggest fans and its most ardent detractors. These insights can not only lead to great creative briefs, but serve as “a filter for decision making,” Matt said. “We were fighting invisibility, indifference. We’d just sort of become sort of vanilla. So we needed to get attention.” 

Facing a category in decline and a brand perception that was sliding into staleness, Matt and his team knew they needed to reconnect with people emotionally. “We didn’t need to make them think, we needed to make them feel.” When the team zeroed in getting attention and making emotional connections as their goals, video was the obvious solution. And so video marketing became “the centerpiece” of Sam Adams’ brand perception revitalization plan.

Video marketers know there isn’t much use in creating a clever ad campaign if your intended audience doesn’t see it. Matt and his team targeted where their videos would run based on where they knew their audience spent time online. Each channel has different nuances and creative best practices, which are important to understand before publishing video content. Sam Adams had the advantage of a broad audience — beer drinkers — so their channel targeting could be equally broad. “Everybody’s on social, so social video was a big piece. But so was online video and even TV,” Matt said.

Creating the “Your Cousin from Boston” campaign

Sam Adams struck gold with their “Your Cousin from Boston” ad series, which leaned into its hometown roots in a humorous way. The recurring star of the ads was a slightly obnoxious caricature of a stereotypical “Boston guy,” complete with a thick regional accent. Throughout the campaign he’d show up at various events (a wedding, the golf course, a Red Sox game) like a bull in a china shop. But he always made up for his lack of social graces by bringing enough ice-cold Sam Adams for everybody.

The unconventional campaign was risky in its use of a character who wouldn’t appeal to everybody. But the gamble paid off, and people would look forward to the next spot to see where the “cousin” would end up next. In poking gentle fun at the region’s foibles, they managed to create something that was relatable from coast to coast. The spots generated major buzz online. Within six months, the campaign helped Sam Adams double its number of young drinkers – and achieve the team’s goal of elevating the company’s brand perception.

The success of the campaign spoke for itself, but testing helped inform the team’s decision making as the concept developed. They went through the iterate-learn-optimize “loop” until they understood the type of content the audience wanted to see. The process helped them identify which spots drove the highest engagement as well as what channels and platforms worked best. 

The campaign balanced both paid and organic content; paid advertisements to get new drinkers in the door, and organic to build community around the brand. That community piece had always been a strength for Sam Adams. On more than one occasion the company brought back well-liked discontinued products because of popular demand. This approach helps customers feel like they’re part of the brand, as opposed to merely consumers. As for the “cousin” campaign, “we just wanted to build a community of fun-loving beer lovers,” Matt said. “And we wanted to make sure they felt heard. That we heard their voice.”

Power of video to address revenue and brand perception

The team’s hard work and creativity paid off, and the “Your Cousin from Boston” campaign was a smash hit. The increase in young drinkers and reversing the craft beer category’s decline were great from a revenue standpoint. But the real success of the campaign was restoring Sam Adams’ place in the public consciousness. They even teamed up with robotics firm Boston Dynamics for a “cousin” spot that ran during the Super Bowl.

The success of the campaign gave a big lift to Sam Adams’ brand awareness and brand perception. And they achieved that by really getting to understand their audience and giving them what they wanted. “The only way you can really build sustained brand value is through building these perceptions,” Matt points out. “That opens the door to be able to engage with people on a deeper level. There’s tremendous value video played for us in that role.”

As a challenger brand in a world of giant beermakers, Sam Adams didn’t have the massive ad budget of many of its competitors. But this was actually a blessing in disguise because it forced the team to get creative. The power of video and raw creativity leveled the playing field for the brand. And as a result, they wound up with more engaging, resonant content. “Whether you’re a big brand or a smaller brand, video is a powerful tool to connect with your audience,” said Matt.

Use your video strategy to boost your brand

No matter the size of your brand or budget, video is a powerful tool to help drive revenue and brand awareness. The success of the “Your Cousin from Boston” campaign is a shining example of how effective video can be for brands. It also highlights the importance of understanding the audience you’re marketing to. But at the end of the day, videos are only as good as the video strategy behind them. Once you have a rock-solid strategy in place, Storyblocks can help bring it to life.