What we learned launching a first-of-its-kind distillery for Jose Cuervo
Written by Barbara Bell
You’d be remiss to find a bigger buzzword in our industry last year than the “metaverse.” By early 2022, even though the massive spike of internet searches for the term had dropped (+7,200% in Q4 2021 according to Google Trends), the web3 hype had indeed made its way to… the brands. First there was the MillerLite bar. Then Wendy’s. JPMorgan Chase. Burberry. Samsung. Chipotle. And Jose Cuervo.
In March 2022, Cuervo bought a virtual plot in Decentraland, a 3D virtual world browser-based platform that uses the Polygon blockchain. The brand came to Mekanism with an opportunity: to launch the first tequila distillery in the metaverse in a culturally-relevant way. We were tasked with developing a metaverse activation strategy and overseeing the full roster of agency partners (experiential designers, architects, programmers, etc.) who built the distillery from the ground-up over the course of five months.
When we launched the Cuervo Metadistillery in July, the activation was well-received. We outperformed adjacent events like Netflix’s The Gray Man featuring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. We saw a higher volume of visitors than the entire Decentraland platform typically sees in a day. But the long-term viability of the space is still up in the air. External organizations like CoinDesk have claimed that Decentraland’s daily active users (DAU) dropped significantly during October’s crypto crash. While there is not yet standardized reporting in the space, the platform has irrefutably disputed those figures.
The role of the metaverse for brands appears to be at an inflection point. But the role that web3 will continue to play in fostering community online is presumably here to stay. Whether you’re reading this as a metaverse enthusiast, a metaverse skeptic, or maybe someone in between, we think the challenges (and privileges) of launching the Cuervo experience are worth reflecting on.
This following is a conversation with Hannah Lewman, associate strategy director and Jeff MacDonald, social strategy director. Interviewed by Barbara Bell, brand supervisor.
BB: We had an opportunity to do something as the first tequila brand in the metaverse, which was exciting, but also a bit daunting. How did we approach it?
HL: The first, most obvious opportunity was to be the first. Cuervo has a long legacy of being the first: the first licensed tequila brand in the world, the first distillery in Latin America, the first tequila used in a margarita… it’s in our brand DNA. But as we thought about that opportunity, we realized that being the first wasn’t enough to sustain peoples’ attention. It’s a great headline, but not a compelling long-term proposition. So we thought about what unique role Cuervo could play. Our brand positioning is about bringing people together and helping friendships form faster. There’s a nice synergy there with Decentraland, which is a platform that enables people to connect online like they’ve never connected before. In combining those forces, we could build a space to facilitate instant connection and fun, whether you were friends or strangers.
BB: From the agency perspective, what excited you about Cuervo being Mekanism’s first metaverse venture?
JM: For me, it was approaching the experience in a different way from other alcohol brands. As a creative technologist and social strategist, my goal is to ensure that technology is in service of an idea, not the other way around. Cuervo’s “hit fast forward on friendships” thesis was a test and learn opportunity: by starting with a niche native web3 audience, could we use the metaverse to foster friendship and connection? We also agreed that Cuervo needed a long-term strategic approach, not a one week stunt or a two week promo. I was excited about creating a permanent space and being able to grow our offerings with it. That set the project apart.
BB: Cuervo’s a big global brand. We advertise to pretty much anyone who drinks alcohol, let alone tequila. And yet, spirits drinkers, broadly, weren’t the target audience for this campaign. Jeff alluded to it, but why did we hone in on an “early adopter” approach? And what did that entail?
HL: Web3 may have had mass cultural relevance, be it through crypto commercials at the Super Bowl or Pete Davidson singing a song on Saturday Night Live about NFTs, but it was still a niche space. And while Decentraland is a platform, in many ways it is also a subculture. We wanted to understand the language of the people who were in that space and design for the audience at the heart of that subculture.
JM: The metaverse audience is made up of highly-engaged individuals. There are people who go to every experience that shows up on the [Decentraland] events calendar to collect badges, prizes, and chat with other denizens throughout the game. Unlike other brands that were attempting to onboarding people to the blockchain, we wanted to amplify the engagement that was already there.
BB: It was such a natural approach for Cuervo, because tequila’s an amplifier too.
Were there any other key moments that helped set us on the right course?
JM: We had a lot of conversations [across agency and client teams] about what it meant to invest in the space long-term, to reflect our strategic ambitions. One of the biggest trends I had been seeing were these ghost towns. Brands would come in, build out these really large experiences, and then abandon them. People would show up weeks later, but there would be nothing to do there. Cuervo didn’t want to create another ghost town; that was really important to align on early on. It was also a relief throughout the build process. We could develop our experience in phases, not necessarily all at once.
BB: Speaking of the experience… let’s talk about the space itself. Cuervo has a very distinct tone and visual identity, one that we’ve had a heavy hand in stewarding for the nearly three years we’ve been on the business. It’s an understatement to say our look and feel didn’t directly sync with Decentraland’s. How did our extended team, particularly our architecture partner Bompas + Parr, think through the translation of Cuervo’s tequila energy to the platform? And how were consumers set up to interact with it?
HL: There were a lot of creative choices to be made. One of the first was if our space was going to be a hyper-real replica of our distillery, La Rojena, in Tequila Mexico.
JM: A lot of brands use web3 as a 1:1 way to re-create the real world. The fun of building in a virtual space is that you don’t have to. The point is to have fun with it.
HL: Exactly. Our primary objective in the metaverse wasn’t to educate people on the tequila-making process or help them understand the difference between blanco and añejo tequila. We have other marketing initiatives that accomplish that! So, we didn’t hold ourselves accountable to the limitations of reality. We merged real elements of our history and process with the magical realism that’s only possible in the metaverse. Only at our metadistillery can you play a giant game of volleyball using agave pinas, travel through a Cristalino portal, or weave through a maze of barrels without getting stuck in a tequila whirlpool.
BB: The Cuervo metadistillery launched on National Tequila Day, which fell on a Sunday this year (July 24, for those who don’t celebrate the holiday like we do). That day, our experience saw nearly 1500 visitors (versus an average of 948 visitors, which Decentraland typically sees daily). We had 1k+ Twitter mentions. But the statistic that still amazes me is the average time spent in-game: 16.5 minutes. I’ve been a part of almost every consumer engagement campaign Cuervo’s run in recent years. We’ve given away cardboard cut-outs. We’ve Venmo-ed people so they can tip their bartenders on Cinco de Mayo. We’ve given someone $100K for making the next flavor of Cuervo Margaritas. I’ve never seen the level of engagement that we saw with this Decentraland community. How do you explain that impact?
HL: The depth is what blew me away too. People spent so much time in our experience without getting any monetary value or transactional return.
JM: Because we created an experience people wanted to finish! Our game was fun to play, unique to see through, and beautiful enough to linger in. A lot in Decentraland is built for solo players, but I think that’s such a miss. One of the first experiences of our game is tilling agave plants. As more people join, the process of taking care of the plants gets more difficult. When I was there on launch day, strangers were cheering each other on, sharing tips and tricks, and just generally being encouraging in the chat. The camaraderie was great.
BB: Our launch included a partnership with web3 artist Peter Tarka, who imagined 10 limited edition NFTs for us. What was the significance of working with him and including NFTs in our experience?
JM: Peter gave us credibility to talk to our audience about Cuervo’s metadistillery in an authentic way. Web3 users already had tons of NFTs. We didn’t want to come onto the scene and say, “here’s another NFT with a brand logo on it, don’t you want it?” We wanted to offer the community something that felt more personalized.
BB: Jeff, you once told me to think of NFTs as “new fucking tools,” a term you attributed to Leslie Wheeler from NFT NYC this year. Her point, and I think yours too, is we need to abstract the idea that web3 spaces are only about cryptocurrency and Bored Apes. How are you going to continue approaching web3 work as a “new fucking tool?”
JM: I love that quote! [Leslie] put a real stake in the ground. We both believe that the future of web3 is about building new experiences and looking for that moment of wonder across consumers, brands, and technology where connection can happen. People will begin to adopt web3 experiences when they do not know they are web3 experiences. We need to ensure these experiences have a reason to exist.