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Top Beer: how James May and Jeremy Clarkson went viral to sell drinks

Given how famous (and, at times, infamous) Top Gear and The Grand Tour have been with Jeremy Clarkson in the driver’s seat, you wouldn’t think that the broadcaster, columnist and farmer would need social media to sell. However, with both himself and co-presenter James May championing their own drinks, Hawkstone Lager and James Gin respectively, Instagram and YouTube in particular have been critical to raising brand awareness.


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A post shared by Hawkstone (@hawkstonelager)

Clarkson, Hammond and May have been very vocal about their drinking habits. Indeed, it has become a pivotal aspect of their onscreen personas, with one 2019 Grand Tour special, Survival of the Fattest, being themed around their quest for a pub in Mongolia. However, whilst Hammond remains a consumer, Clarkson and May have gone further and started their own drinks brands. Both men are shown to be highly involved in the formulation of their drinks, therefore social media posts with them in is of the utmost importance.

May’s recent launch of Asian Parsnip: Navy Strength, the higher proof version of his signature gin, is typical of his use of YouTube. An insightful, if meandering, explanation of what the product is and where to get it, with an obligatory tasting. The original release of Asian Parsnip was built up to with a series of videos on FoodTribe from July to August last year. FoodTribe, itself a spinoff of Clarkson, Hammond and May’s DriveTribe, has almost 400,000 subscribers. The average length of a video in the James Gin series was over ten minutes, covering everything from determining which flavours would go into the gin to bottling the finished spirit. Whilst the product announcement video, at almost 390,000 views, did twice as well as the video announcing that it was available for sale, James Gin sold out quickly enough for a second batch to be promptly produced.

Clarkson’s campaign for Hawkstone has primarily ridden off the recent success of Clarkson’s Farm on Amazon Prime, the series chronicling his attempts to run Diddly Squat Farm which also raised awareness of many of the issues facing British agriculture. It also raised awareness of Clarkson’s brand, with his Chipping Norton farm shop being overrun by visitors eager to purchase “Bee Juice” and other such humorously labelled artisanal produce, as well as merchandise. The series received critical acclaim and a second is already being filmed. Hawkstone Lager is made at the Cotswold Brewery using Diddly Squat barley. Though it is named after a local landmark rather than the presenter, Clarkson is very much the face of the brand, warts and all.

No stranger to controversy, the videos Clarkson shares to his 4.5 million Instagram followers often feature the presenter repeating what he claims to have intended to say in Hakwstone adverts before “the lawyers” intervened. Lines which allegedly didn’t make it past the censors include: “it’s better than Birmingham” and “f*ck me that’s good!” In December, Clarkson shared an allegedly banned commercial where he espouses the benefit of drinking Hawkstone before work. On his Instagram account alone the video has been watched more than 1.9 million times. Sponsored by Amazon as a tie in to Clarkson’s Farm, the beer is now an online bestseller. We did reach out to the Advertising Standards Authority and asked whether a Hawkstone advert had in fact been banned, but they are yet to reply to us.

This style of advertising isn’t unheard of in beer, with BrewDog being a prominent example of a brand using “not playing by the rules” to their advantage. However, rather than relying on notions of “punkness”, Hawkstone relies on Clarkson’s outspoken nature for publicity. As is the case with most celebrity drinks brands, the product will appeal to his fans and there is no denying that with 7.6 million Twitter followers he has plenty of them.

On a recent filming trip to the Arctic Circle, Clarkson even brought along some Hawkstone for James May to try. The exchange, which has been viewed more than 2 million times on Instagram, is laced with the schoolboy humour one expects from the two:


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A post shared by Jeremy Clarkson (@jeremyclarkson1)

Clarkson’s social media marketing strategy is based on the premise of saying things that aren’t supposed to be said. Those familiar with his work will be unsurprised by this. By contrast, May has focused less on shock value and more on the often mundane details of the process that goes into creating a gin, to great comic effect. In this sense, each social media campaign is a direct reflection of each man’s personality. For May, YouTube has provided him with an opportunity to execute a marketing campaign where his rambling nature is an asset, not something to be polished out. Social media has provided Clarkson with an even larger potential audience than television advertising, and claims that his advertising is going against the grain add to the excitement surrounding the product. There is also cost: the videos are either filmed with a small crew or on a phone, and they can be shared and re-shared countless times.

In a sense, the adoption of social media for advertising mirrors the pair’s transition from terrestrial broadcasting to streaming: the future is on demand and the potential market is almost limitless. Whilst it can be assumed that there is a team of creatives behind each brand, the social media success of James Gin and Hawkstone Lager still proves that you can teach old presenters new tricks.

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