How Jack Daniel’s created an iconic brand by staying true to itself

Photo of Liz Armistead and Phil Epps at The Gathering
Liz Armistead and Phil Epps at The Gathering

Earlier this year, we traveled to The Gathering in Banff, Canada to meet with marketing leaders from the world’s most-coveted brands and learn how they guided their companies to cult status. While we were there, Liz Armistead, Head of Brand and Influencer Partnerships at Dropbox, sat down with Phil Epps, Vice President, Global Brand Director at Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, to find out why giving people permission to fail can help fuel their creative energy.

Liz Armistead: How important is collaboration to you? How did it help you get to where you are today?
Phil Epps: The company I work for, Brown-Forman, is a fairly conservative company. We’re not big risk takers. The way that we work is all about collaboration. It’s all about team work. We’re not the kind of brand that will go out and say, “You have to do this.” My boss said, “The thing you need to figure out, is how to influence without authority.” It’s kind of in my job description. We have all of these brand teams all over the world. My role is to try and influence them, build relationships, and convince them what might be the right thing to do. Luckily, quite often, they figure it out on their own. But collaboration is vital.

At Dropbox, we’ve been talking about the idea of creative energy that comes from doing meaningful work you enjoy. What does creative energy mean to you?
I think it’s more than just creative, honestly. I think it’s energy in general. Everyone within the company who touches the brand, we feel completely privileged to be working on it. The brand has been around for so long, it has this iconic nature. It has this authenticity that when you get asked to work on it, it feels like a privilege. I think the energy naturally comes from that. We try and help fuel that creative energy by giving people guidelines on what might be right or what might be wrong. On Jack, a lot of people think they know it very quickly, but actually takes a long time to truly get under the skin of the brand. Sometimes we see things in market that to us isn’t right, but consumers probably wouldn’t notice. We try and minimize those things wherever we can by trying to encourage and give guidelines at the same time.

“The way we [foster creative energy] is to give people permission to fail.”

How do you foster that creative energy with your team?
The way that we try and do that is to give people permission to fail. We don’t want them to fail, [we want] to give them the safety net that they have the autonomy to go and do things… as long as they then go and learn from whatever it is that they may have done. I know that that’s helped me in my career when I’ve had bosses that have allowed me to go and be creative without risk of failure. I think you get the best results. To be there, to support them, and if things don’t work out, you’re not gonna throw them under the bus. Make sure that you’re there to support them and you can learn from things and make things better.

What are some examples of Jack Daniel’s being truly innovative out in the world?
We did our first VR thing a couple of years ago. I think we’re one of the first alcohol brands to get into that. We felt good about that, but we’re never going to be the first ones on Snapchat. We weren’t the first ones on Instagram. We definitely weren’t the first on Facebook. I think the way that we’ve been innovative is actually by staying true to ourselves.

In the presentation, I talked about how we balance Makers World and Drinkers World. Makers World being everything that we do in Lynchburg, the people, the process, the place. We then have Drinkers World, which is very different. We’re ultimately trying to convince 20-something year olds to drink Jack Daniel’s. Their lives are very different to that of what we see in Lynchburg. I think the fact that we’re able to stay true to what we call our Makers World, while still being able to encourage them—there’s something unique about that. I think it shows a brand that is confident and stays true to itself.

Jack Daniel’s is a masculine brand. It’s that square bottle, black and white label. With how the culture and the environment is at the moment, what role can Jack play with that masculine voice? What can we add to that conversation? We’re looking to see how Jack can comment on things in a way that might make people take notice of us. I think what will happen is it might end up redefining what masculinity means to us as a brand.

Switching gears a little to your creative process—when do you feel most in flow?
That’s a good question. I think it comes from where there’s high trust levels. We work with an advertising agency… And we’re at a really good place with them where there’s high levels of trust, there’s high levels of communication. We’re in that flow. I think flow is a great word. We haven’t always had it. Sometimes, we hit road blocks along the way. But I think when the communication is good, trust levels are high, you are able to have those difficult conversations, it’s all good.

For tips on helping your team stay in flow, download our eBook, Flow Together.

How to power teamwork, from collaboration experts.