A Beverage Brand Born From And For Underground Dance Culture
What happens when a company does beverage branding in reverse, letting music culture dictate its identity?
Plenty of brands target hip music venues in hopes of taking off with their audience. But what happens when the hip music venue’s head honcho is launching the brand? John Barclay, the managing owner of Brooklyn nightclub Bossa Nova Civic Club, is about to find out. The brand? White Label Yerba Mate Soda—a new, locally-produced version of a carbonated beverage his club helped popularize in North America to begin with.
Debuting across Brooklyn back on November 10, White Label is a soft drink based on yerba mate, a caffeinated leaf native to Argentina and southern Brazil commonly brewed as an alternative to coffee and tea. Though several carbonated mate beverages exist in Europe, one German brand, Club-Mate, developed a cult following among Berlin’s hacker and electronic music scenes, and found a fan in Barclay during a trip there 5 years ago.
When Barclay’s own Berlin club culture-influenced venue opened a year later, it became the first bar in North America to serve the beverage.
“Up until recently,” says Barclay, “Most people in New York or anywhere else who had yerba mate soda had it in Berlin first.”
Citing Club-Mate’s high-customer demand, expensive import costs, and his unhappiness with some of the ingredients, Barclay started looking into creating his own version “at least two years ago,” and in February 2015, reached out to Jesse Rudoy, who lived in Brazil as a teenager. The duo eventually became co-founders and owners of the beverage brand post-call.
With the help of a friend working in soda flavor production, and the occasional taste test with Bossa Nova clubgoers, Barclay says they “finally found something we’re very, very happy with.” The winning formula consists of organic Brazilian yerba mate extract, organic cane sugar, molasses, citric acid, and Ashwagandha, an herb used in Indian ayurvedic medicine, for “stress relief and mental clarity.”
Despite the new in-house brand, fans can still find Club-Mate at Bossa Nova. However, Barclay concedes that “part of the reason we still sell Club-Mate is, you taste them back-to-back, and we’re pretty confident in our product.”
But “White Label” is more than just a name. “A ‘white label’ in the DJ world refers to a record, usually in a blank-white sleeve, that is not yet in full production,” explains Rudoy. “And DJs might be excited to play a white label, because it’s something new, unheard.”
“It’s also a food and beverage term,” adds Barclay. “It actually means something that hasn’t been marketed yet, just sort of no-frills.”
This latter meaning comes, in part, from Barclay’s distaste for the way companies—including the comparable Red Bull—infiltrate the same underground nightlife that Bossa Nova’s DJ bookings typically overlap with.
“They wanna come in and brand everything,” Barclay explained, noting his own club’s policy against the slippery slope of brand partnerships. “They wanna put up posters, they wanna film everything, they wanna use everything for content.”
“Somebody’s market researcher…has told them that marketing to this group is good for your brand,” says Rudoy, adding that unlike other brands trying to “retroactively endear themselves to Brooklyn’s underground dance music scene,” White Label is more organically from and for this culture.
For now, their promotional strategy is simple: give free product to a bar, and let them figure it out.
“We don’t ask them to do anything special with it. So they can sell it, give it away, whatever they want to do.”
This casual approach was on display last Friday during Bossa Nova Civic Club’s Art Basel party at Miami club Electric Pickle. White Label was for sale, but you never would have known it from the flyers or Facebook event. Even ordering the drink with vodka from two separate bartenders cost $10 and $13, respectively.
In fact, the only sign of the drink’s availability consisted of a couple bottles stacked on top of a Red Bull fridge—and in front of a neon Beck’s Access sign promoting the major Miami Art Week nightlife sponsor.