Now that the last drops of summer have been shaken from the can, White Claw can be declared the winning beverage of the season.

Its lightning-quick adoption by consumers and the small factory of meme makers, T-shirt designers, content producers and others that have encircled the drink provide a perfect portrait of brand success in 2019: Get big enough and the public will provide you with free advertising.

White Claw, an alcohol-enhanced seltzer now 3 years old, is big enough. According to Nielsen, it has become the top-selling hard seltzer brand of many dozens available in the United States, with dollar sales up 250% in the last year. (Nielsen data includes sales from grocery stores, drugstores, mass merchandisers, convenience stores and liquor stores, among others, though not from bars and restaurants.) Its success mirrors the broader craze for seltzer in America. In fact, recently there’s been a nationwide shortage of the drink.

“White Claw is starting to become the Kleenex of spiked seltzer,” wrote Jenna Fanduzzi, 27, who writes blogs about seltzer as a hobby.

She elaborated in an interview: “If you were to go to the fridge and there were a bunch of different brands, you would call all of them White Claw.”

Genevieve Aronson, a Nielsen spokeswoman, wrote in an email: “For many consumers, White Claw grew to become synonymous with the entire hard seltzer category and (at least partially) grew to represent the summer of 2019. It captured the zeitgeist of American drinkers, as it sits at the nexus of health, wellness and convenience. Yes, consumers posted about what they drank — but, it seemed as though they were posting more about what the brand has grown to symbolize.”

Advertising

White Claw, which is owned by Mark Anthony Brands, the maker of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, has left the work of what it symbolizes, its brand definition, largely to those consumers.

Aside from a few specific splashy appearances — it was a sponsor of the Kentucky Derby this year — White Claw does not aggressively market itself. And when it does, the aesthetic is aggressively bland and minimalist. Also, its drink is unextraordinary.

“We want to let consumers have the conversation they want to have,” said Sanjiv Gajiwala, 39, the senior vice president of marketing at White Claw. “I’m not interested in forcing myself into a conversation they’re already having about me. I’m grateful they’re having that conversation.”

Like Drake’s video for “Hotline Bling,” which, with its empty background, lent itself perfectly to memes, White Claw’s avoidance of niche marketing — its refusal to market to a specific customer base — left a blank that the content creators of the world have rushed to fill.

Perhaps the most aggressive amateur branding of the Claw came from Trevor Wallace, a 23-year-old comedian. His video lovingly lampooning the drink has been viewed nearly 2.4 million times. (The video is sponsored — not by White Claw but by an online perfume store.) In the video, Wallace performs as a bro who loves White Claw because he thinks it is for rich people/white people/people who go to private school.

After the success of the video, Wallace approached the brand, looking to start conversations about a partnership. White Claw had to decline, because of regulations prohibiting the advertising of alcoholic drinks by people under age 25.

Advertising

But Wallace’s video did important work for White Claw. It gave college-age men who wanted to drink it ironic cover for doing so.

Mary Stebbins, a junior at Susquehanna University and a member of the Sigma Kappa sorority, explained by Twitter direct message that “When White Claws first got ‘popular’ any girl, predominantly white, who was seen drinking one would get (jokingly) made fun of by guys. Then all of a sudden this summer via Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter there was an increase of specifically males posting photos with White Claws.”

These photos and videos functioned as free advertising, said Emily Hund, who studies Instagram culture at the University of Pennsylvania, leaving little need for the brand to market itself.

“From the brand perspective, why wouldn’t you just keep it vague, put yourself out there and ride this wave?” she said. “And now that I’m saying ride the wave, I’m realizing that it’s their logo. So maybe this is even more meta and they’re smarter than we ever realized.”

Some consumers also profited from the brand’s virality. Dylan Walker, a 20-year-old college student in Georgia and former frat member, was inspired by a meme he saw that paired White Claw with an alien character from the film “Toy Story.” He created a sticker and offered it for sale on Etsy. He has sold about 200 of them, he said.

Walker, in a phone interview, gave me a crash course in the evolution of a certain kind of contemporary light beverage.

“The girlie drinks you see at parties changed over the years,” he said. “It used to be the Bud Light Lime-a-Ritas. Then it was Smirnoff Ice. Then White Claw took it over.”

He said that when the drink first emerged on the scene this summer, “guys were drinking them in secret.”

There is now no shame in drinking White Claw. They were fairly irresistible, he said: “They don’t make you feel bloated and they taste good and they get you pretty wasted.” (White Claw is 5% alcohol, comparable to most light beers.)