James Bruce: StrangeLove

18/03/2018

This is some my favourite copy in existence. A few years ago, Richard Baird from BP&O asked my opinion about a new brand called StrangeLove, a range of natural craft soft drinks for people who “don’t want to look like they’ve been kissing their cousin under the bleachers at the Parramatta Speedway”. You can read the review here. The founder, James Bruce, posted me a box of Blood Orange & Chilli drinks all the way from Australia as a thank you. True to its promise, I was once again able to feel real emotion (even if I could no longer feel my taste buds), and the emotion that bubbled to the surface was a deep respect for the best ‘non-copywriter’ I know.

James Bruce: StrangeLove

“There comes a point in life when you’ve seen all there is to see, when you’ve felt all there is to feel. When breaking up with your partner has the emotional gravity of watching an old M*A*S*H repeat and severe in-flight turbulence seems a welcome respite from the doldrums of existence. Fortunately, we have invented a drink for such times – a sublime mouthgasm of Italian Blood Orange infused with the fiery whisper of red chilli. A drink that lets you feel again – because sometimes drinking chilli is all we have left.”

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With no formal education in branding or copywriting, James Bruce set up one of the most outrageous drinks brands to grace the supermarket shelf. We took some time out to chat about the method to his madness, and what follows is pure gold. “I was living in Byron Bay, which was this melting pot of yoga teachers and organic food. It’s a place where people go to find themselves. Except, I didn’t find myself – I worked crappy jobs in the hospitality industry,” he explained. “There wasn’t much in the way of career opportunities, so if you wanted to make money you had to be a self-starter. I was selling all kinds of ridiculous stuff like camping equipment, tents from China, vitamins and health products. That’s when I got interested in words.”

Remarkably, the brand name and the tone of voice took shape before he figured out what to sell. He confessed that StrangeLove could have been anything from a protein powder to a vitamin brand. “I was fascinated by how words can motivate people to make a purchasing decision. I started reading old-school books by copywriters like Joseph Sugarman and figured out the techniques behind direct sales copy – how to sell calculators and that kind of thing. James also spoke about his dysfunctional upbringing and wariness of authority, making a passing reference to Catcher in the Rye as a formative book and soaking up humour from back-to-back episodes of Monty Python. “Whenever I saw brands communicate, for the most part, I just thought – ugh, why do people buy this shit?”

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This led to the cynical/honest approach that James uses to such devastating effect in his writing for StrangeLove. The copy is less about the product and is more like a hybrid between a poem and a drunken confession. “I try to hone in on insights or a simple truth about the product. The truth about ginger beer was about old people’s ginger beer recipes and cooking up a batch in their garage.” The line became: “This recipe was stolen from an old person”. He continued, “The Cola drink was about this strong sense of nostalgia, going down to the corner store, stealing a few bucks from your mum and buying Cola and lollies. Every product has this little insight, and I think that’s cool because that’s going to be true for a whole bunch of other people as well.”

James admits that, although most people love the copy, one of two seem to be missing the point. “We had one distributor reject us because they were Christians and they didn’t like the drawing of a nipple on the bottle. I also had one lady really abuse me about the old person copy. I tried to tell her that I’m a future old person. We’re all going to be old people one day, and I’m only joking! I guess you take the risk that some people aren’t going to get the joke, but it’s better to have a product that’s really loved by the core believers and hated by 30% of the people than it is to have this ubiquitous, lukewarm thing and try to be liked by everyone.”

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“The best definition of a brand I ever heard came from Marty Neumeier. He had this idea that a brand was a gut feeling. The consumer comes into contact with the product and they just have this feeling of what it’s about. I love that idea. It’s not even rational.”

StrangeLove Bitter Lemon

We also shared our influences and swapped notes on things to check out. I believe that inspiration can come from anywhere, so I’m always on the lookout for brands who are getting it right. “42BELOW,” James said without hesitation. “They are a couple of cool guys who started making vodka in their garage. The brand tone was just awesome – so edgy and cool and funny. I think they sold out in the end to Bacardi. They actually wrote a book called Every Bastard Says No. If you can get a copy of that, I would highly recommend it.” Throughout the conversation, the one thread that James returns to is the idea that, whatever you do, make it remarkable. This could be a piece of copy or a product that is amazing quality. But it has to make people feel something when they pick it up.

These days, StrangeLove is wreaking havoc on the booming gin and tonic market with their hard-hitting tonic waters and classic mixers that promise to “revitalize your grandparents’ alcohol cabinet”. I love everything about the packaging and design of these bottles. The tonics display illustrations of watercolour paintings from a guy in New Zealand who apparently paints them in his backyard. And some of the original bottles were illustrated by a Columbian artist who would take a brief like ‘tap into childhood nostalgia’ and come back to James with a drawing of a monkey’s head tied to the corpse of a flamingo. I suppose this is what creativity is: a wild and natural expression of yourself, without overthinking it.

StrangeLove Light Tonic

I had one last question in the narrow window available before our time zones slipped out of sync. Has he ever stolen something from an old person? He laughed. “No comment,” he said, followed by something I can’t possibly repeat.

www.strangelove.com.au


 

Written by independent copywriter, Seth Rowden

Have a question for James or Seth? Want to share some love? Want to tell us about your own experience of drinking liquids? Leave us a note in the comments.

Posted by: Seth Rowden

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