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The key to White Claw’s surging popularity: Marketing to a post-gender world

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White Claw keeps tightening its grip on a thirsty nation, and its appeal is understandable. The alcoholic seltzer has a low calorie count, LaCroix-adjacent flavor and a meme-ability that millennials love — so much so that stores nationwide are running out, and last week, the company instituted panic-inducing rationing. But while the fizzy drink is getting a generation buzzed, it’s also not-so-quietly busting a glass ceiling. Unlike so many of its boozy predecessors, the Claw is equally beloved by men and women.

For decades, our televisions told us that men drank beer, women drank wine, and that’s just the way the world was. Beer commercials, even when they’re not overtly objectifying women, often still truck in mundane male fantasy: dudes sharing brews with their bros on game day, hanging out over the grill or golfing.

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Wine, meanwhile, is often sold as Mommy Juice to stressed-out ladies who escape the suburban carpool grind with slugs from labels such as Little Black Dress and Skinnygirl.

Sometimes, after years of such gendered marketing, a company will realize that it has ignored or alienated half of its potential customer base, and then overcorrect, occasionally to awkward effect. In a new Coors Light commercial, a woman is shown performing post-workday rituals that include grabbing a beer from the fridge and whipping off her bra through her sleeve. The ad dubbed Coors “The Official Beer of Being Done Wearing a Bra” — and immediately touched off a debate: Was it sexist? Relatable?

“The alcohol industry keeps shooting itself in the foot,” says Susan Dobscha, a professor of marketing at Bentley University. “It’s shortsighted to genderize an entire product category.”

White Claw, meanwhile, has sidestepped all that whiplash.

It’s huge among men and women in equal measures. There’s a clean 50-50 split in younger consumers of hard seltzer, according to a study last month by Bank of America Merrill Lynch that analyzed the drinking preferences of millennials. And according to Nielsen data, White Claw accounts for more than half of seltzer sales. Women love it. Even frat boys and the bro-iest of men love it. Comedian Trevor Wallace’s YouTube testosterone-steeped ode to White Claw (“it’s like Perrier that does squats”) has been viewed millions of times — and spawned the oft-echoed catchphrase “ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws!”

“You could see White Claw as the dawning of this post-gender world where millennials and Gen Z are comfortable with the idea of gender fluidity,” Dobscha says.

White Claw’s ads and social media posts feature the canned product — slimmer and taller than a traditional beer can — front and center, with men and women firmly in the backdrop. And when they do appear, they’re on equal footing.

There’s football — not on a bar TV but rather a co-ed game being played outdoors. Women might be shown in tightfitting clothes, but it’s athletic gear or just regular beachwear, and the models look strong and fit instead of seductive.

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That’s entirely intentional, says Sanjiv Gajiwala, vice president of marketing for White Claw. When the brand launched in 2016, the idea behind it was that the traditional worlds depicted in beverage marketing had pretty much gone extinct. White Claw would be the drink of the new gender norms, of the kinds of “group hangs” that define young people’s social lives. “It wasn’t a world where guys got together in a basement and drank beer and women were off doing something else, drinking with their girlfriends,” Gajiwala said. “Whatever we put out creatively and how we positioned the brand really reflects that everyone hangs out together all the time.”

Hard seltzer is an entire category born catering to the millennial sensibility.

“Beer marketers have been trying to crack the code of being gender-neutral after years of ignoring half the population,” says Harry Schuhmacher, editor and publisher of Beer Business Daily. “Big brewers haven’t really been able to do it, but then White Claw came in, and it’s always been a gender-neutral thing.”

Danelle Kosmal, vice president of Nielsen’s beverage alcohol practice, sees hard seltzer as one of the few beverages that’s managed to pull off this feat. “Hard seltzer is one of the most gender-neutral products we have seen across the alcohol industry,” she said in an email. “In comparison, traditional beer drinkers are two times more likely to be men than women.” And the relatively new drink is gaining on beer: A recent Bank of America Merrill Lynch study found that it accounts for 5 percent of the beer market.

Over the summer, it seemed that White Claw morphed from a mere drink into a full-on lifestyle. What started out as “Hot Girl Summer” was re-dubbed “White Claw Summer,” a selfies-by-the-pool, hashtagged shorthand for good times.

“It’s aspirational,” says Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Bryan Spillane, of hard seltzers’ low-sugar, low-calorie appeal to younger drinkers — men and women — who want to party beachside and care how they look doing it. It’s also gluten-free. “It’s the whole low-carb, keto-friendly, CrossFit life.” And even drinkers who aren’t hardcore health nuts buy in. “They might be keto in their minds,” Spillane says. “It’s aspirational, in ways that have nothing to do with gender.”

All kinds of communities have sprung up around White Claw. Ashley Schmillen is a member of the Facebook group Phish Fans Who Love White Claw, a page started by a friend of hers this summer as a joke that’s now up to more than 4,500 members. The group posts lyrics from the jam band — altered, of course, with references to their favorite drink. They mark one another’s birthdays by posting videos of themselves shotguning Claws.

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Members of the group are genuinely passionate about the drink — but Schmillen, a 34-year-old stay-home-mom from Minneapolis, says they’re just as into the shared humor of it all. “They’re there for the jokes,” says Schmillen, who has an Etsy shop where she sells stickers and tank tops bearing the group’s name.

“There’s this balancing act between it being a meme and it being a real thing,” says Don Carter, an engineer in Los Angeles. Although he approaches the drink with a bit of irony, he appreciates its convenience. As an exclusive vodka-and-soda drinker, he says, he has welcomed finding cans of White Claw at parties. “Usually you’d go to a barbecue and there’s just beer — so it fits the bill there.”

Schuhmacher says the beer industry in particular has been slower to adapt because the biggest companies have historically been family-owned. “Habits and mores change more slowly than when you have a publicly traded company with shareholders,” he said.

Henry's, Truly, White Claw and Bon & Viv all offer hard seltzers but are these malt beverages the perfect treat on a warm day or an unwanted reminder of Zima? (Video: Grace Raver/The Washington Post)

Hard seltzer even has appeal among drinkers who would ordinarily consider themselves too sophisticated to swill a canned malted liquor. Brad Glynn, the co-founder and vice president of marketing of Minnesota craft brewery Lift Bridge, said his company decided to develop its own line of hard seltzers after seeing the success of the national brands — even with beer connoisseurs. All it took was overcoming a little beer snobbery. “We looked around and saw that all of our friends are drinking it — we’re drinking it — so why are we scared of that?” he said. Their strategy? “Let’s do it and let’s do it better.”

The entry of craft brewers into the category suggests that the hard seltzer phenomenon is more than a blip, unlike its spiritual predecessor, the 1990s one-hit wonder that was Zima, Coors’ lemon-lime malt drink. Zima, which become a synonym for “effete” in David Letterman’s late-night jokes, never could shake its “girly-man” association.

The industry is taking notice: Natural Light just launched a new seltzer line (and hired Wallace for a marketing stunt that involved the comedian famous for his love of Claw to land a Natty-Light-branded helicopter on a yacht off Catalina Island). A higher-alcohol (and probably higher-testosterone) entry is expected soon from Four Loko, the company best known for a mid-2000s caffeinated malt liquor that was ultimately banned by the Food and Drug Administration. They’ll join other White Claw competitors, including Boston Beer’s Truly and Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Bon & Viv.

Some forecasters suspect that overall, hard seltzer sales might fall off a bit in cooler weather. But there’s no indication that the fizzy party is close to being over. According to data from Nielsen, sales are projected to top the $1 billion mark by the end of 2019. And the Bank of America Merrill Lynch study finds that there is “a big untapped market potential” for the category.

The end of summer brings tailgates, Halloween parties and holiday revelry — or in the language of White Claw’s marketing department, plenty more chances for a co-ed group hang.

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