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7 Marketing Lessons From a Gay Party Drug

June 9, 2014

Rush bottle

Depending on who you ask, “poppers” can mean one of two things.

For straight people, the name usually refers to a stuffed pepper or similar food item. Gay people (and high school kids) associate the word with something entirely different — a drug inhaled for recreational purposes.

Drugs sell themselves. But beyond that, and the fact people use this one for easy sex, what’s made poppers so popular?

7 Marketing Lessons From a Gay Party Drug

1. Brand Matters – I first became aware of poppers as a freshman in high school, when a guy in my algebra class was taking orders for “Rush.” The fact that he referred to the drug by a brand name rather than a generic term says something about how well it’s been marketed.

Can you go too far with being associated with a single product? Yes. Did you know Xerox makes printers and provides IT outsourcing? Most people don’t, because the company is so heavily associated with photocopiers.

Going too far is a good problem to have though, because to get there, you have to first dominate your main business. And good branding is how you do that.

2. Target Your Market – Joseph Miller, owner of PWD Brands, the company who manufactured Rush, bragged in an 1983 letter to The Advocate that he was the “largest advertiser in the gay press.”

Whether or not this is true, I don’t know, but there is no doubt that poppers were (and are) targeted to gay men. Beyond that, various brands are targeted to different segments within the gay community.

Like the Bolt, Quicksilver, and Hardware brands, which were marketed to leather guys…

Poppers bolt

Poppers quicksilver

There are other companies in the popper business, but PWD was the big one. They did it by issuing what is basically the same product in different packaging, each designed for different market segments. Other PWD brands of poppers include Locker Room, Iron Horse, and Pop’rs.

Other companies that do basically the same thing with their “product” include Kool-Aid, Taco Bell, and Visine.

3. Keep Moving Forward – Almost all poppers sold in the United States today are a form of cyclohexyl nitrite. This is because the “original formula” of amyl nitrite was banned in 1969 and other alkyl nitrites were outlawed via the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.

That’s one way to get around a problem.

The other way is to label your product as something completely different from what it is and sell it with a wink and a nod, like the “muscle massagers” that used to be popular in the back of female-oriented magazines. This is why poppers are often sold as video head cleaners, polish removers, or room odorants.

Is this ethical? You be the judge of that. I only mention the above examples as evidence that there is always a way to move forward with your business.

4. Sex Sells – People aren’t buying poppers to clean video players, make a room smell good, or remove nail polish. People buy poppers because of the sexual benefits.

Even churches are getting into marketing sex. See for a great example.

So don’t tell me you don’t have this option…

5. Illicit Sells – You can’t get poppers just anywhere. For the most part, you’ll find them in adult book stores, right next the “muscle massagers” and blow-up dolls.

And that’s how the people who make poppers want it.

Does anybody care about “Christian” rock? I rest my case.

Give people something exciting that breaks a few rules…

6. Consumable Wins – There is a reason network marketing companies focus on pills, potions, and lotions. While you can make a lot of money on a one-time sale, recurring sales are often much easier and a lot more profitable in the long run.

Most businesses have the opportunity to incorporate recurring revenue through the sale of consumable products or services, such as time-based membership.

7. Us vs. Them – The poppers mentioned above weren’t marketed to straight people because they’re not made for straight people. Sure, straight people can use them, and many do, but a straight female using “Bolt” is like a dude smoking Virginia Slims.

“Us vs. Them” is huge when it comes to powerful marketing. It’s how talk radio and FOX News were built.

For best marketing results, have an enemy.

Final Thoughts

It’s worth nothing that the man behind PWD Brands, Joseph Miller, was gay. Because of this, he was likely familiar with gay culture and had firsthand knowledge of what the market wanted.

This is a concept I call “Dance With The One Who Brung Ya” and it’s often overlooked by people in business because they’re bored of the markets they’re most familiar with.

I like having a business that’s fun and enjoyable. You shouldn’t force yourself to work a market just because you yourself are part of it, but if you can stand it, you’ll likely make a lot more money by sticking around than you will elsewhere.

ABOUT THIS SERIES: Every Monday, I analyze the good, bad, and ugly about the marketing behind a common business or famous personality. See other posts in this series here and, if you have a request for something (or someone) you’d like me to analyze for this series, contact me via Twitter.

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