Brand ink: Companies explore tattoo marketing

Tattoo giveaways are cropping up as the latest trend in brand marketing. Unlike free T-shirts or hats with brand images, in this case the logo stays -- forever.

Sarah Gardner: Have you seen this new show on TLC called "America's Worst Tattoos"? Yes, there is a TV show by that name. You can imagine the stories that might crop up, like the guy that had portraits of his parents tatooed on his buttocks -- probably not the best decision of his life.

Well, now you can make those bad decisions courtesy of your favorite alcoholic beverage or your favorite TV show. It's tattoo marketing. Ann Heppermann has the story from Brooklyn.


Ann Hepperman: OK, I'm just gonna put it out there. I have tattoos, a lot of them, and they're bad, like 1990s tribal lizard kinda bad. But the possibility of future regret isn't on the minds of the 200 people lining up outside this tattoo shop in Brooklyn.

Tattoo shop employee: IDs out guys, or you're not getting tattooed.

They're all here to get the same thing -- a free tattoo. It's a black anchor, two inches tall. Matthew Marcus owns the shop.

Hepperman: Can you just describe the scene?

Matt Marcus: Madhouse of various characters waiting to get tattooed and drinking alcohol.

A liquor company is hosting the event, and its marketing campaign works like this: Get a free tattoo and then get a free Sailor Jerry's spiced rum drink at the bar across the street.

Marcus: You've got a pretty decent wait now, so you might as well get a good buzz on and then come back.

You can call it tattoo marketing. It's like when companies hand out free T-shirts or hats with their logo. But this time, the logo stays.

Jen Drexler: This is the true branding. Like, one step away from the branding iron with consumers and there isn't a marketer alive who hasn't thought about that one day.

That's Jen Drexeler, a retail analyst with the Insight Group. She says companies used to give big payouts for corporate tattoos -- like a few thousand dollars, or season passes to ballgames -- but these days tattoos are pretty common. So now companies don't feel like they have to pay anything.

Drexler: Especially when everybody's documenting what they like all day. You know just clicking the thumbs up on life on everything. It doesn't surprise me that people are willing to sort of anchor themselves by making some kind of a permanent statement.

Like Sebastian Dupuy, he's in his early 20s. The statement he's making with his new Sailor Jerry tattoo:

Sebastian Dupuy: I'm in love with Sailor Jerry. All I drink is Sailor Jerry.

Dupuy talks about the liquor like it's a religion. His friends think it's a bit much, and they'll probably say the same thing about the tattoo.

Dupuy: You know what, a lot of people don't really understand, and I don't expect them to because Sailor Jerry is mine.

Jen Drexler says this kind of brand loyalty is why tattoo marketing can work, but only for certain companies. You have be cool, edgy, even a little dangerous.

Drexler: You couldn't just be a cereal brand and expect people to get it tattooed on you. 

So this could be the next marketing frontier for a very select group of brands, like HBO's "Game of Thrones." In March, HBO did their own tattoo giveaway featuring family crests from the TV show.

For her sake, Jen Drexler is just glad NBC didn't do anything like this in the '80s, back when she had a crush on Michael J. Fox. 

Drexel: I would have Alex P. Keaton somewhere on my body, and that would have seemed like a really good idea. 

From New York, I'm Ann Heppermann for Marketplace.

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