Why does the "Most Interesting Man in the World" sell beer?

A viral ad campaign with a "weird" tagline shows stellar advertising fundamentals

“You can do any kind of monologue you want, but you have to end with the line, ‘And that’s how I arm-wrestled Fidel Castro.’”

In his memoir, Stay Interesting, Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World recounts the audition that landed him the iconic part. In a half-hour monologue where he “recounted” a series of over-the-top, larger-than-life exploits, Jonathan Goldsmith charmed the agency people into a 10-year role as the face of Dos Equis. 

The Most Interesting Man in the World campaign began in 2006, quickly creating a landmark new advertising character and becoming the subject of memes across the internet.

The campaign’s formula was simple — name a series of patently ridiculous feats, show the most interesting man, and end with two catchphrases:

  • “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Dos Equis”

  • “Stay thirsty my friends”

You can watch eight uninterrupted minutes of Most Interesting Man ads in this compilation.

“He once parallel parked a train.” “At museums, he’s allowed to touch the art.” “He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels.”

You can picture the team in the writer’s room just throwing ideas back and forth. And that simplicity is probably what turned the Most Interesting Man into one of the internet’s most popular memes. 

Know Your Meme documents the rise of the meme: 

The Internet Wayback Machine's first snapshot of the Meme Generator page for "Most Interesting Man in the World" was taken on November 22nd. The page allowed users to create image macros using a photo of Goldsmith as the Dos Equis man. In January of 2010, a Quickmeme page for "The Most Interesting Man in the World" was created.

What makes the idea of the Most Interesting Man so amusing? Why did Dos Equis create the character in the first place? How does all of this sell beer? 

You don’t want to BE the most interesting man, but you’ll remember him

“I’d seen some research which showed that if you can inject into the ad an element of story appeal, you do well. People read the ad. They look at that and say “who is this man in an eyepatch.” That takes about a tenth of a second. Their curiosity is piqued.” — David Ogilvy in an interview on Letterman, on his “Man in the Hathaway Shirt” campaign.

Larger-than-life characters aren’t new, or even uncommon. At least one of the Most Interesting Man’s superlatives started as a Chuck Norris joke. The Marlboro Man, The Man in the Hathaway Shirt, Jersey Shore, Conor McGregor, and Keeping Up With The Kardashians are all examples of the principal power of being over the top.

Attention.

In 1951, 55 years before the Most Interesting Man, David Ogilvy conceived the “Man in the Hathaway Shirt” campaign to sell shirts. Famously, the campaign included a man with an eyepatch that was never explained. 

Source: Swipe File

As Ogilvy shared in the quote that opens this section, the man has nothing to do with Hathaway shirts — other than that he happens to be wearing one. The eyepatch is never explained because it creates curiosity and attention. 

The principle is simple — big things are more captivating and more entertaining. Going over the top is unusual, and it raises the stakes. 

Improv comedians talk about “heightening” the scene to make it more entertaining (definition from Made Up Theater).

“Adding information or making specific choices that elevates the characters or elevates the scene or scenario to essentially the peak, where it can no longer rise any more.”

Writers talk about raising the stakes. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott argues that the basic structure of writing is similar to a joke.

“The basic formula for drama is setup, buildup, payoff—just like a joke.”

And even at the sentence level, the best storytellers double down, as in this advice from Jerome Stern in Making Shapely Fiction.

“If the atmosphere is to be foreboding, you must forebode on every page. If it is to be cold, you must chill, not once your twice, but until your readers are shivering.”

The Most Interesting Man in the World is named that for a reason — he is not the “sort of interesting guy” or the “most interesting man in Topeka, Kansas.” Superlatives are interesting. 

Memory and attention are the first step to spreading any message. 

A common belief is that advertising works by making products feel “cool.” People want to drink Dos Equis because they want to be like the Most Interesting Man, right? 

Not exactly. 

Characters as “distinctive assets,” instead of wish fulfillment

Hey, quick heads up — the next paragraph, from a paper in the Journal of Brand Management, has a bunch of jargon in it. The key idea is that characters are one of the most unique and memorable ways to represent a brand.

“Based on the HHI* values, character, logo and logotype have the highest average concentration of Uniqueness. Characters provide a humanistic visual representation of the brand (Garretson and Burton 2005; Orth 2014). Their human-like features tap into the innate perceptual bias of the human brain to see faces in what would otherwise be ambiguous visual information (Tsao and Livingstone 2008; Orth 2014). Faces are processed far more rapidly than other information as they play an integral role in navigating the social environment (De Haan et al. 2002; Wallis 2013). This gives Characters a greater potential to be uniquely owned by brands (anecdotal examples include the M&M’s characters, Froot Loops’ Toucan Sam, and Colonel Sanders of KFC).” — Ward, Yang, Romaniuk, and Beal (2020)

The M&M’s character, Ronald McDonald, the Trix Bunny, Colonel Sanders, and Flo from the Progressive ads are all examples of characters in advertising. Why do they work? 

Part of the practice of branding is creating “stand-ins” for the brand. Nike’s swoosh makes you think of Nike even if there are no other Nike-related symbols. Coca Cola’s font and colors are identifiably Coca Cola, even in languages you don’t speak.

(image from Antiques Navigator)

Logos are the best-known examples of distinctive assets, but characters are an especially powerful type of asset because they can be so unique. Faces and movement give characters a lot of flexibility to be used in a range of campaigns. 

Why do brands focus on creating stand-ins for themselves, instead of just using the brand names? 

  • It’s not always possible to fit a full brand name on an ad, package, billboard

  • It’s very hard to get people to remember a brand

People forget most of what they see in ads. And even when they watch an ad, they often don’t notice what brand the ad is for! 

From research presented in Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow:

“The average recognition score for a television ad was barely 40% (i.e. 40% of potential viewers noticed the ad when it aired). Those respondents who recognised the ad were then asked what brand it was for, and on average the correct brand was linked to only approximately 40% of the ads. Consider that for an ad to work, at the very least, it needs to be noticed, processed and be linked to the correct brand. So only around 16% of these advertising exposures passed the two necessary hurdles; put another way, there was 84% wastage!”

16% saw and correctly remembered a brand’s ad. Only 16%, and that doesn’t even describe the ultimate effectiveness of the ad in contributing to purchase behavior. 

Distinctive assets are a way around that — if you see the Nike swoosh, you instantly know that you’re watching a Nike ad because of how much work Nike has put into their branding. 

Fonts, logos, sounds, a design element, colors, taglines — all can be distinctive assets. As can characters. 

The power of the Most Interesting Man (or Flo, or Ronald McDonald) is that you instantly know what brand is being advertised. That uniqueness also boosts the power of the memes — if the character of the Most Interesting Man is connected to Dos Equis, every meme that mentioned him makes someone think of Dos Equis. 

But the character on its own wouldn’t be enough to sell beer.

Dos Equis, Bud Light, Corona, and category entry points

“I don’t always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Dos Equis.” 

Why that tagline? “I usually don’t even use this product, but when I do, sometimes I pick Dos Equis.” On its face, it doesn’t seem that compelling. 

Two pieces of info make the choice of this tagline clearer:

  • Buying behavior across consumer categories, and the percentage of “light” customers

  • The category entry points that other beer brands target

I pulled the below chart out of Byron Sharp’s book How Brands Grow. It — mirroring many similar data sets from consumer (and other) categories — shows frequency of purchase for customers of a brand. In this case, Colgate toothpaste.

Chart pulled from How Brands Grow, on Colgate toothpaste buyers.

In the one year period studied, 59% of Colgate customers didn’t buy Colgate even once. 13% bought it once, 8% twice, and 1% ten times. 

There’s a popular notion that the most loyal, frequent-buying customers represent the biggest opportunity for revenue/profit. How Brands Grow, and many modern researchers, argue that the data just doesn’t back this up in many industries. Most customers are light customers, and nudging those customers from buying 0 times to 1 time or 1 time to 2 times represents the biggest opportunity for a brand. 

Sharp gives a good explanation of the principle at work.

“Marketing that targets light buyers of the brand, and/or non-buyers, has far greater chance of success. This is because such marketing has great reach: most of a brand's buyers are light buyers, and because it's nearly impossible to simply target light buyers, heavy buyers tend to get hit too (because heavy buyers are far more likely to notice advertising, visit stores, and read publicity).”

The challenge of reaching light buyers is that they are largely not paying attention. Sharp explains this as well.

“Most customers are very light, occasional buyers of a brand. A brand is a very small part of its customers’ lives; people don’t think much about brands, even the ones they buy — after all there are so many brands. This is largely why brands advertise, to ensure that customers don’t forget to buy them. Yet it is difficult to talk to buyers because they are so busy with their lives.”

A brand is a small part of a customer’s life. That’s why the smartest brands create advertising that connects them to moments that their customers already experience. 

To see this at work in the beer market, all you have to do is ask some simple questions:

  • What’s the best place to drink a Corona?

  • What’s the best time to drink a Bud Light? 

Even when Corona ads include a huge celebrity like Snoop Dogg, they happen on the beach.

“Have you ever seen a man in a hurry while also drinking a Corona?” Corona ads constantly show beaches (especially the palm trees and those weird chairs), and pretty much always include a lime (how often do you put lime in other beers?). 

Corona is trying to connect their brand to a “category entry point” — a location, event, problem, or activity that sparks someone into making a purchase decision. When people go to the beach, they can buy any brand of beer. Corona’s hope is that by associating themselves with the beach, consumers will think of Corona first when they’re making a decision. 

What about Budweiser?

Budweiser sponsors several sports leagues/teams. Its advertising is all about “the game.” It even sponsors Super Bowl parties. When consumers think of sports — going to a game, playing, or hosting a party — Budweiser wants them to think of Budweiser brands.

(From the Ipsos paper Purchase decisions in a busy, busy world: A behavioral science perspective)

Ok, so with all this in mind, why does Dos Equis use its particular tagline? “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Dos Equis.” 

“I don’t always drink beer” is a category entry point. Even better, it’s a category entry point that’s specifically about light category buyers — people who don’t drink beer that often, but make up a huge part of the market. 

Dos Equis probably doesn’t want to take on Budweiser or Corona’s advertising, especially because it tends to be more expensive. 

Instead of fighting to become the beer of choice for sports or the beach, it chooses an entirely different entry point — one that’s well suited to the paid and viral reach of the Most Interesting Man campaign. 

Whether this will keep working is unclear. Beer sales are declining as wine and spiked drinks steal the market. And even in the beer category, the craft brewing revolution captures about 25% of dollars in the market. Add the retirement of Goldsmith as the Most Interesting Man, and Dos Equis loses the most recognizable part of the campaign. 

Still, the campaign was a viral success during its run. With an over-the-top character as a key distinctive asset, memorable execution, viral reach, and a tagline targeted at the most valuable area of the market, Dos Equis created an advertising story to remember.