Identify a spirited image

With alcopops now in decline, the more sophisticated spirit-based mixers are taking over. To survive they must have a strong, credible image and branding, says Damian Schogger

Mintel’s latest report into the future of alcopops has reopened the long-running debate surrounding these contentious drinks, which are aimed at the 18-24-year-old market.

The group says the sector, which hit a high in 1998, is now in decline, with only three brands competing in a market which boasted more than 100 different players in its heyday.

Ever since alcoholic carbonates, such as Hooper’s Hooch and Two Dogs, were introduced into the drinks market in 1995 they have been attacked from all sides.

In response to complaints that the products encouraged under-age drinking, the Portman Group – a watchdog set up in 1989 by several leading drinks manufacturers to monitor the naming, packaging and merchandising of alcoholic drinks – drew up a code of conduct in April 1996.

It stated that generic names like “lemonade” could not be used on alcoholic products unless positioned directly adjacent to the brand name, and the alcoholic content made clear. Characters or imagery that might appeal to the under-18s were also banned. In-store, retailers were required to differentiate clearly between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

This led to many manufacturers rebranding their products, in order to fall into line with the new regulations. Design groups had to create new imagery, ignoring the popular cartoon icons that were originally used.

But, Mintel claims the alcopops market is now in decline, having peaked in 1998 at £310m. In 1995 the sector was worth £90m and within two years its value more than tripled to £300m. This year it is expected to fall to £285m.

Mintel consumer goods analyst Gino Zisa says: “Two or three years ago there were more than 100 brands. Now the market is pretty much ruled by two or three, which are well supported by their manufacturers.

“Hooch is here to stay, while Woody’s and Two Dogs probably are too, but the market will continue to decrease in value, dropping 10 per cent each year until 2003. There will be no new brands either,” he adds.

Bass Brewers, manufacturer of Hooper’s Hooch, which sells 1.2 million bottles per week, is taking its own success a step further, with the introduction of new Hooch sub-brands.

“The so-called alcopops market is definitely here to stay and Hooper’s Hooch easily remains the market leader,” says a Bass Brewers spokesman. “Building on the success of Hooper’s Hooch, a low-calorie version called Hooch Light was launched in July, while Hooper’s Reef, a still-alcoholic fruit drink, also belongs to the Hooch family.”

Turner Duckworth has received a mixed reaction to the two alcopops it has designed, with both proving hugely popular in foreign markets. Sun Devil was launched in 1996, and Kampai (which means “cheers” in the Far East), was designed for The Prospect Beverage Company in March 1997.

“Kampai failed when it was launched here but has had huge success in Malaysia, outselling Budweiser six to one. Sun Devil was created for the US market as a result of the success of alcopops in the UK, and has recently launched two more flavours,” says Turner Duckworth designer Bruce Duckworth.

He believes the UK failure of Kampai and other brands is due to a glut of similar products. “Everyone had three or four alcopops in their portfolio, leaving no room for smaller players to muscle their way in. Poor publicity from the Portman Group didn’t help. It wasn’t down to bad design, much of it was quite good.”

Mintel maintains that “the most important factor for the long-term survival of the alcoholic drinks industry, and for alcoholic carbonates in particular, is the correct targeting of young drinkers”.

Although the report acknowledges that imagery is “often paramount” for drinkers in the 18-24 age group, it emphasises the need for the remaining brand to be seen to have “more responsible packaging and promotion”.

This, according to Zisa, will be achieved through a newer type of alcoholic drink. “Spirit-based mixers such as Martini V2 and Bacardi Breezer are the next big thing,” he says.

“They are more sophisticated than alcopops, but how long they will last is anyone’s guess. The forecast is for a 15 per cent growth in the market year on year, but that is a conservative figure. From 1998 to 2002, its value should increase by 54 per cent.”

Through different branding and packaging, these products won’t encounter the same image problems as alcopops, according to Zisa, because “there is no confusion with soft drinks” for retailers or consumers.

“You need a very recognisable spirit base such as Smirnoff or Martini on the bottle. It is vital for brand recognition,” he adds.

Designed by Pearlfisher, Pernod Hex was originally launched in 1997 to attract a younger consumer, but has since evolved into a premium mix drink in three flavours, with the backing of the Pernod branding.

Pearlfisher creative partner Jonathan Ford acknowledges that it is “difficult to be original in the crowded drinks market aimed at the club-goer”, but says Pernod’s unique taste lends itself to a “totally different ready-mixed cocktail”.

“Pernod Hex, which means witches’ brew, symbolises the unusual nature of the parent and the potency of the offspring. We created strong and stylish graphics, hinting at the brand’s heritage, and by recommending a classic beer structure, we gave this cocktail real ‘street cred’.”

Design Bridge principal consultant Richard Rees also maintains “heritage” is essential but says it can sometimes be created from scratch.

The consultancy has worked on Hooch for several years, including the existing identity – which was conceptualised by Design Bridge, but implemented by Bass. It also designed a vodka mix drink called Maximus, for the Russian and Polish markets.

“Successful products build on the existing image and credibility of the brand,” explains Rees.

“You can create that heritage, but you must be aware of what elements you have to play with. Hooch now has that heritage, though it would be very difficult for competitors to now enter the market.”

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