As a teenager, the only thing I sought from alcohol was the ability to swallow it without vomiting. As I got older, I began to require certain other features as well. I wanted a poison that would say something about who I was, that would become my drink, the way real grown-ups all seemed to have their drinks.
Each trip to the bar was-and to some extent still is-fraught with decisions. The choice of vodka over scotch or bourbon over gin is based not only on what I feel like drinking that day but also on who I feel like being. Until very recently, I had never felt like being rum.
Maybe I watched Gigi too many times as a kid, but champagne has always made me think of lovely French women in art nouveau apartments and twirling couples in gilt-covered rooms. Vodka, on the other hand, has always been a Russian nobleman, galloping into the icy night, the arms of his fur-clad love wrapped around his waist. But rum? Rum was all about drunken frat boys gulping sticky punch out of little paper cups. Rum was junior executives and minor league salesmen on vacation in Jamaica, flailing about to reggae music, their pina coladas sloshing in fake coconut mugs. In other words, rum was not cool, not glamorous, and not something with which I wanted to be associated.
Then I stumbled upon Bacardi & Co. Ltd.'s new Web site, which debuted this winter. And before I could blink or swallow or clutch my mouse, everything changed. Suddenly, I had a hankering for a mojito-the official drink of Cuba, didn't you know, made of light rum, mint, sugar, lime juice, and seltzer. Suddenly, Absolut martinis and shots of Maker's Mark didn't seem the only cool drinks in town.
I am a sucker for all things retro, and Bacardi's stylishly old-school marketing missile smacked me right between the eyes. The Cuban-born company is 137 years old, and it artfully mines its own history to evoke a world of palm trees, lavish nightclubs, men in silk ties, and women who wear crinolines, sunglasses, and bright red lipstick. I fairly gasped with longing at the antique images that float through the site: flamenco dancers, debonair men in linen suits, and Ernest Hemingway drinking rum beside a whitewashed Havana bar.
Undoubtedly, it's a world that never really existed, a romanticized repackaging of an era I would have detested-crinolines!-but it's a wonderfully appealing fantasy and clearly one that is attractive to the hipper echelons of my generation. It's part of the same fantasy that's induced a rebirth of swing music, a growing fascination with the Rat Pack, and the resurgence of the cocktail lounge. For marketers, evoking the past can be a powerful way to reach a generation bored by its own time period and disillusioned about the future.
"They've heard all the bells and whistles, they've seen the neon, and they're not going to fall for it," says John Flanagan of Thermostat, a Connecticut-based marketing research firm that specializes in Generation X. "They're attracted to authenticity, to ties with the past, to the real deal. In a nutshell, that's why retro works."
Privately-held Bacardi is the largest distilled spirits brand in the United States, controlling 48.7 percent of the domestic rum market, according to Adams Business Media, which tracks the industry. Just last year, the family-run company added Dewar's Scotch and Bombay Gin to its roster. As with any company its size-worldwide revenues are expected to reach as high as $3 billion next year-Bacardi doesn't depend on any single demographic group. It's no secret, though, that the company is "intensely interested in replenishing its user base," says David Ross, managing editor of industry trade magazine Market Watch. And like all spirits companies, Bacardi must constantly lure new drinkers to replace older customers as they, well, stop knocking them back.
According to Flanagan of Thermostat, the Web is the place to do it. "It's like putting your name in the phone book," he says. "As far as this market is concerned, if you can't find it on the Internet, it doesn't exist."
While the old-school glamour of Bacardi's site changed my entire conception of rum-before I could even find the switch to activate my marketing blockers-Flanagan says there are major flaws in it. Focusing on its heritage is smart, he says, as any attempt to radically recreate itself undoubtedly would have bombed with this media-savvy generation. However, a hip image is not enough to sustain a successful Web site, he notes. Flanagan complains that Bacardi's site lacks opportunities for interactive play, fails to offer enough promotional materials, and forgot to include lots of easily accessible, downloadable goodies. "A good Web site isn't just putting a brochure online," he says. "It's got to be an experience."
The site's look is perfectly conceived and executed, but it's true that once you get past the home page, the going is a little slow. The stories about the wild days of the Bacardi clan, before one Monsieur Castro gave the family the boot, are engaging and effective, but, as Flanagan observes, there's not much to do other than soak in the ambiance. Also, the site requires sophisticated technology and takes a long time to load, even if you already have all the necessary plug-ins. If you have to download those, it takes even longer.
Still, as I search for the drink that will be my drink, rum has for the first time earned a place on my list of possibilities. I remind myself that rum is still rum, that nothing concrete has changed just because of a beautiful Web site. But I must confess, everything is different in my mind. If champagne is beautiful French women and vodka is Russian noblemen, then rum is men and women from a bewitching, mythical time, wearing white and laughing, poolside, as they drink mojitos under the Cuban sun. They're worlds and worlds away from any frat party.