How Malibu Rum Is Using Social Gaming in Search of Winter Sales

Facebook Game Backs New Brand Extension to Build Customer Loyalty After Summer Selling Season

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Packaged in white bottles adorned with palm trees against a setting sun, it is no surprise that Malibu rum's strongest season is summer. In July alone, the brand says it gets a 12% sales lift.

But now the coconut-flavored, Caribbean rum is seeking to brighten its sales during the long, dark months of winter with what it says is the first social-media game for a spirits brand. As the name suggests, the "Beach Club" Facebook application keeps the brand's summer mojo. But by challenging fans to earn points while running a virtual resort, the brand is hoping to keep consumers in a Malibu state of mind, even when snow is falling outside.

The game, launched today, follows the spring debut of Malibu Black, a less sweet, amber-colored rum positioned for winter. "What we are tying to do in a couple of ways is to keep Malibu top of mind and in the consideration set of consumers outside of the summer," said AnnaMarie Battiloro, U.S. senior brand manager for Malibu, which is owned by Pernod Ricard.

The Facebook game represents another digital milestone for alcohol marketers, which are moving more aggressively into the channel after getting a late start, partly because of concerns over age verification. But social gamers are a growing force that booze brands can no longer ignore. Their ranks in the U.S are expected to swell from 61.9 million players this year to 73.6 million in 2013, according to recent report by eMarketer. Worldwide, 290 million people play monthly, according to Allfacebook.com. And the games aren't just for kids: 54% of adult male internet users aged 18 to 44 play social games daily, while 46% of females play, according to a study by Saatchi & Saatchi and Ipsos cited by eMarketer.

Malibu, which is sold in more than 150 countries, is targeting 21- to 35-year-olds with its game, developed by Aegis Media Group's Isobar, the brand's digital agency of record. The game is in English only, but made available wherever Facebook is present. Players earn points by landscaping the resort and keeping guests content with the right mix of amenities such as volleyball and a lap pool. For U.S. players, points are converted to sweepstakes entries for a trip to Barbados, the rum's birthplace.

Malibu blocks the game from underage drinkers, relying on birth dates in user profiles. (Facebook says it has systems to verify ages, although some activists have criticized its methods.) Malibu says it made a concerted effort to give the game an adult look and feel, compared with what Ms. Battiloro called the more "fantastical" kid-friendly animation of other games such as Zynga's "FarmVille." "In our game the drawing of the avatars are more mature, they are clearly adults walking around this beach," she said.

Malibu's brand is sprinkled throughout the game, such as one sequence in which a "beach zamboni" cleans the resort while dumping brand impressions in the sand. Also, one part of the game includes a bar in which users can earn points by mixing Malibu-inspired drinks on the fly, such as a "Malibolo Cocktail," which includes rum, lime and orange juice and bitters. Still, Malibu decided to host the game on a standalone page separate from its brand page because it did not want the game to be "overtly tied to the brand," Ms. Battiloro said. "We actually are not trying to earn fans from this at all. We are trying to earn more brand loyalty, recognition and association."

At present, brand loyalty drops off once fall hits. Consider that Malibu's U.S. market share among all rum brands was 9.25% for the 13 weeks endied Aug. 7, but dropped to 7.68% for the 52-week period, according to SymphonyIRI, which measures grocery sales not including Walmart or liquor stores. Overall, Malibu was the third best-selling rum in the U.S. for the 52-week period, with $35.4 million in sales, putting it well behind Bacardi (34.9% share) and Captain Morgan (33.4%).

Malibu Black was introduced in April as a way to capture more winter sales. The brand is 70 proof and positioned for "high energy" occasions, compared with the beachier regular version, which is 42 proof. Still, Black does not leave the beach behind. The bottle is still white and the sun and palm trees are still there, but black fronds grace the top and bottom. "Owning the beach and owning the summer is something that Malibu will never walk away from," Ms. Battiloro said. For Black, Malibu still wants to give "a wink, a nod that we are still a Caribbean rum."

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