With TV still largely closed to spirits advertising, distillers increasingly are turning to the Internet, using elaborate games, videos, chat rooms, animation and interactive music to impress consumers. Other competing liquor sites-for lack of technical prowess or fear of slowing down consumers-remain text-heavy, dependent on banner ads, recipes and brand history to cultivate consumers. Because U.S. sites can't sell products they advertise, it's hard to determine if either tack influences people to buy the products.
Regardless, the Web rush is on. Over the past year to 18 months, hundreds of liquor sites have been unveiled. Companies are hiring executives for Web site strategy, and ad revenue is on the upswing, though still negligible. By 2005, the industry will spend an estimated $103 million in online advertising out of $12.9 billion for all online ad spending-or 0.008%, predicted Jupiter Media Metrix. In 2000, the industry spent $6 million, out of $5.4 billion-or 0.001%, according to Jupiter.
Marketers like the Internet because they can track and contact people who sign up for sweepstakes, games and other loyalty programs. They said sites teach consumers about brands, but it's uncertain how well consumers are listening.
KEEPING CONSUMERS ENTERTAINED
"It's important to have [consumers] entertained. They go to the Web site for entertainment, but they end up being educated on the brand," said Jonathan Webb, creative director at ID Society, a New York interactive design firm that has launched sites for Seagram Spirits & Wine Group's VO, Captain Morgan spiced rum, Chivas Regal and Martel.
Mr. Webb said business has increased over the past 18 months, largely because technology has gotten good enough to make it worth a marketer's while. Billings from liquor clients at Internet network Terra Lycos, for example, probably have doubled (from an admittedly small base) in the past year, said VP-Sales Rich Gotham. Clients include Vin & Sprit's Absolut vodka and Brown-Forman Corp.'s Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey.
"The traditional Internet wasn't seen as a medium where you could build a brand image in the past. Today, with all the leaps in technology, specifically through rich-media opportunities, it is absolutely [possible to] build brand images and brand experiences," Mr. Gotham said.
One of the more elaborate sites is for Absolut vodka of Sweden. Launched in October, absolut.com allows customers to make their own films, view ads and watch videos about the product. An online ad campaign, which launched in July, allows surfers to peel orange rind off a bottle to reveal Absolut Mandrin.
"A Web site is just one of many tools available to marketers today... but it's a tool you can't afford not to use. The idea is to touch the consumer everywhere he or she is, and consumers are looking for you to be on the Web," said Eva Kempe-Forsberg, VP-marketing for Sweden's Absolut, New York. She acknowledged the difficulty in correlating Web visits to cash register receipts but said the Internet can forge relationships with consumers.
Kevin Wassong, senior partner-director at digital@jwt, New York, said executives and creatives can become so enthralled with technology that they forget about branding. The interactive arm of WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson USA has worked on a site for Philip Morris Cos.' Miller Brewing Co.'s Miller Genuine Draft. MGD is one of many brands that include Web addresses on packaging.
"You've got to tie the pieces together. ... MGD commercials are tied to TV and the Web. You go from online to the bottle to the label on the bottle to seeing TV ... which drives you back to the Web that drives you back to the bottle," Mr. Wassong said. "It's the key to ... making consumers want to grab products off the shelves."