Cool blue drinks are new hot liquors

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Hpnotiq, a turquoise concoction of cognac, vodka and fruit juices, was one of a kind when launched a few years ago.

That's no longer the case. Now one of the hottest spirits at the bar, it's facing a growing number of neon-hued "fusion" drinks as marketers jump on the bandwagon.

Kobrand Corp. just completed a national rollout of Alize Bleu. Majestic Brands launched Envy Blue last year and Envy Mango Melon this summer. And Daucourt Martin Imports is introducing a pink combination called X-Rated nationally next year. Others are in the works.

Justin Ames, marketing manager-Hpnotiq for Heaven Hill Distilleries, said the fresh competition hasn't slowed sales but acknowledged, "I'm certain that there are people who are switching."

Imitation is nothing new in the spirits industry; vodka marketers swiftly replicate flavor innovations of their rivals, for instance. But it will be hard for observers to overtake Hpnotiq, which sold 615,000 cases in 2003, up from nearly nothing two years earlier, according to Impact Databank.

While Hpnotiq's case sales are but a dram compared to No. 1 spirit brand Bacardi's 8.1 million showing in 2003, they're significant. It's bigger than Belvedere, the fifth-biggest imported vodka with 405,000 cases sold in 2003 and bigger than Maker's Mark whiskey, which sold 490,000 cases.

That's because consumers and bartenders usually stand by the brand that makes initial contact with them. "The first one out is usually the best" performer, said Ray Foley, editor of Bartender Magazine.

promotions are key

That said, Heaven Hill can't get lazy. Darrell Jursa, president of consultancy Liquid Intelligence, said the brand needs to constantly promote to consumers, distributors and bartenders.

Hpnotiq was invented by a New York wine distributor in 2001. Driven by promotional parties and other event marketing efforts, sales took off. Initially marketed primarily at the African-American audience, it showed up in hip-hop videos. After Heaven Hill bought the brand in early 2003, it continued to focus marketing efforts in the urban, hip-hop market, but is also trying to broaden its appeal to mainstream audiences. For instance, it is running ads in magazines such as Conde Nast Publications' Vanity Fair and American Express Publishing Corp.'s Food & Wine as well as Spin Ventures' Vibe. Keller Crescent, Evansville, Ind., handles the ads, which feature hypnotic designs.

Of the new competitors, Kobrand-which previously marketed the cognac-fruit juice brands under the Alize name-is the most aggressive. It supported the Alize Bleu launch with an estimated $5 million print campaign from Roar Marketing, Norwalk, Conn. The tag: "Powered by Vodka and Cognac. Fueled by passion."

Like Hpnotiq, Alize Bleu-which is priced below Hpnotiq and has a higher alcohol content-also has emphasized event marketing. A July New York launch party featured independent film screenings. It also co-sponsored a BET Awards party in Los Angeles that attracted celebrity guests including Jessica Alba, Usher and Evander Holyfield.

Daucourt also plans to push its brand X-Rated in the entertainment community. It tapped NMA Entertainment & Marketing, Los Angeles, to handle the spirit for product integration, event marketing and cross-promotional activities

Whether blue, green or pink, competition in the category will only pick up.

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