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METAXA'S NEW-FOUND SUCCESS IS INTOXICATING;RESEARCH, POSITIONING, REPACKAGING WAKE UP DORMANT BRAND

By Published on .

Put an Amsterdam-based Irishman in charge of developing a new international brand strategy for a Greek brandy, and what do you get? "Stupid questions," replied Mark Wilson, answering his own question.

According to Metaxa International's former managing director, stupid questions and common sense form the foundation of the strategy designed to revive the flagging spirits of Metaxa.

Although the main ad campaign has yet to break, Mr. Wilson's thinking on Metaxa has already earned him a promotion to the new post of managing director, European Brandies Group at Grand Metropolitan's spirits company IDV last month.

The brandy had been laying dormant since it was acquired by IDV/Grand Metropolitan Group in the late 1980s.

"It was extraordinary. It even had a credibility problem in our own company," Mr. Wilson said.

In the 12 months ended September 1995, global sales of Metaxa dipped under 1 million cases-below the level crucial for the status of a major spirit brand. Mr. Wilson, who previously had catapulted Bailey's Irish Cream from relative obscurity to the No. 1 liqueur spot in Europe, was called in to lead Metaxa's revival.

"The first stupid question I asked was: What is Greekness? Since Metaxa was created in 1888, it has always been marketed as something distinctly different from other brandies and cognacs," Mr. Wilson said.

The answer to this question wasn't flattering. "We had a double whammy: a link with classical Greece-which was 2,000 years ago and now well dead-and the dirty, shabby Athens airport association. Selling on one's heritage or provenance is a trap most brandies fall into," Mr. Wilson said.

"But research also showed that what people really admire about Greece is what they perceive as the Greeks' wonderful attitude toward life," he added.

To scratch beneath the surface of Metaxa's image, Mr. Wilson threw out the company's existing ideas and went directly to the consumer. Working with a free-lance consumer consultant, Mr. Wilson sampled the views of bar patrons in Germany, the brand's core market. Sales there, which account for 40% of Metaxa's total sales, fell by 8% last year.

"The brand was bleeding in its lead market," Mr. Wilson said.

This research and a campaign encouraging consumers to send in photographs depicting Metaxa drinking moments confirmed Mr. Wilson's hunch: "Metaxa is about an easy-going informality, a Mediterranean feel."

By September 1995, three months after Mr. Wilson took up his position, Metaxa had a new international marketing proposition, replacing separate strategies for its three main markets (Eastern Europe, Germany and Greece) with a single approach for the brand worldwide.

"The core proposition is that Metaxa reflects a carefree, optimistic Mediterranean feeling. The objective is to intrigue consumers to appraise a role for Metaxa in their drinking repertoire," Mr. Wilson said. "And the strategy is to define a motivating attitude for the brand, create that moment that requires an unusual brandy with a Mediterranean attitude."

Metaxa chose London-based agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty to carry out the strategy.

" BBH said they loved the idea of Mediterranean optimism but didn't believe it. They conducted their own study into the strategic core of a brand, and came up with the same sort of concept: `Sunshine in a Bottle'."

Mr. Wilson then took BBH's creative team to Greece for several days, visiting bars, markets, restaurants and sampling all aspects of Greek life. The $17,000 jaunt "enabled us to build an understanding, save time on briefing and increase the team's motivation," Mr. Wilson said. "And they got it right with their first ad."

The campaign is currently testing in Germany, where Metaxa plans to invest $15 million in marketing over the next three years. Mr. Wilson said the campaign plays on the "Sunshine in a Bottle" idea and has been a hit in pre-testing.

Metaxa International's total ad budget is just $15 million a year but will be raised in key markets as sales go up, with spending at a rate of about 10% of sales. Investment will be cut in 62 markets with little growth potential and moved to 10 core and promising markets. Metaxa also is testing new markets such as China and India.

Besides the core sweet brandy markets of Germany, Greece, Russia and Ukraine, Metaxa plans to focus on Eastern Europe and the U.S.

"The aim is to get on the consumer's drinking repertoire" as an occasional drink, Mr. Wilson said. "This is usually formed at the age of 25 to 30. Our hard core drinkers are currently 40-ish. So we need to attract more 25-year-olds to bring the average down to 35."

The younger market will be approached by testing, less conservative packaging and product innovations such as lower alcohol content and new flavors, both due in 1997. A cocktail, the Metaxa Metropolitan, created by Mr. Wilson and his U.S. importers, will be tested soon in New York nightclubs.

His goal is to double Metaxa's profit in three years.

"We plan to develop Metaxa into a 1.5 million-case brand by the year 2000 by focusing on a defined set of international markets, enhancing economic profit in the domestic market, and new business development to equal 10% of net sales," he said.

Metaxa has become a premium brand in Greece, where it was previously a cheap liquor. The turnaround occurred after Metaxa raised its price, repackaged and repositioned the brand with an ad campaign that used a cartoon image of the Greek god Dionysus, "coming down from the mountains to admonish the Greeks for forsaking their own national brandy for foreign imports," Mr. Wilson said.

"This slap-in-the-face approach worked. Sales have been almost halved, to 350,000 cases, but the company is earning far more than it did on 600,000 cases before," he added.

With his new job running European brandies, Mr. Wilson has inherited another moribund brand to revive-Italy's Vecchia Romagna brandy. His marketing battle cry, stamped in Metaxa's strategy document, is that of the Greek Spartan warriors: "To our victories!"

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