Spin the Bottle

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The new Beefeater bottle serves as packaging-cum-advertising that lives in the heart of Cocktail Culture.

In all probability, we've seen more Gen Xers bungee jump, skateboard, and snowboard in TV ads than all of those actually living the supposed “Xtreme lifestyle� out here in the real world. This eclectic human subgroup, living in voluntary group-homes, mainlining caffeine, wearing daringly outré fashion, and growing their hair into dreads, have suffered any number of such gross generalizations since marketing executives first discovered its disquieting rejection of standardized commercial culture and E-Z emotional cues. But there's one place we all do meet: the bar.

Not that we can properly identify Gen Xers as a bunch of drunks, but one needs only look at the positioning gambits of any number of marketers of distilled spirits in the past 10 years, as the generation hit legal drinking age, to see where the activity is in the business. Gold-laced liqueur shooters, neon-adorned on-premise (in-bar) dispensers, special glassware — all are intended to grab the attention of consumers predisposed to new things and impulse buys in the dimly lit, after-dark environs. And it is to these younger patrons that Allied Domecq (AD) is trying to sidle up with the broad stroke makeover of its Beefeater gin.

AD has attempted to put a slicker spin on the brand, starting last year with print advertising that decks attractive, boisterous young models in fashionable updates of the red-and-yellow Beefeater uniform, with the tag line “A bold spirit always stands out.� The company even went to radio waves with the theme — definitely a bold move in the context of the self-imposed broadcast blackout liquor marketers have adhered to for years. But anchoring the imperative is a new bottle design that made its debut early this year — a more crystalline package that abandons the traditional long-neck cylinder as well as the busy, printed, glued-on label. In its place is a taller, more slender package that has eschewed a separate label altogether, hot-stamping a younger Beefeater yeoman icon — but nothing so radical as its hip, young fashion models — with letters embossed directly onto the glass.

“Unfortunately, over the years, the brand got a bit dusty,� says Phil West, senior brand manager for Beefeater. “The perception of it was, ‘This is my father's gin, but not necessarily my gin.’ Our question was, ‘Can we update that iconographic value to appeal to that younger, 21 to 34 consumer without losing the brand's heritage?’ Our competitors have tinted bottles, but we were very adamant about going to a clear bottle, because we're so proud of the juice inside.�

With fewer media outlets available to liquor companies, the bottle has become the most valuable frontline tactical weapon in the industry, namely because of where it resides: the back of the bar. This is where brands such as Absolut, Bombay Sapphire gin, and Goldschlager have made their imprints on a market that's often difficult to impress. Though occasionally locking down into brand preferences, Gen Xers have taken to more of what David Morrison, president of young adult research and marketing consultancy Twentysomething, calls “brand-surfing.� Morrison defines Gen X consumers less by what brands they click in to and more by what they're open to. It is a predisposition, he says, conditioned not only by a dearth of sacred cows, but also by an entry into the alcohol market's stage one — beer — in the years of wildfire proliferation of subbrands and microbrews. Trying new and different products by dint of what new and different labels show up on the bar has become second nature to them.

“What it comes down to every time is, what kind of impact does it make five feet away?� says Morrison, who has consulted for United Distillers, Seagram, and Austin-Nichols. “Is this thing, when you put it in a bar, with neon lighting on it, going to jump out at you and scream, or not? Absolut does. Bombay Sapphire does. Aftershock does, with its bottle frosted at the top, then grading down to a starker red, to augment the cinnamon base of the product inside. You see that and say, ‘What is that? I gotta try it.’ And there's the fun. That's key here. It's social — about fun, experimenting, adventure.�

Such liquors and their marketers have lent a certain gloss, a sort of neon-and-smoke texture, to the swirling subculture that has come to be called “Cocktail Culture.� Often linked in pop imagery to the parallel swell of swing music and retro-Rat Pack dress-up kids, the phenomenon is informed by a broader notion of carpe diem embraced by the demographic. In Mountain Dew ads, among so many others, that has manifested as dope-zany Xtreme sports-fanatical “dudes.� After dark, however, it resides in the local tavern or club, among friends, sampling new martini recipes, seizing the night, as it were.

Far from the turf of single-malt-swilling brokers, these consumers snub heavy, murky sipping liquors in favor of lighter, more mixable tastes — vodka, tequila, and, increasingly, gin — while sharing the sense of indulgence. This shows up unmistakably in category numbers. While gin consumption declined by 18 percent over the course of the 1990s, according to Spirits Business, most of that tracks in the cheaper, volume segment of the market, the $15 bottles of Seagrams or Fleischmann's. At the high end of the market, among the Tanquerays and Bombays — Beefeater's territory — sales saw a 6 percent upturn in 1999, a remarkable jump in the liquor biz and indicative of Cocktail Culture gravitating to the cream of the category.

According to Impact's 2001 Annual Spirits Survey, the more upscale imported gin category continued to grow to about 2.6 million cases, after bottoming out at 2 million in 1992 and 1993, as cheaper domestic gins decreased by about 3 million cases to 8 million over the course of the last decade. And that was reflective of a broader turn by consumers: Where overall domestic spirits accounted for some 99 million cases consumed in 1990, that declined to 88 million cases by 1999, vs. imported spirits' steady growth, after bottoming out at 48 million cases in 1993, to 54 million in 1999.

“I think what we're seeing is that today's younger consumer values authentic products, but they want to put their own spin on it,� says West. “The martini craze is a good example of that. It's a drink that's been around forever, but it's also one they can put their own stamp on. They're so smart and so savvy, and they have so many marketing blitzes thrown at them day in and day out, that they've gotten to the point where they filter it out and rise above it all. They can see through the hype to what's meaningful and what they really want.�

Even beyond that, they have avoided the social Puritanism that marked the aging of the Baby Boom. Liquor consumption in general has declined for 20 years, largely due to ostensibly more responsible middle-class lifestyles assumed by nesting Boomers, who have always fancied themselves a “cool� generation, even as they bought in to “the system.� That irony is not lost on the next generation.

“You've really got two kinds of people playing this game,� says Morrison. “You've got those that went the career route — investment banking, the dot-comers still out there. They're working 80-hour weeks, and at the end of that particular day, there's not a lot of time for carousing. So when they get the time, all that discretionary spending gets condensed into the relative few moments. They're going to order out and take home more, and they're indulging themselves more.�

On the other side of the equation, this generation saw the end of the ‘Ozzie and Harriet, join-a-company-for-life, move-up-the-ladder’ career path, and with all of the downsizing of years past, they checked out of the system, says Morrison. Thus, two different people end up at the same bar and, at some point, the same brand.

Anybody can shoot a comely model, stamp their logo somewhere adjacent and say, “Hey, we're young and cool now.� The new Beefeater bottle, however, serves as packaging-cum- advertising that lives in the heart of Cocktail Culture. Meanwhile, its careful adherence to maintaining its classic, storied brand equity, even in the context of the makeover, spins toward the indulgence-surfing Gen Xer. As Morrison says, brand loyalty is hard to come by in this market, but AD has at least put itself back into contention for all of us discerning slackers.

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