More than ever, the spirits industry is obsessed with buzzwords. In his latest outing for just-drinks, however, category commentator Richard Woodard suggests terms like ‘provenance’ and ‘quality’ play a smaller part in the consumer’s decision-making process than we would believe.
There’s a lot to love about the drinks industry. There must be – I realised the other day that I’ve been writing about it for very nearly 20 years. How did that happen? There’s the people (most of them, anyway). There’s the products (same applies). There’s the sheer conviviality of it – assuming the word hasn’t now been trademarked by Pernod Ricard.
You can probably sense the “but” coming. But – see, you were right – there is sometimes a tendency for insularity, for conversations to assume the kind of ‘echo chamber’ character that will be all too familiar to regular users of social media. If we repeat the same theories to each other often enough – say, about provenance, sustainability and employing an “artisan” approach to product development – hypotheses become facts, and facts outrun their true significance.
We lose perspective.
Then, it’s good to exit the bubble and find out what ‘real’ people think. Brands do it with consumer focus groups; I do it with friends who have nothing to do with the booze industry, beyond enjoying its products. In this case, one friend, with whom I had a conversation about why people choose to buy particular brands of gin, vodka and liqueurs.
This friend came up with an analogy which, while it might alarm responsible drinking bodies like the Portman Group, I found intriguing; equating the supermarket white spirits aisle with the shelves of a children’s sweet shop. “Customers choosing with their eyes,” she said, “and the anticipation and the choice being as much a part of the experience as the consumption.”
The experience can be negative, as well as positive. When choice becomes tyrannous, decisions are often spontaneous and irrational. Your brand’s impeccable provenance and sustainability credentials look great on Powerpoint, but does the impatient trolley-pusher give a toss about them? Especially with a couple of bored and fractious kids in tow?
What else? “Consumption is with friends – company and conversation mean as much as any taste, and companies therefore need to find original but natural flavours, teamed with artificial colours and designer packaging, to hook people in.
“Taste is almost irrelevant, because it’s a temporary market… I wonder what percentage of novelty flavours sold are actually consumed to the bottom of the bottle?”
It’s a template that applies to just about every flavoured gin or gin liqueur out there. But, as implied earlier, it’s also a recipe for short-term success and long-term failure – a kind of self-programmed form of obsolescence.
There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s your business model; let’s call it the ‘Parma Violet’ gin plan. But, what if you want more?
In gin terms, at least, if you want more, you want to be Hendrick’s, the trailblazer for the super-premium-plus gin boom. Distinctive enough to be noticed, quirky enough not to be taken too seriously, credible enough not to be cast aside like that novelty tie your auntie bought you one Christmas for a laugh.
Hang on, though. Ask your average gin snob connoisseur about the Hendrick’s liquid and, in my experience, you’re likely to be met with the kind of praise that’s memorable mainly for its faintness. “It’s decent enough,” they’ll probably say. “But, there’s better out there.”
So, what about provenance? What provenance? I mean, it’s made in Girvan in Scotland (sorry, Girvan). Sure, there’s a “Hendrick’s Gin Palace” within William Grant & Sons’ distinctly-industrial grain complex, but how many people know that? How many care?
Why did Hendrick’s succeed, then? First step: it got noticed. The bottle shape, the imagery, the sense of a gin that, while retro in many respects, wasn’t stuck behind a dusty provincial bar in the 1970s, in a dark green bottle with swirly writing on it and bottled at 37.5% abv.
Second: it colonised and occupied an occasion, championing its (at the time) esoteric cucumber and rose botanicals, then reflecting the spirit character in its serve: the cucumber garnish.
Of course, you can successfully complete those two steps and still find yourself smashed against the glass ceiling of novelty. The trick is to be repeatable, to engage on multiple occasions without losing the attention and favour of your consumer.
So, I asked my one-person focus group, why do you keep going back and buying Brand X? “It’s friendship bottled. Bought as a bonding exercise, bought again for the same reason as you buy that holiday liqueur – a souvenir of good times.”
Let’s not be shy about this: It’s booze as a vital part of the social occasion, but also sitting in the background. A social prop, a lubricant to oil the wheels of friendship, to inspire talk, song, dance and laughter; but content to be noticed only in passing, because there are more important things to focus on.
We have it drummed into our heads that spirit quality and provenance are two of the golden keys to success in the spirits world. It’s not that they aren’t important – because they are, and today more than ever – but that’s not all there is, not by a long chalk.
We’re also conditioned to believe that today’s consumers are fickle beasts, whose brand-disloyal heads are all-too-easily turned by the glimpse of an alluring offer on a supermarket shelf.
The dynamics of the modern retail and on-premise environments mean that there’s truth to that, but we shouldn’t think for a moment that people can’t be – and don’t want to be – creatures of habit as well.
After all, at a time of rising global uncertainty about everything from geopolitics to pandemics and climate change, there’s comfort in the familiar. I think we can all agree on that.