Guilty pleasure or gilt-edged opportunity?

Consumers are an easily bewildered lot, and this holds true in the liqueurs and specialities category more than anywhere else in the alcoholic drinks universe.

Unfamiliar and hard-to-pronounce brand names, garish colours, strange bottle shapes, and little or no opportunity to sample what’s inside: the category really deserves an award for making life confusing. In many senses, it’s not a real category at all – Baileys has about as much in common with Jägermeister as Stella Artois does with a bag of frozen peas. Its diversity is its trump card, but it’s also a barrier for nervous consumers.

According to Mintel’s liqueurs report, published in June this year, the category has some real psychological issues to confront. “Despite being drunk by half of UK adult drinkers, the total liqueurs market suffers from its perception, by women especially, as a guilty pleasure to be indulged in only occasionally,” it said.

“For example, half of liqueur drinkers think ‘they make a nice treat’, a third that ‘they are fine in small measures’ and a quarter that ‘they are for special occasions only’.”?The report claimed that consumers aged 45 and over have a rather fusty view of liqueurs and specialities, associating them primarily with homely after-dinner occasions. “In contrast, 18 to 24-year- olds are much more likely to drink liqueurs as part of a cocktail, therefore perceiving them as exciting, sociable and about going out,” it added.

Despite these issues, liqueurs and specialities are doing well at Asda. The take-home market is definitely the poor relation of the on-trade in this category, but spirits buyer Chris Brooks is pleased with the progress he’s seeing.

“We find that trends in the on-trade replicate themselves in the off-trade, usually with a one-year delay,” he says. “For example, Jägermeister became huge in the on-trade around two years ago and has sky rocketed in the off-trade this year. Disaronno has enjoyed the same success from a liqueur perspective.

“The real testament of a successful product is when a crop of me-too products appear – Disaronno and Zamaretto, for example, and Asda, alongside all other grocers, stocks a selection of tertiary brands for these products.”?All in the mixBrooks reports that pre-mix cans are selling well and “we are seeing a trend of people experimenting more”.

“Products that haven’t traditionally been big sellers such as Cointreau, Chambord and Pernod are seeing something of a revival as part of the recent retro craze,” he adds. “In terms of who is buying into the category, it really depends on the brand, but growth does seem to be driven mostly by female purchasers.”?Asda is driving sales by inviting brand owners to come and talk to store staff about new products and featuring cocktail ideas in the store magazine. “We use a lot of shelf barkers in-store to promote spirits and liqueurs that can form the base for cocktails,” says Brooks. “For example, messaging such as ‘why not try this to make a Russian Mule?’ next to Russian Standard is very successful at driving purchase, as are neck collars which we use on lines such as Bols.”?Isn’t the reality that the home cocktail phenomenon has seen enough false dawns, proving to retailers that consumers are simply too lazy to mix complicated drinks? Brooks disagrees. “I don’t believe it’s laziness but more a lack of confidence and education that puts customers off trying out cocktail-making at home.

“We have been working hard to address this, through our use of POS, in-store education and magazine features. In the past customers haven’t felt confident enough on required quantities of ingredients and how best they are mixed, and this is what we are trying to communicate to people.”?First Drinks, which supplies brands including Tia Maria, Disaronno, , Taboo, Bénédictine, Warninks De Kuyper and Cointreau, is investing in research to help retailers overhaul their liqueurs and specialities fixtures.

The research will “identify key purchase drivers within the category and will give an understanding of how consumers group particular products”, which, in turn, will help retailers with merchandising, the company says.

Nick Williamson, marketing controller for premium white spirits at First Drinks, says: “The sector encompasses a vast range of products. Retailer aisles can look very cluttered and uninspiring, which makes shopping the category incredibly difficult and time consuming.

“Often shoppers are unsure of how to best use or mix a product and there is currently very little in the way of education at the point of purchase to aid this. We aim to gain a much better understanding of how consumers shop.

“Ultimately, we will be looking to work with retailers to re-merchandise the category and ease navigation in a way that makes sense to shoppers.

“ The long-term benefit will encourage more frequent purchase with both existing and new drinkers and ensure sustained growth and profit for the off-trade.”?Display paysMaxxium takes a similar view. The company’s new Mixxit branded display units are mainly intended to promote the company’s major spirits brands such as Courvoisier, Teacher’s and The Famous Grouse, but there is also space for Sourz. The company is installing 1,200 of the units across the off-trade in the hope of inspiring consumers to make cocktails and long drinks in their homes.

The displays highlight the website and feature recipe cards for all of the featured brands.

Off-trade trade marketing manager Chris Harrison says: “These display units will hopefully capture the imagination of consumers who want to create some exciting drinks at home during the party season.

“The recipe cards and step-by-step guide will give consumers the confidence to experiment with drinks they might not otherwise make at home and hopefully recreate a bit of the theatre usually found in the on-trade.”?Pernod Ricard is introducing neck tags on Malibu and Havana Club in an effort to explain what the drinks are actually for. “Recent research carried out by Malibu shows that consumers would like to better understand what to mix the brand with, aside from cola or pineapple juice,” says customer development director Dan Reuby. “In response, Malibu is introducing an innovative magnetic layered neck collar, available to grocery retailers, that will communicate mixed-drink recipes for Christmas party occasions.

“The neck tags aim to provide consumers with exciting, seasonal cocktails which they can make themselves using simple, accessible ingredients.”?But not everyone wants to be an amateur mixologist. In August Whyte & Mackay introduced the VNC range of ready-to-serve cocktails – the four styles, Margarita, Mojito, Pacific Mai Tai and Strawberry Daiquiri retail for a recommended £11.95 a bottle.

Spirits importer Toorank has recently introduced Coppa Cocktails, which it describes as range of six “classic, ready-to-serve cocktails, made to traditional cocktail recipes using real spirits and created in collaboration with acclaimed professional bartenders”.

The styles include Mojito, Mai Tai, Cosmopolitan, Long Island Iced Tea, Sea Breeze and Caipirinha, supplied in silver cocktail-shaker bottles with a recommended selling price of £7.49 to £8.40.

Cellar Trends, which supplies Finest Call cocktail mixes, is embarking on an off-trade push in December. Indeed, brand manager Peter Thornton believes he may be the only corporate mixologist focused on the take-home market.

He will be visiting Makro stores to show shoppers exactly how the mixes work. “Customers at these events will be shown how to make quick, quality and consistent cocktails with ease and how to recreate the drinks at home,” he says. “People are eager to learn how to make cocktails at home, especially simple ones like the Caipirinha, Cosmopolitan or Mojito.

“A recent Mintel survey showed nine out of 10 people thought it was not difficult to make cocktails at home. This is where the potential for products such as Finest Call lies because you just have to add a spirit or liqueur to make a great cocktail.”?Cellar Trends will be promoting Finest Call with Luxardo Sambuca, Skyy vodka, Jägermeister, Midori and Pusser’s rum during the Makro demonstrations in all stores nationwide.

Thornton adds: “Home cocktail-making has been a major preoccupation of the drinks industry recently. Our focus in 2011 will be on giving the home consumer the tools, knowledge and confidence to make great cocktails at any time of the year at any occasion.” It’s an ambition shared by all those involved in this colourful, vibrant but sometimes exasperating category.