September 11-15, 2017

Blog Entries

Over a barrel

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Category: General Blogs

As we were putting the finishing touches on this year’s Beverage Almanac, it became clear that whiskey was, once again, the big story in alcohol. However, to say that whiskey is doing well across the board would be a bit of an overstatement. In fact, there’s one major segment that didn’t have a good year at all. 

The Scotch Whisky Association reported that exports—the part of the business it relies on for most of its growth—fell 7 percent in 2014. And, can you guess which market was mostly to blame? That’s right, exports to the U.S. fell a full 9 percent. 

And remember, this is all happening when bourbon, Tennessee and Irish whiskey are enjoying high single-digit/low double-digit volume and revenue growth. 

So why is Scotch, which long has been seen as the whiskey drinker’s whiskey, struggling to hold on to its consumers? There’s no easy answer. One could argue that all of the new Irish whiskey drinkers are pulling from Scotch, but Irish tends to be the spirit that introduces consumers to whiskey and is more likely to be attracting drinkers away from vodka and other white spirits. 

Another argument is that drinkers are gravitating away from Scotch toward bourbon and other American whiskeys, but that’s probably not the case either. Though the bourbon boom can be attributed to growth across most demographic segments, millennials are responsible for an outsized portion of the volume. And before they were drinking bourbon, most millennials weren’t really drinking whiskey. 

However, some insight might be gleaned from the bourbon/millennial connection. Bourbon makers have been able to connect with and become relevant among those of the younger LDA demographic. The authenticity component, which is at the very core of bourbon’s value proposition, has been particularly attractive to millennial drinkers. There’s also been a very obvious kinship that bourbon and other American artisanal whiskeys share with craft beer and marketers in both categories have been able to promote that link through efforts like beer/bourbon pairing events, barrel aged beers and hop-infused whiskeys. And those marketers have been quite adept at telling consumers about those activities through social media—the direct hotline to the millennial generation. 

What’s really pulling Scotch down is the fact that the vast majority of volume is blended versus single malt, by a more than four to one margin. Single malt volume, for the most part, is doing well. There’s just not enough of it to keep the category in the black. There’s a lingering perception that Scotch is grandpa’s drink because its most visible brands are the blends widely consumed by earlier generations before single malt was even a viable segment. 

But things are changing, albeit slowly. My recent tour of Scottish distilleries revealed that many have been working around the clock to ramp up the innovation with new single malt expressions and new barrel finishes. Some potentially game-changing products are still sitting in barrels. 

Hopefully, Scotch marketers will be able to turn the tide before the whiskey wave subsides. Their segment could be the next stage in the renaissance that has brought bourbon, rye, Tennessee and Irish whiskey to a new generation. However, first they’ve got to figure out how to connect with that generation—and fast. 

News by-the-numbers

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: soft drink, CSD

Days before our May issue went to press, Pepsi announced, rather unexpectedly, that it was reformulating Diet Pepsi, substituting one sweetener, aspartame, with another, sucralose. Reams of copy and commentary followed the announcement, mostly about the controversy—real and perceived—around artificial sweeteners.

Some of it debated the risk Pepsi was taking in making such a move, harking back to when Coke decided it was reformulating its flagship brand and the resulting marketing disaster (eerily, Pepsi’s announcement last month was within days of the 30th anniversary of the New Coke debacle).

Is the Pepsi move a case of unneeded risk-taking? Pepsi explained it was making the move because consumer research indicated it should. “Diet cola drinkers in the U.S. told us they wanted aspartame-free Diet Pepsi and we’re delivering,” a Pepsi statement declared.

Within days of that announcement, PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi was in a conference call with analysts discussing first quarter financial results. Responding to a question, Nooyi made an interesting statement: “We have never seen the consumer as confused as they are today. And I use the word ‘confused’ in a neutral way, not a negative way. If you had asked me a few years ago, people were moving to diet sodas. Now, they view real sugar as good-for-you. They are willing to go to organic non-GMO products even it has high salt, high sugar or high fat.”

All of this provided a great contextual point for our Beverage Almanac, our annual “beverage-world-by-the-numbers” feature in this issue. Volumes of traditional carbonated soft drinks, especially colas, have been falling for years, and the decline has been accelerating over the past few. Dramatic volume declines of diet soft drinks, for Coke as well as Pepsi, are a relatively new phenomenon.

But even 10 years ago, in this same data-based feature, we reported on indications that diet soft drinks were about to go soft. In the April 2006 issue we wrote: “For the past several years diet has been the one thing marketers have been able to consistently count on to keep the CSD market in positive territory, but the low-cal CSD segment proved to be much less of a tent-pole than in previous years.” We reported that diet soft drinks grew by just 2.2 percent in 2015, a sluggish performance following years of solid growth.

This is not to pick on Pepsi, or Coke, or even the fate of the soft drink market. After all, 10 years ago we reported that the beer market had slipped into decline, too. Most big beverage marketers, exemplified by Indra Nooyi’s recent comments, have that disorienting feeling over what to market and to whom.

In a broader context, the Beverage Almanac in this issue shows, sometimes in stark relief, just how a wide range of beverage categories and brands—some established and some still emerging—are moving. It’s the “by-the-numbers” context for the analysis we deliver regularly. And it happens to provide the numbers behind one of the most recent beverage news items of the day.  

Drinkable meals catch on

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: drinkable meals

I can relate. I’ve been sitting for a long time, trying to finish the June issue of  Beverage World you are holding in your hands. But, apparently, I haven’t been sitting as long as some of those “poor” coders out in Silicon Valley who don’t even have the time to get up from their workstations to grab a sandwich.
No, thousands of them are instead reaching for powdered drink concoctions that they whip up in minutes and that claim to provide them all the sustenance they need. The software designer subculture out there in California is making successes out of hybrid food/drinks with names like Soylent, Schmoylent, Schmilk and People Chow, according to a recent report in The New York Times. 
The Times actually first took notice of the trend about a year ago, and even memorably posted a video of a variety of professionals—a personal trainer, a sommelier, a Times dining reporter, and even a gastroenterologist—trying the Soylent brand. Their reviews were exceedingly amusing, comparing its smell to cardboard, and wondering why any “normal person” would replace food with it.
It all got me curious so I attempted to find out myself just how big a deal these food replacement drinks have become out there in Silicon Valley. So I sent a quick Facebook message to my techie relative, David Jackson, co-founder of Green Mars Software Consultants, and he told me several of his friends have indeed tried the drinks, one of them for a couple of months who is “finding it to be effective.”  He added,  “For the futurists and transhumanists it’s an opportunity to minimize/simplify body maintenance and (theoretically) maximize nutrition, providing more time for other activities (like creating super-intelligent robots, or achieving biological or cybernetic immortality).” With that, ahem, cleared up, I asked him why he himself hadn’t tried it yet. “I like food. I’ve been too busy to put in the effort. I haven’t researched it enough to feel comfortable with the safety and efficacy,” he replied.
Actually, according to Soylent’s website, it requires just a bit of preparation each day. Users have to blend up the drinks daily with water, something that takes about 3 minutes. And if you’re looking to save money, you can’t argue with the cost: less than $3 per meal.
This is certainly not the first time in beverage history that various subcultures have taken ownership of particular drinks—or in this case food/beverage hybrids. Bawls Guarana famously built an entire brand off the popularity it had with video gamers, for example. But it is interesting that as we have been watching the popularity of protein drinks take off, this subculture out in Silicon Valley has been going one further, in a sense reinventing the meal replacement category. (The Soylent powders, by the way, are even available by subscription.)
Soylent’s founder, Rob Rhinehart, says on the brands’ website that he has a background as an engineer. Like many other beverage entrepreneurs today, he saw a need—in this case, that some computer programmers view eating real food as just a waste of time—and fed that need with a new drink. Or,  I guess, food.  

Playing hard to get

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: craft, artisanal

I admit it. I can be a sucker for a good marketing ploy just like the rest of them. But some of them work better on me than others. For me, it usually depends on what kind of consumer product it is. Being a techno-geek of sorts, I’m currently in the midst of daydreaming about how that Apple Watch will look on my wrist. My current obsession began after I ordered one and realized it will be on back order for a month. Somehow, that four week wait made me want it so very much more.
Desiring something, and not being able to get your hands on it, can make you want it so much more than if it was readily available. It’s human nature and good marketers have always understood this. In some industries this marketing tool is used all the time—and with great finesse. The film industry is a good example. What do you think all those “teaser” trailers are for anyway? 
Beverage marketers have used this tool every so often as well. But, until recently, it seems it was used more as a fallback measure than as part of a strategic marketing plan. Case in point is a big anniversary the industry recently marked—that of the introduction of New Coke on April 23, 1985. The leading soft drink company was able to actually turn around what otherwise is generally remembered as a marketing debacle by rebranding its original formula Coca-Cola Classic, and then making consumers feel all special that they were able to have it again. The result was sales of the original actually increased! Again, make something hard to get, and people want it so very much more.
It’s been tougher to play hard to get in the beverage industry because so many brands have been virtual commodities, relying on the vast movement of volume to stay profitable. Some segments, notably wine, have always been different. But they have been the exception not the rule. 
But in recent years this is now changing. With the continued growth of craft beverages, categories like beer, spirits, coffees, and increasingly even soda, are shifting from a mass-produced culture to one where small batches are playing increasing importance. Craft beer geeks, for example, know that come February it’s time for Pliny the Younger, which will be around for just a couple of weeks. And each year we read about fans lining up to get their hands on it like they would to watch the next Star Wars film or buy a new Apple product.
I’ve been struck in recent years by the number of beverage entrepreneurs who tell me they are “taking it slow” when I ask about their future plans for their brands. They say they want to build demand in a small geographic territory first and then carefully expand from there. They understand that playing hard to get today for a beverage can make those millennials want you so very much more. 

Producers Great and Small

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: beer, alcohol

The beer industry is always trying to figure out how it can better emulate the spirits business. After all, distilled spirits volume has been growing steadily, while beer, overall, has been flat to down in most years. 

Last year, for instance, MillerCoors unveiled Miller Fortune, whose marketing directly targeted spirits drinking occasions by playing up its whiskey-like hue.

It’s true that there’s a great deal that macro beer can learn from the distilling community, but it’s got little to do with consumer usage occasions or image advertising. 

It was at the recent American Craft Spirits Association’s (ACSA) second-annual conference where a key difference between the beer and spirits categories became crystal clear to me: collaboration. 

The sometimes uncomfortable relationship that craft and macro beer share seems to make headlines every month. Industry observers may say that big brewers are finally embracing craft by acquiring small brewers. However, as the peach-pumpkin-flavored advertising misstep I referenced in last month’s column proved, the macros’ attitude toward craft is more a grudging acknowledgment than full-fledged respect and admiration. They’re making acquisitions because they feel they have to, not because they want to. 

But when it comes to spirits, there’s more of a cooperative dynamic beginning to play out between the mega-marketers and the burgeoning craft distilling segment. The Distilled Spirits Council’s (DISCUS) presence at ACSA’s conference in the event’s inaugural two editions has reflected that. But this year, a comment DISCUS VP for government affairs Michele Famiglietti made to the audience of artisanal producers perfectly encapsulated the relationship between big (DISCUS member companies) and small: “You are the face of the industry.”  When the DISCUS team meets with members of Congress, the first thing they usually ask is “Do I have any distilleries in my Congressional district?” The crafts are a huge asset in the talking points of an organization whose membership is largely composed of foreign-owned conglomerates. 

It’s odd that crafts don’t get the same recognition from the macro-brewers, which, after all, are predominantly foreign-owned entities. 

When it comes to public policy, Famiglietti noted that DISCUS “actively and aggressively” supports craft distillers’ efforts to get Congress to roll back the excise tax on small producers. Meanwhile, in the beer world, macros and crafts are competing for Congressional attention on the tax front. Craft brewers, led by the Brewers Association, have been lobbying for the Small BREW Act, while the large companies, represented by the Beer Institute, have been pushing the Fair BEER Act. The latter’s tax cuts apply to all brewers, macro and craft, while the former’s only applies to craft. 

The bigger issue is that the beer industry is not speaking with a single voice on Capitol Hill.  Getting on the same page, as the large and small distillers seem to be, enables the industry to present a unified front—which is more likely to generate results favorable to everyone. 

Small beverage producers have different needs than large ones, so it’s unrealistic to think that they’re going to agree on everything. But, as the spirits world already is demonstrating, there’s always some common ground to be found.