With a ready supply of thirsty young drinkers to woo and brand credibility especially reliant on successfully tapping the latest fads, the consumer PR battle for share of throat in the fiercely competitive alcopop market is showing no sign of abating.
Alcopop sales rocketed by 75 per cent between 2000 and 2002, according to data from market research firm ACNielsen, which says they have become the most popular in-bar drink for 18 to 24-year-olds.
The market is worth £1.3m in annual sales, with 60 per cent in pubs and clubs. But the market has this year reached maturity, with the phenomenal growth of previous years levelling off amid increased competition from drinks such as shots.
As each brand battles to secure differentiation, the alcopop market has itself, rather ironically, been subjected to various renaming efforts.
From its genesis under the tabloid-friendly term alcopops, the sector has been variously branded as Fruity Alcoholic Beverages (FABs), Premium Packaged Spirits (PPSs) and alcoholic Ready-to-Drinks (RTDs).
The top three brands are Bacardi Breezer, Smirnoff Ice and WKD, which together muster 72 per cent of all RTD sales in pubs, according to ACNielsen.
As well as media relations, PR tactics range from events and text messaging to guerrilla marketing, such as sampling hit squads.
Nelson Bostock Communications handles consumer PR for Bacardi Breezer.
NBC associate director Sue Skeats says PR is currently themed around the ongoing launches of 'diet' spin-offs and celebrity-oriented work.
GBL International's PR efforts for its VK Vodka Kick brand involve sending journalists on rally driving days out. GBL PR manager Helen Tungland, explaining the unusual choice of PR activity, points out that GBL founder Steve Perez is a rally driving enthusiast.
Journalists from a variety of titles can try out 'heavily branded' VK cars, with the brand gaining publicity from editorial and reader competitions, explains Tungland.
Last week, Brazen PR scooped the consumer brief for redSQUARE (PRWeek, 10 October). Account director Jennifer O'Grady says: 'Brand-related stories about drink-related issues are commonplace now. This is often the bread and butter of such PR campaigns, but you now need other tactics that make you stand out.'
But PR activity has to tread a fine line, given that watchdog The Portman Group clamps down on any brand that transgresses the industry code of practice. One transgressor was Roxxoff, launched by Yours Alternatively earlier this year and censured for a name with 'clearly sexual connotations'.
The Portman Group also criticised established brand WKD for content on its website that featured an interactive 'breast-matching game'. Sarah Meads, associate director at Willoughby PR, which promotes WKD, says its PR tactics have mirrored the theme of the brand's 'fun' advertising. In addition to media relations, Meads says, PR has involved 'on-pitch' PR work at football clubs such as Aston Villa and student quiz nights with icons such as Richard Whiteley.
On the student theme, WKD last week linked up with National Kebab Week for a promotional tour of student unions. Similar events are no doubt planned for redSQUARE. O'Grady says: 'PR works in this market because it can bring the essence of an ad campaign to life on the streets, in the papers and in the bars.'
Some campaigns, such as that for Archers Aqua, have targeted female drinkers specifically, but Ben McFarland, The Publican Newspaper drinks editor, says: 'The drinks that have been successful with PR are those that have appealed to both males and females. Female drinkers can be quite sensitive about being targeted by an overtly female-oriented campaign.'
As to the potential for future PR campaigns, Shirley Braithwaite, joint MD at b2b Communications, says: 'There's been a lot of negative press about the RTD market and talk of how "the bubble has burst". But a lot of brands are nevertheless showing double-digit growth.'
And encouragingly for PROs, McFarland says: 'PR will play an increasingly important role because these brands seem to be at full throttle with their ads. These drinks are drunk because of their image, not their taste, so PR is crucial.'
TOP 10 ALCOPOPS
Brand Brand Owner Consumer PR Agency
Archers Aqua Diageo Lexis PR
Bacardi Breezer Bacardi Martini Nelson Bostock Comms
Vodka Hooch Coors No agency
Metz Bacardi Martini No agency
Red Coors No agency
redSQUARE Halewood International Brazen PR
VS Halewood International No agency
Smirnoff Ice Diageo Countrywide Porter Novelli
VK Vodka Kick GBL International No agency
WKD Beverage Brands Willoughby PR
Top 10 by market share listed alphabetically
Source: ACNielsen, GB on-trade, year to July 2003