With the Government intent on introducing tougher laws to curb the increase in binge drinking, particularly among women, and as more young people are diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, the drinks industry is doing its bit to promote greater awareness of the long-term damage that alcohol taken in single large amounts can cause. Yet while drinks firms don't want to be regarded as irresponsible, they still have a product to sell.
The answer? Drinks manufacturers are increasingly utilising integrated marcoms strategies to encourage responsible drinking.
Messages on TV
Consumers would now be hard pushed to find a drink brand-sponsored TV programme without the accompanying warning to drink sensibly. Scottish Courage's sponsorship of ITV's third series of Footballers' Wives is a prime example; programme break bumpers carry the message: 'Bliss.
Please enjoy responsibly.' 'We have simply but deliberately built a safe drinking message into our consumer communication,' says press and PR manager David Jones.
Elsewhere, Allied Domecq Malibu's 'Seriously Easy Going' slogan, now carries the line 'Drink responsibly, it's seriously easy'.
Nelson Bostock Communications, which delivers marcoms activities for Bacardi, works very closely with Bacardi-Martini's other agencies to ensure the end message (of responsible drinking) to the target audience is greater than the sum of its parts. The drinks industry and the issues surrounding it are constantly evolving, so it is essential to be aware of any trends and industry issues that can be built into PR strategy and implementation.
'Creating new advertising is always a substantial investment, so it's only natural that marketers want to see it maximised through news stories, feature coverage and beyond,' says NBC associate director Sue Skeats.
Promoting an important health message has been welcomed by the industry.
Surely there's nothing that does more harm to a brand's image than seeing people using it in an irresponsible fashion? Would it encourage you to buy a brand if you see someone drinking it, then vomiting? This is a commonly shared viewpoint in the industry, which has seen brewer Interbrew donating media space in event sponsorship programmes to advertise the responsible drinking message. Elsewhere, Coors has set up education sessions with groups such as National Union of Students bar managers. And Allied Domecq has turned to celebrities to convey the responsible drinking messages through its music sponsorship; for example R&B artist Shaggy has urged listeners to drink responsibly during radio interviews in the US, a tactic that looks set to be copied by the company here.
In fact, sponsorship and events are increasingly being used to great effect. At the last British Grand Prix, Fosters ran a poster campaign at the circuit urging spectators not to drink and drive with the candid message 'If you drink and drive, you're a bloody idiot!', while Coors capitalised on its sponsorship of Celtic and Rangers football teams by using their managers, Alex McLeish and Martin O'Neill, to deliver the sensible drinking message to drinkers in pre-Christmas TV ads under the Carling banner.
Yet PR has a significant role to play in the marcoms mix, claims Diageo head of social responsibility Kate Blakeley: 'We want to get the sensible drinking message across to younger adults, aged 18 to 24, and the kind of media they read are lifestyle magazines. PR is as important as any other marcoms strategy as it allows us to elaborate our message.'
Diageo conducted media educational work around its Smirnoff ad and corporate PR work to ensure the media understood the rationale behind it. It also ran media briefings and interviews, resulting in a piece in the Financial Times as well as in The Daily Telegraph and The Independent.
Developing media interest
While the use of stunts may be tempting in the bid to generate media coverage around the responsible drinking advertising, Jones advises to steer clear: 'Instead, if you deliver the message in the language of the brand, it's more likely to get media pick-up; the media were interested in the Fosters poster.'
The message about not going over-the-top on a night out also needs to be aspirational if it is to be effective, rather than nannying consumers.
Cohn & Wolfe, which works with Diageo, says it takes a front-foot approach, by putting across the message that the drinks industry has a part to play.
It works with opinion-formers and has conducted research into consumer attitudes to drinking, which has, in turn, generated media coverage.
Corporate affairs director Stephen Doherty does warn that the concept of affecting behavioural change means you're in it for the long-haul, as the work tends to be counter-intuitive and the industry needs to convince consumers it is serious. He adds that agencies walk a fine line in this area, and that a balance has to be achieved: 'If you trumpet (the message) people say you're doing it to get PR, but if you don't say anything, they might not think you've got credibility.'
Scottish Courage is even set to introduce a new company code of practice for responsible marketing next month, which will be promoted through the media. It will be an amalgam of existing codes and industry best practice and will cover all marcoms activities - everything from a one-off press release to a national ad campaign. Jones explains that the key message embedded in the new strengthened code is that Scottish Courage is committed to abiding by the spirit as well as the letter of the law and that there is no room in the new code for clever 'wheezes'.
You could take the line that if you encourage sensible drinking it's going to have a detrimental effect on sales as consumers drink less. But Jones adds that the 'Please enjoy Bliss responsibly' message on sponsorship trailers has only been running since the end of February and there is no evidence it has had an impact on sales, nor is likely to.
In fact, sales for Diageo and Allied Domecq have both risen over the last financial year. Diageo premium drinks's turnover grew from £8,704m in 2002 to £8,961m in 2003, while Allied Domecq's turnover grew from £3,334m in 2002 to £3,410m in 2003.
As the Government looks set to encourage more restraint when it comes to alcohol consumption, drinks brands are likely to step up their marcoms activities to maintain a balance of responsibility to their customers while keeping the sales healthy.
THE PORTMAN GROUP GUIDELINES
The Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy might have been expected to force the drinks industry to finance alcohol awareness campaigns and print health warnings, but Whitehall sources say it has opted to let the industry draw up its own voluntary code of good practice.
Although the Government has alerted the public about the dangers of binge drinking for some time, it's the responsible drinking adviser, The Portman Group, which has more direct involvement with the drinks brands.
Its code of practice covers the naming, promotion and packaging of drinks, and it regularly talks to manufacturers about their work. While it hasn't become involved in any of the responsible drinking campaigns, it encourages firms to use their brand advertising and corporate comms to promote responsible-drinking messages.
The Portman Group member companies make sure their new product development and marketing teams, as well as the external advertising and PR agencies they use, all receive code-awareness training every year.
They must also be committed to using their consumer brand advertising or sponsored events to promote responsibility messages. And they always add a strapline on brand advertising in the trade press saying they are a member of The Portman Group - 'promoting responsible drinking'.
Comms director Jim Minton says it's important that companies stay true to their brand: 'It's better to do things in the spirit of the brand, rather than it being seen as an add-on.'
He adds: 'There's a place for responsible advertising, but the public are clever consumers and don't want to be patronised or lectured. It's important that they get it right in the context of their brands.'
Allied Domecq director group social and environmental policy Jan Buckingham believes there is also an education role for the Government in this area, similar to its work on drink-driving. 'Making being drunk seriously unacceptable is a good idea,' she says.