Next time you're at the bar and find yourself ordering a gin and tonic instead of your usual pint of lager, don't be surprised. There are potent marketing forces at work.
Gone are the days when spirits companies were content to hang a bank of optics above a bar and hope drinkers might finish off an evening of lager swilling with a couple of shorts. Major drinks companies now go to enormous lengths to persuade pub-goers to choose spirits over beer from their first order.
United Distillers & Vintners (UDV), the Diageo-owned manufacturer of Smirnoff vodka, Gordon's Gin and Johnnie Walker whisky, has embarked on a multi-million pound, multi-year project based on the theory that the drinking environment has a major bearing on a customer's choice of tipple.
This concept is not revolutionary. It's long been accepted that a Versace-wearing media type who arranges to meet friends after work at a shiny chrome-and-mirror-laden style bar in central London is not going to order a pint of bitter. And equally, a middle-aged blue-collar worker relaxing on a Saturday afternoon in his local is hardly going to deviate from his pint and opt for a vodka and cranberry juice.
Reshaping the repertoire
But what UDV is doing is targeting the 65% of people known as 'repertoire drinkers' - those who enjoy many different types of alcohol and often don't decide what to drink until the last minute. The project aims to convince these customers to choose spirits over beer by creating a 'spirits-friendly' environment.
UDV is not the only spirits company to explore this route. Soon after Bacardi-Martini launched its phenomenally successful Bacardi Breezer variant, it undertook exhaustive research into on-trade consumer drinking habits.
The conclusions mirror UDV's theory. Bacardi's report on the flavoured alcoholic beverage market states: 'Consumers will choose an appropriate drink both for the venue and for their mood. Those visiting young person's venues might pick premium packaged lagers (PPLs), premium packaged spirits (PPSs), or spirits, and a more elaborate, exotic drink in a cocktail bar.'
The method used by UDV to generate design ideas was inspired, if a little cheeky. During the summer, it ran a competition to find 'the ultimate spirits bar', inviting architects to submit bar designs. More than 80 entries were received.
Since then, UDV has worked with at least three design agencies, Zebra, Lawrence Tring Architects, and Dalziel & Pow, to take the designs a step further.
It claims it is already talking to all the major pub chains about implementing changes, and trials will begin over the next six months.
Leading the project is UDV's design manager, Matthew Partner. He explains: 'How people offer and present spirits in an ordinary pub has not changed for centuries. But people are recognising that things are changing in the marketplace. Just look at the success of venues such as the Bar Med and Bar 38 chains. We need to move away from a traditional pub concept, remove the clutter, because the less pubby it is, the better it is for spirits sales.'
But rearranging the bricks and mortar will not boost sales on its own.
As Partner says, a number of factors can affect purchase decisions and presentation is just one.
'My favourite drink is Tanqueray and tonic, but if I go into a pub and I see some soggy lemon slices lying in a saucer of water, or the ice has melted and is floating in a puddle in the bottom of the ice bucket, or if the service is slow, then chances are I'll have a lager instead,' he says.
Peer pressure is another stimulus to drink choice, although this is far more important among males than females, according to Bacardi-Martini's research.
Women are said to be 'highly impulsive' and much more likely to try new venues and new drinks. Many are quite promiscuous in their buying behaviour and will experiment with different drinks as the night wears on.
Men prefer a familiar environment where little changes, including their drink, and are very mindful of their friends, drinking with a 'pack mentality'.
They might try different lagers, but will normally only switch to spirits late in the session, if they become bored with beer.
Drinkers of PPSs such as Bacardi Breezer and Smirnoff Ice are generally very brand-conscious, and like to be seen wearing designer labels and drinking branded spirits.
Bacardi-Martini has supported its own PPS products, Breezer and Metz, with heavy TV ad campaigning and glamorous on-trade sampling initiatives, but has also invested a lot of time researching and evaluating the sales impact of well-planned fridge displays.
It advises retail customers that as the top ten PPS brands account for 90% of the market, fridges should be stocked with well-supported brands rather than niche alternatives, except where there is obvious demand for regional favourites.
But it says new products should be considered too. The report states: 'They are the lifeblood of the category, as the recent launch of Smirnoff Ice has demonstrated.'
Seagram, owner of Captain Morgan rum, Martell Cognac and Chivas Regal Scotch whisky, is taking a more brand-specific approach to sales strategy.
Marketers for its Scotch whisky brand The Glenlivet are about to test a new initiative called 'flights', which is used widely in the US by wine companies.
Customers ordering a flight will receive three individual glasses containing three different variants of The Glenlivet, a 12-year-old, an 18-year-old and a 21-year-old vintage, so they can sample all three.
Another Diageo initiative is the installation of plasma screens in bars.
These run drinks and other product advertising half the time and entertainment content such as catwalk fashion or extreme sports the other half. Satellite-delivered content is controlled centrally, but tailored to suit each bar.
The company behind the project, Translucis, is 100% owned by Diageo, but is seeking other backers. Screens are already installed in 31 bars throughout the UK.
But the gong for the most inspired sales strategy must go to Facile, the Swedish manufacturer of Seriously vodka.
Facile, which plans to import the Seriously brand into the UK next April, is making sure bar owners are ready to promote it when it arrives by offering them shares in proportion to the number of bottles they sell. The options, which are exercisable in five years' time, could eventually see bar owners collectively own up to 16.7% of the company.
Jens Hager, Facile's managing director, says that pub owners are a very important part of a brand-building team, but seldom receive any reward for their efforts.
Facile's theory is that if landlords personally benefit from the success of a brand, they will make more of an effort to recommend it to customers.
It's an idea all the spirits groups subscribe to, and one they all use to convince pub owners to put in a little bit more energy to lure customers away from the obvious pint of lager. As UDV's Partner says: 'It's in bar owners' interests too, because spirits and mixers and pre-packaged spirits are easily the most profitable drinks.'
AGE RANGE %
18- to 24-years-old 67
25-years-old plus 33
SOCIETAL GROUP %
This article was first published on Marketing