ANALYSIS: A new twist to drinks sector PR mix - A spate of new business pitches and account wins in the spirits sector highlights the increasing use of PR in the marketing mix for hard drinks, says Alastair Ray

Everyone likes a drink now and then, but it's the identity of our favourite tipple that's becoming an increasing concern for PROs. Although the drinks sector has consolidated into just a handful of major players, the number of brands filling supermarket and off-licence shelves still provides a plethora of choice.

And although a select clutch of these products benefit from the support of handsome ad budgets, most are increasingly relying on PR to encourage consumers to buy into their brand values.

This role in driving both awareness and sales has been highlighted by a host of activity in the sector. In thepast three weeks alone, Freud Communications has picked up the Jack Daniels brief following a competitive pitch, William Grant & Sons has appointed The Red Consultancy to work on its PR strategy while Glenmorangie is in the early stages of its own PR pitch process.

'For brands such as Glenfiddich, that are clear about product quality and brand personality, PR has an increasingly important role to play,' says Caroline Carrick, William Grant & Sons international PR manager.

'Spirit catalogues have been slimmed to core brands, where product differentiation is less motivating and convincing for consumers,' says Hugh Birley, Lexis PR managing director. 'Strategies are moving from product benefit communication focused on drinks writers and columnists to lifestyle association via the news and features pages.'

Different drinks brands adopt different strategies depending on market positioning, but there remain some key elements to a spirits PR strategy: 'Most brands use a mix of sampling, sponsorship, events and celebrity endorsement, all of which are often delivered via PR budgets - this is where creativity really comes into play to achieve stand-out in a crowded market,' says one drinks PRO.

To take an example, the launch of the Chivas Revolve whisky brand is indicative of the new style of spirits PR. Aurelia PR director Lucy Melling says the launch of Revolve has focused on the trickle-down tactic. This has meant targeting avant-garde titles such as ID and Wallpaper* as well as being visible at events visited by 'cool, global sophisticates', such as film premieres. For London Fashion Week, the PR team hired 'top mixologists' to create a cocktail for the event.

Other spirits - such as Jack Daniels and French vodka brand Grey Goose - are also looking to shun the mass market, but many rely on waves of mainstream publicity. William Grant's Glenfiddich brand has its own high-profile food and drink awards to ensure regular mentions when nominations, judges, processes and outcomes are announced.

'It's about associating the brand with cutting-edge food and drink, which is exactly applicable to our target audience,' says Carrick. 'PR's role is to ensure that the brand is seen at key events, featured in target media, and associated with the right properties that will communicate this ('Independent spirit') personality to a new generation of drinkers.'

In terms of media coverage, this means that as well as specialist publications it also looks to wider titles such as Wallpaper*, GQ and the FT's How to Spend It magazine.

Other spirits PROs point to the very nature of public relations as making it suitable as a marketing tool in the fine whisky sector. '(Malt whisky brand) Aberlour is a brand with strong historical roots, but most importantly, it's understated. By creating a strong PR programme - a whisper campaign - we lead consumers to discover the brand personality for themselves, rather having it thrust upon them,' says Vanessa Wright, Chivas Brothers (Pernod Ricard) communications director.

As well as making media choices in consideration of brand value, they also need to be flexible enough to allow for regional adjustments, according to Guinness UDV media relations director Lindsey Sexton-Chadwick: 'What we are seeing in certain regions is the need to focus on the media important to the audience.' This could mean targeting of quirky local radio stations or local publications.

But the nature of the PR campaigns has also changed, with events taking on an ever-increasing role. For Bell's, Sexton-Chadwick says, it would be appropriate to take celebrities to upmarket pubs around the country: 'That kind of PR is much more about the consumer, it doesn't have to be about media coverage. That's probably the biggest change in the past ten years.'

But this market has two audiences. As well as enticing consumers into buying their brands, producers also need to persuade the bars (on-trade) and off-licences (off-trade) to stock them.

At Allied Domecq - home of Teachers, Tia Maria and Harvey's Bristol Cream - the launch of a new drink, Magma, earlier this year focused on activity aimed at industry professionals. Activity in the drinks and retail press culminated with a trade launch at the London Dungeon museum.

'For a product launch the priority is often trade media relations,' says global brand PR manager Louise Bowden. 'At different times in a brand's cycle the balance can change. At launch, getting the message to bars and retail is the first priority but this has firmly got to be followed by consumer activity.'

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