Funky or fusty - the whisky marketing dilemma
are coming thick and fast, as distillers seek to break the
stranglehold of white spirits on the UK youth market. But is the
'pipe and slippers' image of whisky simply too deep-seated to shake
off, asks Chris Jones.
Last week we reported that Glenfiddich was associating itself with the nu jazz scene, rolling out a series of online services promoting jazz artistes alongside its Scotch brand in a bid to appeal to a younger audience.
But Glenfiddich's move is not the only attempt currently underway to rejuvenate the image of Scotland's biggest export in the UK marker. Independent group Ian Mcleod Distillers last week unveiled plans to "shake off the old-fashioned image of Scotch whisky" by promoting its Glengoyne brand via a controversial art exhibition.
Entitled 'Sex and the Truss', the exhibition is by Glasgow-born artist Bill Blackwood's, and its collection of erotic paintings, featuring sensual images of scantily clad women wearing high heels, stockings and basques, could not be further removed from the traditional Landseer-esque image of stags, glens, lochs and bagpipes with which Scotch is associated in many people's minds.
The sponsorship of the exhibition is part of Glengoyne's campaign to promote its brand to a younger audience, and the distillery's marketing team were out in force at last week's launch to present the brand in a new light to the exhibition visitors by offering them whisky sours - an attempt to show off the versatility of Scotch as a cocktail ingredient.
Leonard Russell, managing director of Ian Macleod Distillers, said: "Scotch whisky may still be the number one spirit in the UK but its core consumers are maturing. The younger generations often turn to white spirits and alcopops on a night out and this exhibition gives us the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the versatility of Glengoyne and show how it can be a refreshing base for cocktails."
Although Scotch whisky remains the biggest sector of the UK spirits market, accounting for over 40 per cent of total sales value at £2.9 billion, sales have declined since 1997, according to market analysts Datamonitor, especially in the blended whisky segment. This section of the market, as the mass-marketed, low-priced segment, has faced not only increasing competition from white spirits and rum, but has also been more susceptible to the impact of weakened consumer confidence and changing spending patterns.
The latest figures from the Scotch Whisky Association confirm the decline: overall sales fell 1 per cent to 113.7 million bottles in 2003, although single malt sales continued to increase, rising 3 per cent to nearly 11 million bottles.
These figures underline the problem that whisky marketers face in their home market: there is interest in the category, but almost all of that is in the (much smaller) malt segment, and predominantly from older consumers. This situation must be all the more galling given that Scotch whisky is flourishing in other markets, such as Spain, where it is a very popular mixed drink among young consumers.
But it could be argued that the Scotch industry has been its own worst enemy over the years - the cheaper, less flavoursome blends have been under-marketed, by and large, with most of the advertising focusing on the top-end malts which offer a broader taste spectrum and greater margins.
But single malt is a product which remains extremely difficult to understand - despite the best efforts of the distillers to demystify - and even many regular Scotch drinkers could be hard pressed to distinguish between, say, a Lowland or a Speyside malt.
Furthermore, the emphasis on the taste profile has not helped sell the drink to young consumers - the reason why white spirits such as vodka and rum have been so successful in growing sales through the cocktail (and ready-to-drink) market is that they have relatively little flavour of their own - making them perfect vehicles for all the other cocktail ingredients.
Glengoyne, at least, is trying a different approach, focusing on its credentials as a single malt without the overbearing flavour profile ('The Authentic taste of Malt Whisky untainted by Peat Smoke' is how it advertises itself) - a factor which is unlikely to endear it to whisky aficionados but which, it suggests, makes it a good choice as a cocktail ingredient and, therefore, a more logical choice for the younger generation.
Not, it should be stressed, that Glengoyne has done things radically differently than other malt producers: it has the requisite 10-, 17-, 21- and 28-year-old whiskies in its portfolio, muddying the waters of its 'we're different than the rest' proposal.
Other companies have been more radical in shaking off the old-fashioned whisky image. Last year, three young Scottish businessmen formed the Easy Drinking Whisky Company to fill the gap in the market for simple and easy-to-understand information about their country's national drink - something which, for all their innovative marketing, the likes of Glenfiddich and Glengoyne have yet to achieve.
The three whiskies produced by the Easy Drinking Whisky Company are called The Rich Spicy One, The Smokey Peaty One and The Smooth Sweeter One, and with caricatures of the three founders on the label, the packaging matches the irreverent and fun image the company is trying to develop.
The company is partially funded by Edrington, which itself has been trying to rejuvenate the image of whisky - albeit focusing primarily on its blended brand The Famous Grouse.
But even whiskies as radically different as these are seen as unlikely to change consumer perceptions, as Datamonitor analysts pointed out at the time of the Easy Drinking launch: "What is missing is a positive reason for the target market [young people] to choose whisky. In the case of white spirits, the growth in 'ready-to-drink' spirits (RTDs) is the product's appeal, based on flavour, calorie content and format, to the growing numbers of young women in pubs and clubs.
"Cognac and brandy have benefited from their unofficial endorsement by hip-hop stars, which has attracted a whole new consumer group to them."
Whisky is still failing to offer young consumers in the UK something which they cannot get elsewhere (notwithstanding Glengoyne's (and others) efforts to stimulate cocktail consumption. More worryingly, it has little prospect of doing so in the near future, without a radical overhaul of the entire industry.