End is nigh for alcopops brands

This magazine has been witness to a remarkable phenomenon. In a few short years, it has chronicled the explosive birth, unstable but brilliant early development and finally premature demise of the branded alcopop.

Bass, whose Hooper’s Hooch accounts for about 90 per cent of the 300m UK market, will no doubt insist that rumours of its death are greatly exaggerated. But the evidence is growing, and irrefutable. ACNielsen research, exclusive to Marketing Week, has revealed that volume sales of alcopops through supermarkets and off-licences plunged by over a third in the peak months of July and August, compared with the same period last year.

The interesting question about this enfant terrible of marketing is to what extent its early death was a pre-planned event – or accidentally triggered by the brewers’ incompetent handling of a sensitive public issue.

Undeniably, the brewers are under great pressure to come up with successful new products to combat the gradual decline in the volume beer and lager markets. In the Eighties, specialists like Taunton led the way with successful premium cider products. In the Nineties, mainstream brewers, particularly Bass, have recaptured the initiative with a stream of successes – notably Caffrey’s and, of course, Hooper’s Hooch.

The price has been highly charged controversy. Finding, and packaging effectively, a more fashionable alternative to cider might seem a smart piece of conquest marketing. But it was always going to raise uncomfortable ethical questions. Try as the brewers might (and some didn’t try very hard) to dissociate the sticky, sweet, potent substance from the corruption of youth, their efforts to portray alcopops as a harmless tipple for responsible adults created, at its most anodyne, hollow mirth among the wider public.

Controversy is, of course, no enemy to sales – where a youth product is concerned. The brewers probably welcomed it to a degree, but were later surprised by its ferocity. Certainly the alcopops phenomenon has done damage to the industry’s standing and made a laughing-stock out of its self-regulatory body, the Portman Group. It also exposed the hypocrisy of certain supermarket chains – only too eager to exploit a rich new seam of own-label, but curiously affected by moral qualms once the public outcry began.

In the end, no one wanted to be associated with a product that had under-age tippler written all over it. By then, the brewers had sensibly moved on. Premium packaged spirits (PPSs) like V2, Moscow Mule and Snapshotz are little more sophisticated than alcopops in their formulation, but are undisputably more adult in their branding and imagery. And they are going down a storm.

News, page 7; Analysis, page 21

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