Packaged spirits sour alcopop sales

The alcopop phenomenon seems over. Exclusive ACNielsen data reveals sales dived in the summer as consumers defected to premium packaged spirits. Can the brewers stem the decline?

Bass’ decision to repackage its Hooper’s Hooch brand last month with a more adult design was widely misunderstood.

Many saw it as a reaction to the moral outrage that the brand’s image had caused among those opposed to under-age drinking. They had complained for two years that the childish designs and marketing of the alcopops – even the name “alcoholic lemonade” – made them attractive to under-age drinkers.

The company needn’t have worried. Consumers themselves have punished Bass’s cute exploitation of kiddie imagery, and have turned away from Hooper’s Hooch in huge numbers. The beneficiaries are the more adult-oriented “premium packaged spirits” such as Moscow Mule, Metz and V2.

Bass, which launched the controversial alcopops sector in July 1995 has been forced to reposition Hooch as an “unambiguously adult drink”.

According to exclusive figures from industry market researchers ACNielsen, volume sales through supermarkets of alcoholic carbonates such as Hooper’s Hooch and Two Dogs plummeted by 35 per cent during July and August compared with last year. These months are the peak period for sales of alcoholic drinks. Figures for sales through pubs and clubs are not yet available, but during June and July, they were down seven per cent on the previous year according to Nielsen.

Nielsen points out that the total market for alcoholic carbonates increased seven per cent in the 12 months to the end of August, buoyed by sales last Christmas. But that actually reinforces how bad July and August has been for alcopops.

Last spring, Marketing Week followed up a story that one manufacturer had to cancel a contract with a regional brewer which was going to produce an alcopop. The reason given was an expected fall off in sales. All parties denied the story.

The sales collapse in July and August is a big blow to Bass, which is thought to hold 90 per cent market share of the alcopop sector, estimated at 300m, with its Hooper’s Hooch brand. But when young drinkers – the real target market – started to view alcopops as kids’ stuff they turned instead to the brands which didn’t make them feel as if they were still children.

Premium packaged spirits (PPPs) don’t taste much more sophisticated than alcopops – they are still undeniably “soft,” but their branding is undoubtedly more adult. The new V2 advertising – featuring a trendy individual talking straight to camera – is reminiscent of Denis Leary in Holsten Pils advertising.

Stuart Croucher, Spar buyer for beers, says: “There were so many alcopop launches in the first 18 months only a few could survive. Premium packaged spirits have taken a chunk of that business. Moscow Mule and V2 are clearly adult drinks.”

Bass says that the sales dip should be seen as a levelling off after the “meteoric rise” of the first two years. A spokesman says Bass axed much of its advertising support over the summer while it tried to explain to lobby groups that the brand was not aimed at under-age drinkers but was “a refreshing alternative to beer, lager or cider”.

Even in the 12 months to June 1997 Bass spent only 1.2m on advertising the Hooch brand, according to ACNielsen-MEAL figures. The total ad spend for the sector was just 2.7m for the same 12 month period.

The Bass spokesman denies drinkers have opted for products with more “adult” branding claiming Hooch has always been branded for adults. “Despite the drop, the brand is still worth 250m a year and holds 60 per cent of the flavoured alcoholic beverage market. The repackaging was meant to kill off once and for all the idea it was aimed at children.”

Bass’s own figures show that volume sales of Hooch dropped by 11 per cent in the first 48 weeks of the trading year, according to the company’s trading statement last month.

The spokesman says he has “no idea” how the public got the idea that Hooch’s brand used childlike imagery – it certainly wasn’t intended. The presence of a cartoon lemon on the packaging when the brand was launched may have had something to do with it.

But Hooch was not the only alcopop to suffer over the summer. Throughout July and August the anti-alcopop bandwagon gathered momentum.

Both Safeway and Sainsbury’s axed their own-label ranges, citing poor sales. That followed the axing of nine brands, including Carlsberg-Tetley’s Lemonhead, in early August. Pub chain JD Wetherspoon banned alcopops as did Whitbread Inns from a quarter of its outlets. And the Spilt Drink Company – which distributed the Jammin brand – has just gone into receivership, blaming adverse publicity surrounding alcopops for its failure.

The only positive indicator for the market at that time was the relaunch of Hooper’s Hooch’s main rival, Two Dogs. But even that led to controversy, as it featured advertising through M&C Saatchi showing a corgi dog mounting the Queen’s leg.

Bass is responding to the changing market by testing a new vodka-based brand called Snapshotz, initially available only in bars and clubs. The brand is unmistakably aimed at adults, claiming to offer “20 per cent ABV and 110 per cent hedonistic fun”.

The move into premium packaged spirits suggests that the Hooch approach is not one to be repeated. It also signals the decline of the alcopops market and the growth of PPS.

There is little doubt that Hooch will survive, even when other alcopops are long gone. Bass claims it is the fourth largest premium packaged alcoholic drink in the UK after Budweiser, Holsten and Beck’s Bier.

Its move to more “adult” packaging indicates the direction the market is moving – youth consumers have got bored by being patronised with images they feel appeal to children. But it does mean that Bass is heading for Christmas with one of its most novel, and controversial, brands facing a substantial decline in sales.

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