Can Gordon’s Gin regain its old fizz?

Gordon’s still leads the field in its sector, but volumes are declining while other brands enjoy rapid growth. The cause may be a fear of alienating the ’Gin and Jag’ set by targeting a younger market

Last year, Bartle Bogle Hegarty hired actor Harvey Keitel and a pride of lions to sell Johnnie Walker whisky to a younger market – but anyone expecting the Hollywood treatment for another UDV warhorse, Gordon’s Gin, may be disappointed.

BBH is believed to have more modest plans for its newest account and, with an estimated &3m budget for the UK, it is unlikely to be calling Robert De Niro’s agent. It will, however, need all the help it can get in reversing the long-term decline in Gordon’s fortunes.

The brand has long been the favourite tipple of the Home Counties “Gin and Jag” belt and still dominates its sector, with a 47 per cent share, compared with three per cent for its nearest rival, Allied Domecq’s Beefeater, according to Merrill Lynch estimates.

But times have changed since its Seventies heyday, when gin was second only to Scotch whisky as the nation’s favourite spirit. Vodka, which has a blander, less differentiated flavour, but mixes easily with cola or fruit juice, making it more attractive to younger drinkers, overtook sales of gin in the late Eighties. Since then, Bacardi, which also mixes with cola, and pre-packaged spirits, such as Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezer, have cornered the youth market and caused gin to look even more outdated.

Globally, Gordon’s is holding station in a flat market. It is still the dominant brand, with sales of &434m last year, according to Merrill Lynch. But overall gin sales by volume declined 0.4 per cent, from 57 million cases to 56 million globally between 1994 and 1999, while vodka and, to a lesser extent, whisky have powered ahead.

Gordon’s has had a particularly hard time in the UK – its core market – where its status as a premium brand has recently come under attack. A series of expensive TV and cinema campaigns through Burnett have failed to capture the imagination of younger drinkers. And parent company UDV has spent the past 12 months fighting a rearguard action as the brand’s core market, over-45 ABC1s living in the South-east, switch to supermarket own-label brands or stop drinking gin altogether for health reasons.

Some observers believe the decision eight years ago to reduce the strength of Gordon’s, from 40 per cent alcohol by volume to 37.5 per cent to save on excise duty, has accelerated the switching process.

One industry insider says: “Gordon’s is not the product it was when these people started drinking it. It hasn’t got the same flavour. You need the strength to retain the flavour.”

Nevertheless, direct marketing agency Craik Jones, which was drafted in last year to help repair Gordon’s relationship with its core market, claims to be winning the battle. It has built up a database of “heavy gin drinkers” who, according to Craik Jones director Miranda Goodenough, are people who buy two or more bottles a month.

“We are persuading people to come forward by offering one year’s supply of Gordon’s through press and Internet ads,” says Goodenough. “Once we have identified who these people are, we can start to communicate with them.”

The inveterate Gordon’s drinkers have been bombarded with a series of evocative mailings, reminding them of Gordon’s “superior taste” and brand heritage. But BBH will need to do a lot more than convince ageing gin drinkers to stay out of the supermarket own-label booze section if it is to halt the brand’s long-term decline.

In recent years, premium high-end brands, such as Bombay Sapphire, now owned by Bacardi-Martini, and Plymouth, have proved a runaway success in the growing style-bar sector, as young drinkers discover the pleasures of a gin and tonic. Plymouth has increased sales from 5,000 cases a year to 70,000, since Allied Domecq sold it to John Murphy, the former chairman of Interbrand, four years ago. But these smaller niche products are still heavily reliant on Gordon’s to lift the entire category.

Murphy says: “UDV has spent a lot on Gordon’s, but it hasn’t had much success. It hasn’t found the right message. It has been too cautious. It has been worried about spoiling what it has already got.”

He believes it is possible to go after a new market without alienating the core market. “Gordon’s is the market, basically. It is the market leader by a mile. It would be terrible if it turned its back on younger drinkers,” he says. “Plymouth and Bombay Sapphire are doing a fantastic job in leading the resurgence of gin in the UK in the style bars, but we can’t do it on our own.”

Murphy also believes Gordon’s will have its work cut out in the global market. “Gordon’s lacks the international coherence of Johnnie Walker. It has different positioning in different markets. In the US it is seen as a premium domestic, rather than an export brand.”

Even the signature green bottle and white label is not a fixture in every market, he says.

Most observers agree that the prospects for gin are good – in the UK on-trade at least. A premium sector is slowly emerging in the upmarket style bars and there is no reason why gin should not become as fashionable as vodka in the long term.

The worry for BBH and its paymasters at UDV is that Gordon’s Gin will not be invited to the party.

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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