A diet PPS launch won’t be a breeze

The path of low-cal alcoholic drinks is littered with failures, so will Diet Bacardi Breezer be any different? Given that the launch isn’t in response to customer demand but falling PPS sales, it looks doubtful, says Branwell Johnson

Counting calories and relaxing with an alcoholic drink do not seem compatible, but Bacardi Breezer is gambling on women’s new year’s resolutions holding up long enough for them to try a low-calorie variant.

Bacardi-Martini has just launched Bacardi Breezer Diet Lemon, which offers tipplers 100 calories a serving and half the sugar content of the standard premium packaged spirit (PPS).

Low-calorie alcoholic drinks is a relatively uncharted market. The few UK players that have launched low-cal brands or variants have had little success. Hooch Light and Bud Light, for example, quickly fell by the wayside.

But Bacardi-Martini is keen to find ways of holding on to its market share in a sector that is starting to look troublesome. The PPS market has grown phenomenally over the past five years, but insiders claim this growth is slowing. AC Nielsen figures leaked to Marketing Week show that on-trade sales are down year on year for each of the four months to the end of November 2002.

The figures also show that Bacardi Breezer – a brand worth £80.45m for the year to December 2001, up 14.5 per cent on 2000 (Nielsen Media Research) – has been particularly badly affected in the on-trade sector. For each of the 12 months up to and including November 2002, the brand’s on-trade volume sales were down year on year. In October, its sales dropped by as much as 39 per cent. But Bacardi-Martini claims that December 2002’s off-trade figures show the brand increasing its volume sales by 39 per cent, out-performing the market, which grew eight per cent.

Warren Langley, brand director for flavoured alcoholic beverages at Coors Brewers, whose brands include Reef and Hooch, doubts that Bacardi Breezer has developed Diet Lemon in response to consumer need. He believes it has created the variant to keep the PPS category vibrant, the same reason behind Hooch Light’s launch in 1999. “At the time Hooch’s sales were declining in double figures and we had to do something.”

Insiders attribute the slowdown in PPS sales partly to the increase in excise duty in last year’s Budget, though some players, including Bacardi Breezer, reduced the amount of the alcohol by volume (ABV) to avoid the extra duty.

It would seem low-cal variants have potential, given figures from the Office of National Statistics that show almost half of all men and a third of all women were overweight in 2001. The soft drinks sector is already tapping into some consumers’ obsession with calorie counting by launching diet colas, sales of which have increased 24.5 per cent through off-trade in the five years from 1996 to 2000. In 2000, 1,570 million litres of diet cola were sold to UK consumers, according to Mintel.

But Langley believes the success of diet cola offers little encouragement to the PPS sector because people drink cola for refreshment, and diet variants are seen as a bonus. In contrast, he says, the mindset for drinking alcohol is relaxation, and “the first thing people forget about when drinking alcohol is a regimented lifestyle”.

Peter Shaw, marketing director at branding agency Corporate Edge, says it may seem a “logical” step for drinks manufacturers to produce low-calorie PPS variants, but warns they should think carefully before doing so, because such a move could indicate to consumers that the standard product is high in calories.

He adds that male drinkers in the US, where Bud Light is extremely popular, are open to variants and new flavours. But in the UK, he says, “We buy into a provenance and a history of beer brands that we don’t like manufacturers to tamper with.”

Observers say that UK alcohol drinkers have in the past been confused by the meaning of words such as “light” because some drinks brands have employed them to indicate they are low in calories, some that they are low in alcohol, while others have used them to indicate they are lighter tasting but full-strength beers. Coors Brewers is about to wrestle with consumer perceptions when it introduces its Coors Light brand, a full-strength beer with a lighter taste, across the UK.

Low calorie beer Miller Lite, which has an ABV content of 4.2 per cent and just 35 calories per 100ml, had to change its name to Miller Pilsner and then Miller Beer because of consumers’ misconceptions.

Marston’s Low ‘C’ brand, from Wolverhampton & Dudley, took a different tack, making it clear what the brand stood for from the start – the fact that it contains just 72 calories per pint and has an ABV content of 4.7 per cent.

Bacardi Breezer is taking a similar approach. Bacardi-Martini marketing director Maurice Doyle says: “We have taken on board the mistakes of Hooch Light’s launch in the Nineties. It failed because, first there was confusion about what light meant – low calorie or low alcohol? And secondly, it was sold mainly through on-trade where the demand for low-calorie products isn’t so strong.”

Bacardi Breezer Diet Lemon is being introduced through the off-trade rather than through the on-trade, the usual route for launches. No marketing will support the low-cal variant’s launch.

Experts say this is the right route for a diet PPS. The category is aimed at 18to 24-year-olds and, in Bacardi Breezer’s case, skewed towards women. Observers agree that diet colas and slimline tonics are acceptable to consumers in pubs because they can be mixed unnoticed at the bar, but branded diet products would not be. As one buyer says: “There’s a social stigma to holding a bottle that shows you are on a diet.”

Rivals are not planning to follow Bacardi-Martini’s move into low-calorie drinks. A spokesman for Diageo GB, which owns the Archers Aqua and Smirnoff Ice brands, says: “From the research we have done with Archers Aqua consumers, diet ready-to-drink products are not something they show much interest in.”

Other manufacturers have repackaged products in smaller units in a bid to partly appeal to calorie-counting drinkers, for example Scottish Courage’s Foster’s Shorties, which is available in 200ml bottles.

The odds appear stacked against Bacardi Breezer’s Diet Lemon, but the fact that it is being distributed in the off-trade and is called “diet” as opposed to “light” may just help the variant have a smoother take-off.

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