The drinks industry is part of the soft underbelly of dysfunction, inviting a good kicking from anyone who wants to make some cheap capital out of an intractable social problem The rebuke marked a temporary respite in an increasingly futile war of words over who should take responsibility for curbing that curse of our times, binge drinking. When I say “futile” I mean for the drinks industry, which faces an unedifying prospect of increased social stigma and asphyxiating regulation. It has become a whipping boy for problems that are, to a significant extent, beyond its control.
So, when the PM acted we can be sure that it was not out of tender solicitude for a beleaguered industry. Rather, the interests of government and industry temporarily coincided. Sir Liam’s proposal was effectively a shaft aimed at the supermarkets, which have been plying us with loss-leading cut-price beer and cider. True, the brewers and cider makers don’t particularly like the supermarkets slicing their margins to ribbons and undermining all that patient and meticulous investment in branding; the now “reassuringly inexpensive” Stella being a case in point.
But they don’t have much choice because the supermarkets are now their main distribution vehicle in what for some years has been a deteriorating market. The brewers are hardly going to welcome further sales restrictions à la Donaldson.
Luckily for them, Sir Liam’s proposal is politically naive. In clobbering underage binge drinkers, the Government would also be penalising the mass of moderate, responsible drinkers, who happen to make up a significant part of the electorate.
Still, that doesn’t leave room for complacency. First of all, there’s an imminent Budget to worry about. Last year, UK alcohol sales declined by 11% after the Government increased excise duty by 17%; the temptation to repeat the exercise certainly can’t be discounted as ministers contemplate a ballooning deficit.
Even more ominously, MPs are launching yet another inquiry – against the background of a ten-year high in complaints – into the effectiveness of current advertising restrictions, with a possible view to imposing a 9pm watershed on TV advertising and curbing cinema advertising.
Lose this battle and the drinks producers may as well concede they are destined for the same commercial twilight zone as the UK tobacco industry. For a drink brand deprived of its image is but a low-margin commodity. And an image without advertising, in this sector, is unsustainable.
But it will not be an easy battle to win. The drinks industry is part of the soft underbelly of dysfunction, inviting a good kicking from anyone who wants to make some cheap capital out of an intractable social problem, including politicians, doctors, health lobbyists, exasperated policemen.
No matter, as David Poley – chief executive of the industry’s leading trade body the Portman Group – puts it: “You can only be held responsible for what is in your control. You can’t control programme makers or peer influence, or standards of parenting.” Or, it seems, pricing. More epigrammatically, he adds: “The issue is problem drinkers, not problem drinks.” All that may be true, but won’t weigh much in the balance.
So what does the industry plan to do about it? Its main strategy in recent years has been a sustained educational awareness programme, embodied in such initiatives as the Portman-sponsored Drink Aware project. The fact that such initiatives are mostly funded (and not exactly lavishly at that) by the industry itself has evoked a certain wry scepticism about their sincerity. But in truth, they ought to be in deadly earnest because there isn’t much else to hand. The calculus is simple: demonstrate serious, effective self-restraint and you will avert statutory interference.
We’ll see. This year, the industry is hatching something called Project 10, orchestrated by Portman chairman Richard Evans (formerly chief executive of InBev UK) and Bruce Ray, external affairs director of Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands.
Details are sketchy (probably because they are not yet fully crystallised) but we do know the following. The campaign, funded by an extraordinary levy of industry participants, including retailers and pubs, with some in-kind help thrown in, will focus on persuading young people to assume personal responsibility in their drinking habits. It will feature the strapline Why Let Good Times Go Bad? which will be promoted through a certain amount of above-the-line advertising, plus point-of-sale material around off- and on-trade outlets.
The big unanswered question so far is whether Project 10 will involve explicit government support. Everyone is being shifty about this, for good reason. On the one hand, such support would add credibility to the campaign and help to muzzle opposition. It would, as Coors UK chief executive Mark Hunter recently invited us to believe, be the drinks industry’s equivalent of Change4Life.
On the other hand, it would be the drinks industry’s equivalent of Change4Life. The row over sub-brand endorsements that surfaced in Marketing Week recently is but a small taster of what can go wrong when industry bodies attempt to collaborate with health organisations and government departments.