Ed Pilkington: Gin’s comeback proves it’s possible to revive a stagnant category

The fact consumers have fallen back in love with gin shows categories can evolve quickly, but it’s important to understand and respond to emerging trends as well as what people are interested in right now.

gin

I decided to stay close to home for this article and write about something that is close to my heart – and that’s gin.

So, I could turn this into what would be an interesting treatise on distillation, botanicals and provenance but what I want to focus on is how an entire category that 10 years ago was stagnant, at best, is now vibrant

There is rarely just one factor that makes a category vibrant. There may be a trigger, but normally it is down to a mix of things coming together. We’re talking about growth in sales and penetration, innovation, new entrants, premiumisation, a ‘talkability’ factor and a category that fills a clear role in many people’s lives through the utility it offers and the occasion it plays into.

Relative ease of entry to the category can also help as it creates competition, variety and choice. Essentially, with a vibrant category everyone seems to be talking about it.

So, what happened in gin? How has this once stagnant category seen such a resurgence in popularity that it’s now considered part of the modern lifestyle of the British consumer – as seen in its addition to the government’s ‘shopping basket’ used to measure UK inflation? Well, it was a mix of the above. But let’s start with the ‘core offer’ from gin, the gin and tonic: it got better.

The trigger is believed to have been Ferran Adrià, the legendary chef of elBulli fame, who recreated the gin and tonic by putting it in a large, balloon-shaped ‘copa’ glass, which most people reading this will now associate with a decent G&T. And he used a tonic that was emerging at the time – Fever Tree. Each of the component elements started to become more important – from the gin, to the tonic, to the garnish.

If you think change you get change, and possible transformation.

Indeed, tonic itself and the mixer category overall must now be seen as vibrant, with a range of new brands, types and flavours, and a much greater percentage being sold at higher prices. As for the garnish, a notable competitor of ours recommended their gin and tonic with cucumber – a stroke of genius that, again, got people looking at the drink and category differently.

Easy, accessible and with an established formula, the G&T created space for this experimentation with garnishes, glassware and different flavoured tonics. Suddenly this classic drink felt new, different and better.

So, with a serve that made G&T cool again, we then started to see more and more brands appearing, benefiting from the relative ease of entry (you don’t have to age gin like whisky) and the buzz that was growing around the category. Indeed the number of new brands is quite prodigious – there are now reported to be 600 active gin brands in the UK from 193 distilleries.

Interestingly and importantly, most of these brands are at a premium price (most over £25 per bottle and many over £30). This, as well giving more choice to consumers, is great for the trade as it just adds more value to the category and makes trade customers – from bars and pubs to grocers – want to support it.

Shift in behaviour

At the same time, drinking behaviour across Europe was changing. The trend for later evening drinking was slowing and we saw a shift towards the early evening ‘aperitivo’ moment – an occasion that gin fitted perfectly into (as did Prosecco in the UK). The occasion for gin was re-established and that helped recement its place in society and culture. This shift shows no sign of changing.

The rise of craft drinks also helped increase the vibrancy of the category as, with a growing desire to demonstrate their individuality and knowledge, people looked to brands offering interesting and different stories. Sometimes these were brands that were local to them, sometimes from elsewhere, but all with seemingly a compelling story.

This huge choice helped consumers who were building an appetite for more, and broadening their repertoire. They could compare brands – the different botanicals, flavours, tastes, serves and provenance, and maybe stories of the founders. Gin was in the popular discourse, it had the talkability factor.

There is also a behavioural economics factor to category vibrancy. When it looks like everyone is doing something, people want to jump in. The copa glass and the new G&T had that effect – people wanted to join in. The opportunity when that happens is to sustain the momentum and for it not to feel like a fad. Lasting change is what is wanted.

Success relies on offering people what they want right now, but also on understanding, tracking and responding to the emerging trends.

We have all the signs of a vibrant category. We have tremendous growth, lots of activity, premiumisation and a clear role in society and culture. So what next? Well the good news is that the vibrancy continues. The category is evolving, with many distillers looking for that point of differentiation to stand out from the crowd, and continuing to bring in new consumers.

The rise of flavoured gins is growing and making gin more accessible to those who still find a G&T a little challenging (gin used to be seen as quite polarising, as did tonic). Pink Gin with a strawberry garnish looks fabulous in a copa glass and has an ‘accessible’ taste profile. Others are appearing (although I’m trying not to plug our brands here and remain neutral – but a gorgeous bitter sweet Seville orange gin from a famous and distinguished gin brand is well worth a try).

My final thought on category vibrancy is around embracing change, from both consumers and trade customers alike. Success relies on offering people what they want right now, but also on understanding, tracking and responding to the emerging trends and behaviours that are on the cusp of becoming mainstream.

Categories can evolve quickly if the initial seeds of change are embraced. In Spain the copa swept across the country but it took a bit longer for it to move abroad. Indeed I remember being told in 2012 that it would never work in the UK, as the glasses wouldn’t fit in pub dishwashers – a case of “think problem, get problem”. If you think change you get change, and possible transformation.

Six years later the trade and the consumers seem to have adapted, and I think many of us – most notably the growing band of gin consumers – are better for it.

Ed Pilkington is marketing and innovation director, Europe, at Diageo

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