If the statistics are to be believed, Britain has a drink problem. According to the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, the country’s binge-drinking culture is costing &£20bn a year as 17 million working days are lost because of hangovers and drink-related illnesses.
Billions more are spent clearing up after alcohol-associated crime and social problems, while alcohol is blamed for 22,000 premature deaths each year. A Mori survey for Alcohol Concern has revealed that 78 per cent of consumers are concerned about binge drinking.
It is against this background that alcohol drinks marketers must demonstrate they are acting responsibly when promoting their wares. Questions are being asked, for instance, about whether giving away samples of alcohol brands is encourages drunkenness.
Brand owners have already had to adapt their national sampling campaigns as more local authorities ban the activity on their property. At a time when the Government is trying to modernise the licensing laws but is also facing pressure to review its plans to allow 24-hour drinking, field marketers and their clients have had to go on the offensive to show they are behaving responsibly.
Interbrew UK marketing director Phil Rumbol, who looks after brands such as Castlemaine XXXX, Murphy’s Irish Stout and Stella Artois, says sampling is purely about helping consumers to make an informed choice. He adds: “To suggest that sampling contributes to binge drinking is a nonsense. Our campaigns are about education and driving preference. They are a successful and appropriate part of our marketing programme.”
Nevertheless, The Portman Group, which was set up by drinks producers to promote responsible drinking, is considering updating its 2003 Code of Practice to include specific advice on how its members should sample products.
“We may consider adapting the code to provide more detailed advice on responsible sampling,” says The Portman Group director of compliance and good practice David Pooley. “We do get asked about this issue, so perhaps we need to make it clear what volumes should be given to people.”
Response and responsibility
One company that has tightened its internal standards towards alcohol sampling is Scottish Courage, which promotes brands such as Foster’s and John Smith’s. It has produced a responsible marketing policy document containing guidelines for its own account directors, who must all attend a workshop on sampling.
Its field marketing agency, LoewyBe, also uses the policy document when training its own staff as brand ambassadors. “Drinks companies are taking the binge-drinking debate more seriously and are stressing that sampling is all about brand association and educating the target market rather than filling stomachs with free alcohol,” says LoewyBe managing director Sharon Richey.
Diageo is aware of how some alcoholic beverages can be perceived as promoting anti-social behaviour and it is trying to change the image of its tequila brand Cuervo. It wants to reposition tequila in the minds of consumers so it is no longer seen as an unsophisticated “shots” drink. A pre-Christmas brand experience campaign in London produced by The Blue Water Agency placed more emphasis on merchandising and education by showing drinkers that Cuervo can be a fun mixer.
Of course, the risk of fuelling binge drinking through product sampling is greater in some environments than others. Consumers in supermarkets will arguably be more sensible about whether they partake in a free drink and how many samples they have than consumers enjoying a night out in a pub or club.
Tanya Sergant, managing director of brand experience agency Lime, says brand owners must be careful about where and when they sample alcohol: “There can be problems so we advise brands to run any activity in a pub early in the evening because we want to talk to consumers before they get drunk.”
Perhaps the easiest way for a brand to demonstrate it is acting responsibly in an on-trade or off-trade environment is to ensure multiple samples are not given to the same people.
When CPM carries out sampling campaigns for Diageo brands such as Archers, Baileys and Guinness, its staff stamp consumers’ hands to ensure they only have one drink. Like most agents, CPM only distributes small volume samples. For Baileys, for example, it used 25ml “sip” samples, which is half a measure or 0.4 units of alcohol.
Most shopping centres and supermarkets have a licence to sell alcohol, and Matthew Bending, managing director at media sales company SpaceandPeople, says retailers have been concerned about the sampling of alcohol in the past, but attitudes are changing as brands have assured retailers they are acting responsibly.
He adds: “The field teams manning these stands only want to give out products to the target market and much of the sampling is for upmarket spirit and wine brands. If you ban the sampling of alcohol what will be next to go? Do you stop promoting sweets because children are becoming obese?”
Evading the law?
While the Government is looking to call time on what it sees as irresponsible drinks promotions such as “happy hours” and all-you-can drink offers, sampling activity is unlikely to be affected by new laws because it is not conditional on consumers making a purchase.
In reality, drinks suppliers have traditionally struggled to convince publicans of the merits of drinks promotions on their premises. Many landlords regard them as a hindrance because price-cutting hits their bottom line. Sampling activity, however, is generally welcomed as a way to encourage consumers to trade up to more expensive drinks.
Graham Abbott, director at specialist on-trade sales and marketing agency Box Marketing, says upmarket spirits and niche beer brands are increasing their market share, and in the current binge-drinking climate there will be more pressure on marketers to work even closer with publicans to link sampling with other brand experience work.
He adds: “The way forward is to not always give away free products but to distribute point-of-purchase items such as T-shirts to influence brand purchase. There should also be more emphasis on how brands are presented and served.”
Sampling remains a key weapon in persuading consumers to switch brands. Yet with the Government determined to clamp down on the anti-social problems associated with alcohol misuse, drinks producers may need to review their field marketing strategy to avoid any fingers being pointed at them.l