Are we the alchemists of today?

On a damp November evening, Marketors crossed London Bridge and joined forces with Distillers to learn more about the marketing of alcohol. This blend of marketing and distilling – alchemy – was chaired by David Wethey, past managing director of McCann Erickson, now running an agency helping clients and agencies work better together. David kept the panel on their toes, with a whistle at the ready to stop any overlong conversations. He was introduced by the Master Distiller in a cinema-style room, in the offices of the advertising agency, BMB.

The panel comprised: the irascible Rory Sutherland (Ogilvy UK); Mark Sandys who probably has the best job at Diageo, looking after Guinness, Baileys and Smirnoff; Anthony Wilson, a chemist from Alkemista which creates new spirits; and our very own Past Master Andrew Marsden whose many claims to fame include the development of J2O.

The key subjects of the evening were the dramatic increase in the gin market over the last decade and the no alcohol movement. Although we also learned about the early marketing efforts from the Baileys team – using influencers – gifting cabin crew with bottles of Baileys and suggesting they shared with friends when they reached their destination, as well as offering ‘tea, coffee or Baileys’ after the in-flight food service.

A decade ago there were 12 gin brands in the UK, today there are 6,000. Whilst this may seem like a great culture shift, it was due to a change in legislation in 2009 – when the Sipsmith team won a legal battle with HMRC, altering the Gin Act of 1751 which stated that gin could only be brewed by a still with a minimum capacity of 1,800 litres. This landmark legal change heralded the creation of thousands of boutique brands, being able to produce in smaller quantities.

Gin has seen incredible growth not just in the UK, but across Africa and Europe too. The only country yet to participate in gin fever is the USA – they prefer sweeter beverages.

There was also the discussion around the no-alcohol movement – referred to as the elephant in the room. There is a tendency to drink better and less, creating more opportunities for alcohol-free options. Indeed Fevertree’s sales of tonic waters outstrip the income of most gin brands – having spotted the opportunity for different tonics for different gins – and adapting the product range to be used as standalone drinks.

When talking with distillers after the panel discussion, several suggested that the number of gins would reduce further as they were not sustainable. Those who would remain would offer added value such as distillery tours and tasting events. Considering the development in the market, from identifying the new product opportunity, to developing an augmented product offer, sounded like a blend of a PESTLE and brand augmentation. Gin and the companion tonic waters create an excellent marketing fundamentals case study for those in education.

The discussion closed with our Master leading the vote of thanks and we adjourned for a range of beverages. Somewhat appropriately, the Distillers had organised G&Ts ready and waiting, as well as canapés prepared by a social enterprise.

Alchemy was an excellent event that was ably organised by Event Director Liveryman Nicola Wordsworth, and one that demonstrated both the value of joint events and the links between companies.

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