Don’t let gin become the drinks industry’s next novelty act
I appreciate that in the age of a man-child US President, suicidal UK Brexiteers, tinderbox Middle Eastern politics and impending nuclear Armageddon in Asia there are more important things to lose sleep over, but I am quite worried about gin.
In particular, I’m worried about the fad – and it will be a fad – for gins that change colour when tonic is added. So far, we have Sharish Blue Magic from Portugal, Empress 108 from Canada and no fewer than three from the Old Curiosity distillery in Glasgow.
“Lighten up mate,” I can hear you say, “it’s only a bit of fun.” And, of course, I don’t want be a killjoy, but the continued good health of the gin category isn’t going to be built on novelty. I can see the appeal in performing the colour-changing party trick for your mates but once you’ve done it, what next? “Yeah, Nige, you showed us the other day mate,” they’ll say.
The annals of drinks brand marketing are littered with the decaying remains of dozens of novelty brands.
In recent memory we’ve had Molson Coors’ Animée beers and Carlsberg’s Eve spritzer, both the results of the misguided notion that women needed somehow to be pushed towards beer, by the warped logic of going out of the way to create products that had very little resemblance to beer at all.
Allied Breweries made a similarly disastrous attempt to crack the same market opportunity 20 years earlier with Bleu de Brasserie, a French name and a blue bottle proving no more alluring to women disinterested in the fortunes of the big brewers than Animee’s insipid look and taste would some years down the line.
As the craft beer relationship with millennials has shown women are more likely to drink beer if you put flavour in, not take it out.
Perhaps it’s the big beer industry’s historical inferiority complex about fine wine or whisky that means its particularly afflicted with the novelty marketing gene.
Over the years, we’ve had what at the time were billed as revolutions such as colourless beer, dry beer and ice beer. There was a point in the dry beer brainstorming process when somebody could have said, “you know, that’s a terrible idea", but by the time they did it was too late.
Ice beer came from Canada – home of ice wine, perhaps further evidence of brewing’s keeping up with the Joneses mentality – and was a convoluted technical purification exercise, the result of which was to make character-free north American lager even more pale and tasteless than it was already.
Perhaps the novelty-est novelty drink of all was Carlsberg’s Thickhead, conceived on the back of the craze for so-called alcoholic lemonades of the early 1990s, the category that morphed into alcopops before settling on the more mundane but less emotionally-charged description “ready-to-drink”. Thickhead was a gloopy, jelly-like, sweet orange-flavoured “drink” that popped on the tongue like space dust confectionery and was banned by the Portman Group before it had even gone on sale. I’ve still got a bottle if anyone wants to make me an offer.
This was something of a golden era for novelty drinks launches. At one point the mania got so bad that DRN forerunner Off Licence News sent it up for an April Fool’s spoof, announcing the arrival of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Whisky, a fake Canada brand that played fast and loose with Scotch labelling regulations.
To get back to the point ... while novelty marketing often brings a bit of short-term cash and raises a smile, it seldom works in the long-term, whatever field it’s in. The broad sweep of western popular culture is home to plenty of examples. Where are you now Joe Dolce, Stars on 45, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, Wagner, Crazy Frog, Allan Sherman, Hooked on Classics, Stavros Flatley, Adrian Mole, “Weird Al” Jankovic, Ivor Biggun, Las Ketchup, Rednex, Barbie Girl, Mr Blobby, Vengaboys, Black Lace, Baz Luhrmann, Star Trekkin’, 3 of a Kind and Tom Noddy? A motley collection of one-hit wonders and one-trick ponies, I'm sure you'll agree. By they way, if you have to Google any of these it just serves to prove my point.
With every street on Britain now home to its own gin brand, it’s increasingly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff as it is. The long term sustainability of the gin category is going to need products made with integrity that provide compelling reasons for consumers to buy them – and then buy them again.
Novelty gin acts risk bringing ridicule to the category and sacrificing its credibility for a fast buck. There’s undoubtedly magic in buying a bottle of Sharish Blue but how many shoppers will be coming back for a second one?