Do international spirit days add brand value or clog calendars?

26th May, 2017 by Kristiane Sherry

From Scotch to Margaritas and Negronis: it seems like every serve is being marked by a special day or week. The Spirits Business asks industry experts how these occasions can be effective.

Model Coco Rocha

Coco Rocha, Freida Pinto and Nick Morgan walk into a bar… no, this isn’t the start of a bizarre riddle starring the model, actress and Diageo’s head of whisky outreach. It near enough happened on 10 February this year as the global drinks group hosted its first International Scotch Day.

While Rocha was sipping her “personal favourite”, Johnnie Walker and ginger ale, in Mexico City, Pinto was flying the flag for Scotch in Mumbai, fresh off a plane from Manila, where she hosted a glamorous event in honour of the ‘water of life’. In Scotland, Diageo opened its renowned Menstrie-based archive, and the doors of all its visitor-friendly distilleries free of charge to the public.

International Scotch Day was also marked in the on-trade, off-trade and social media worlds, the latter utilising Diageo’s ownership of the #LoveScotch hashtag across multiple platforms. But why bother? Aren’t there already enough ‘international’ days and weeks in the spirits calendar?

In March alone, the US marks National Absinthe Day on the 5th, National Cocktail Day on the 24th, and, for those who enjoy an architectural garnish, National Something on a Stick Day falls on the 28th.

“We’re trying to recruit and re-recruit to the category,” Morgan told The Spirits Business, ahead of the day. “And re-recruiting people to Scotch is critical to the lifeblood of the industry.” While Diageo declined to set up an interview immediately after International Scotch Day, a spokesperson said the company was thrilled by the “massive global participation”. But how much longevity can one day have, and do these diary dates contribute to the furthering of the spirits sector?

For Joel Biswasat, head of brand planning at London brand agency Aesop, the success of a themed day or week depends on the objective. “Are you just looking to target sampling? Are you looking to simply drive volume sales? Or are you looking to target early adopters and influencers – that’s a priority that needs to be weighed up.”

Driving promotions

In one sense, these themed days can play a vital role in driving liquid-on-lips-style promotions – especially in high-volume bars, and, say, in university cities, Biswasat adds. It’s a great deal more difficult to “deepen and extend” brand relationships.

This is where Diageo won with International Scotch Day, he says. “It is quite smart, because you’re getting people to experience a category and there’s storytelling – it isn’t just about a serve, or one brand. It’s about Scotland, it’s about the heritage, how Scotch is made. So right away you are building category affinity deeper than just linking it to a serve.”

Another recent date in the drinking diary was International Margarita Day on 22 February – one that perhaps represented a harder task to build a meaningful relationship between customer and category. The serve has been around since the 1940s, and Patrón has taken up the mantle to drive promotion overseas.

“We try to reinforce that to make a better Margarita, it’s crucial to start with a high-quality Tequila,” says Greg Cohen, vice president, corporate communications at Patrón Spirits International. Other core messages include the serve’s versatility, and the fact that it’s a relatively simple cocktail to reinterpret.

“By looking at our digital and social engagement, and feedback we get from bartenders and retailers, we see an impact and an increase in conversation that starts on International Margarita Day and carries through into the rest of the year.”

The key vehicle used by Patrón to make sure that the 22 February is not merely a one-Margarita wonder is its strategy to use the day as a launch pad for its growing Margarita of the Year cocktail competition.

The brand announces seven finalist serves on the day, and gives the public in the UK, US and other major markets just under a month to sample in the on-trade and vote online for their favourite. A grand final follows, with the eventual winner announced ahead of Cinco de Mayo – almost two months of activity stemming from the main day.

“We don’t necessarily look to measure the ‘day’ itself,” Cohen confirms, “rather the entire Patrón Margarita of the Year initiative: how many votes were cast, how many people engaged with us on digital and social, what are we hearing from the trade – all over several months.”

Margarita of the Year cocktail competition

Does the extended focus work with consumers? Are they not fed up of all these days? “We know that few people actually have these ‘holidays’ circled on their calendars,” Cohen concedes, adding that key to a successful campaign is drumming up awareness of said day, then making sure it’s part of a wider, more meaningful marketing programme.

The key protagonist to making a success of any of these days is the bartender – but with so many ‘days’, they have the potential to become fatigued by the calendar circus.

“You have to run any ‘day’ in conjunction with the trade,” stresses Biswasat. “If you approach them in such a way where you’ve got a special, bespoke recipe designed by a super-influential bartender, then you can bring them on side because you’re adding a spin that is of interest to them.”

On-trade remains crucial

For Campari UK, it’s this approach that will make a success of Negroni Week, set to take place from 5-11 June. Despite the Negroni serve’s dependence on Campari as an ingredient, 2017 will mark the first time the brand has officially come on board as a partner in the market – and for Pietro Mattioni, managing director Campari UK, the on-trade is critical.

“We find that a successful ‘themed week’ campaign can only be possible when there is genuine support from the trade, and they are enthusiastic about participating,” he says. “Across the entire Campari portfolio we find that any time we run a themed campaign – whether that’s for a day or a whole week – authentic love for the brand being championed is what underpins its success.”

Achievement in this environment also means being prepared to hold the reins a little more loosely than with other marketing initiatives. “Something like Negroni Week, when you involve the trade to create their own twists, means giving up some control, which some would see as a con – but for us, we love to see bartenders experiment.”

What if you’re neither blessed with the category clout of Diageo or the brand following of Patrón and Campari – should smaller brands just give these ‘days’ and ‘weeks’ a wide birth?
“Just ‘National X-Y-Z Day’ can feel a bit thin,” muses Biswasat. “But they absolutely can work. But we would skew towards connoisseurship; we want to feel knowledge and feel in it a sense of education.” To achieve that, it’s about examining brand values alongside existing occasions and looking for meaningful synergies. “Why wouldn’t you use an existing holiday to drive deeper connections?”

Owning a time and place

He advises brands to model Brown-Forman’s savviness in how it celebrates the birthday of Jack Daniel. With the exact date lost to history, simply any day in September could be his birthday – and consumers are invited to raise a glass accordingly.

“In effect, they are inventing a time and space that they can own on their own terms, in the context of their own brand – and in doing that if they just want to drive volume, they can do that. If they want to target high-end, niche customers, they can do that, too. But it is all centred around an intrinsic truth that only Jack Daniel’s can say.”

For a national or international day or week to stick in the mind, it must be meaningful and it must stretch beyond that single day. While the fun of an occasion can appeal, a longer-term view is crucial – and to forget that can do a brand more harm than good. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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