Things are looking up

The picture for the spirits category is looking much brighter than it did just five months ago, reports Laura Clark

In last September's Spirits Report, OLN painted a pessimistic picture of the UK off-trade spirits market. "With a lower than inflation sales increase and volumes climbing just 1 per cent, spirits producers, suppliers and retailers have their work cut out to really push some value back into the market," we announced.

Five months down the line the category is on the brink of a transformation, creeping up 4 per cent in value and 5 per cent in volume.

It might not be a dramatic increase, but in a market that declined by a worrying £10 million in 2006, it's a significant and reassuring climb.

Registering the biggest increase is Glen Catrine's Glen's Vodka, which boosted both value and volume sales by 21 per cent.

This unassuming brand has continued to storm its way up the spirits league and Glen's proves brands don't necessarily need big money marketing and funky bottles to capture the attention of the UK market. A value-for-money offering can be just as attractive to consumers.

It's the same story for Glen Catrine's High Commissioner, which is up 32 per cent in value and 31 per cent in volume, despite the lack of any major marketing activity.

The Famous Grouse has found itself elbowed out of the third spot by Glen's, but will be rolling out promotional initiatives including a comedy tour across the UK and Rugby World Cup sponsorship.

It is no surprise to see Smirnoff Red Label holding court over the spirits market, outstripping its nearest rival by some £80 million. With sales up 13 per cent to more than £220 million, the brand has had a better year than 2006 when it posted a modest 1 per cent growth. This year Diageo took a slightly different tack with its advertising, promoting the purity of the vodka with TV and cinema ads and an on-pack promotion offering the chance to win one of 25 luxury holidays in the Maldives.

Smirnoff's stable mate Bell's has also reversed its fortunes, with sales jumping 16 per cent in value compared with last year's double-digit slide, although a 23 per cent volume rise may mean it was promoting heavily this year.

Similarly Baileys is up 10 per cent in value and 20 per cent in volume. Before Christmas Diageo announced it would be abandoning its seasonal two-for-£25 promotion after Baileys' sales fell by 25 per cent.

The company blamed the price mechanic for the drop, saying it "locked out lighter buyers" of the liqueur.

Diageo instead suggested retailers maintain a single price point on big brands throughout Christmas, and for the first time, Smirnoff, Gordon's, Bell's and Baileys were all available in price-marked packs, with 70cl bottles retailing for £9.99.

But some retailers still sold Baileys at eyebrow-raising prices over Christmas and that is arguably the reason for its uplift.

Bacardi-Martini's Jack Daniels has had a new lease of life with a 20 per cent value rise compared with last year's disappointing 3 per cent growth.

The strong performance comes on the back of increased cinema, radio, outdoor and press advertising, and the running of tactical promotions, including limited edition and gift packs.

By contrast, blended whisky has had a much tougher year, with Teacher's and William Grant's turning in poor performances.

First Drinks' Three Barrels and Pernod Ricard's Martell are also flying the flag for Cognac and brandy.

With the top 20 spirits list also including liqueurs and specialities for the first time, Southern Comfort, Pimm's and Malibu have all put in appearances this year, but at the expense of brands such as Red Square, Glenfiddich, Jameson and Vladivar, which all find themselves knocked off the line-up.

Pimm's might have suffered from a wash-out summer, dropping 14 per cent of its sales, but Southern Comfort recorded double-digit growth.

Malibu saw sales surge 11 per cent thanks to its new-look bottle and a £6 million ad campaign that promoted Malibu and cranberry juice as a summer drink.

Star performer

It may have only just scraped into the top 20, but Maxxium's Absolut is this year's top entry, boosting sales by 53 per cent in the past year.

The brand is currently making headlines following the Swedish government's announcement that Absolut owner Vin & Sprit will be put up for sale, sparking worldwide speculation about Absolut's new parents. Despite its current state of flux, the brand has enjoyed a year of relative stability across the globe and V&S says its strategy to grow Absolut outside the US has produced impressive results, with worldwide sales up 9 per cent in volume.

In the UK the double-digit growth came thanks to a grapefruit-flavoured edition called Ruby Red and a global, multi-million pound ad campaign that included TV, print and online ads. "This is the next step in the development of our brand and the beginning of a new era in the marketing of Absolut vodka," says V&S president Ketil Eriksen.

With Diageo's announcement that it has pulled out of the race to buy Absolut after sealing a £460 million deal to buy a 50 per cent stake in the global distribution, sales and marketing rights of the super-premium Dutch vodka brand Ketel One, it looks like the battle of the vodka brands will hot up in 2008. And it will be down to Absolut's new owner to make sure the brand continues to stamp its mark on the UK spirits market.

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