Finding your way in the dark
Many countries have or are beginning to restrict the advertising and promotion of alcohol, in response to public health concerns around over-consumption and underage drinking. As big-ticket items like TV, radio, outdoor advertising and sponsorship disappear from marketers’ toolkits, how can drinks brands continue to connect with consumers and achieve brand saliency in these so-called ‘dark’ markets?
Restriction on alcohol advertising and promotion is an accelerating trend. France’s ‘loi Evin’ banned alcoholic drinks from sports sponsorship, TV and cinema since as far back as 1991. Now, dozens of countries across Europe, Asia and the Americas impose some form of restriction – although the rules are far from uniform. India and Russia ban advertising but not sponsorship. Malaysia bans radio and billboard advertising as well as during Malay-language TV programmes (but not English). Norway and Sweden impose restrictions based on the strength of alcohol – over 2.5% and the advertising tap is turned off. Turkey’s 2014 laws are some of the strictest, banning all forms of advertising and sponsorship by alcoholic drinks (and even their sale within 100 metres of schools and mosques).
While an outright ban here in the UK seems unlikely in the short term, many UK brands will already be facing darker prospects in their overseas markets. So what can we learn from those markets already going dark, and what has been the impact on their marketing campaigns?
Marketing with the lights out
There’s an argument that established brands may actually benefit in the short term, since a ban on promotion favours market leaders that already have strong salience in the consumer’s mind. Meanwhile, the lack of mass marketing tools to quickly build awareness can hamper the business case for competing new brand launches. Ringnes, Norway’s largest brewery, has held onto a solid 53% share of the market despite the advertising gloom, partly thanks to its strong heritage[i]. Carlsberg actually saw increases in market share in Russia after the ban, although total beer sales declined[ii], while smaller rival Coors Light was forced to pull out of the market altogether. Yet even the strongest brands need strategies to maintain their visibility and appeal.
Sponsorship, where it’s allowed, offers an opportunity for players with deep pockets to sustain awareness and connect meaningfully with fans. In Russia, Carlsberg-owned beer brand Baltika sponsored both the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the national KHL ice hockey league, while sister company Tuborg continued its Europe-wide GreenFest music festival association. In France, the Heineken Cup is now known simply as the ‘H’ Cup but its long association (and a certain very recognisable red star) leaves rugby fans in little doubt of the brand’s support – demonstrating that where brand iconography is well-established, secondary brand assets – colour, font, bottle shape, strapline – can be deployed very effectively.
Where sponsorship is out, surrogates are in: from logical brand extension like low/ no alcohol ranges such as Munkholm in Norway to more lifestyle-based ploys like Courvoisier’s Style Guides that aim to support the brand’s style credentials. Identifying and owning new occasions works too – Feb 16 UK GQ features a Chivas Regal collaboration with a London bar/restaurant to effectively sponsor their ‘pre-stag’ night – a more traditional night in a (posh) bar with food matching tasting menu and complimentary branded hip flasks for the party to take away for the main event.
Cleverly negotiated product placement is another effective tactic. The 50-year-old Macallan namechecked by Javier Bardem in Skyfall’s memorable ‘William Tell’ scene and the generous measures of Cinzano sloshed about in Mad Men’s final season both ensured their brands global exposure.
Challenger brands and new entrants undeniably face a tougher task. However, over time the playing field will be levelled as creativity and connection matter more than big budgets. It’s vital to refocus on the customer journey: what influences individuals’ choices at the moment of purchase. Key tools to support challenger brands being strong PR and superior product quality to drive repeat purchase. Then adding innovation and NPD to continue the communication, keeping a brand salient and giving it something to talk about in market.
In dark markets, brands must work hard to stand out through packaging and POS. Haig Club was wise to not only employ David Beckham’s celebrity stardust, but also to take a departure from whisky convention with a bright blue bottle. Strong and close relationships with the trade are crucial, especially for new launches. NPD and seasonal editions help customers re-engage with the brand and keep it fresh. In Vietnam, Johnnie Walker’s Tet (New Year) gift boxes showcased the ‘Striding Man’ icon while adopting the colours and motifs of the Tet festival, delighting consumers and helping customers with on point seasonal retail displays.
Perhaps the toughest challenge is direct communication with consumers. Yes, digital and social media remain open but to get cut-through in our world of immediacy requires next level creativity. For the launch of Tiger White, a new wheat-based variant, Tiger Beer offered drinkers across Malaysia the chance to be part of the first ever crowd-sourced movie production using only beer coasters. Tiger put branded white coasters into bars, inviting consumers to come up with stories for the film and nominate friends for production roles alongside international director Baltasar Kormakur. An eye-catching way to make use of such basic POS, generating WOM as well as PR without a ringgit of advertising spend.
So, with markets going dark, how should marketers prepare?
- Invest in a meaningfully distinct brand now – embed a distinctive brand image that resonates deeply with target consumers. Consider how secondary brand assets beyond name and logo could play a stronger and if needed ‘cunning’ role – think icons, colour, texture, visual effects, sounds and smell. Learn from brands already striding their way through the dark.
- Innovate in packaging and POS – ensure your brand stands out, whether on the back bar or the supermarket shelf. Subvert category conventions, build rituals, promote existing and new occasions and nurture relationships with trade professionals and super-consumers to champion your brand.
- Connect with consumers – seek innovative channels of communication that are a spur to social and digital interaction rather than created for them. Leverage cultural insights and local knowledge to deserve consumers’ attention rather than buy it.
- Exploit international presence – Clever content can filter from non-dark into dark markets. As can brands themselves: Spain became Brugal rum’s largest export market largely due to low-cost flights from Spain to the Dominican Republic in the ‘90s and early 2000s. Spanish holiday-makers discovered Brugal rum for themselves and through self and family and friend gifting created a demand at home. An interesting parallel for brands looking to ‘seed’ a dark market – what is the next hot spot destination for wealthy Russians, Malaysians, Indians?
Above all, creativity and innovation are more important than ever, whether the lights are out, or the lights are on and no-one’s looking – the key is to have something so meaningfully unique, people will talk about it. And a ban on conventional mass market advertising could actually be a spur to greater creativity, deeper customer insight and closer relationships. We need to push the boundaries of new and different, more than ever before and leverage diffusion (awareness through word of mouth). As Paul Ricard said, reflecting on an earlier ban on advertising aniseed drinks that hit his fledgling Pernod-Ricard empire: “The ban, which could appear as a formidable handicap, was actually a secret advantage that obliged us to exercise our imagination.”
The future will be bright with great ideas.