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Self Preservation Society

“standfirst”>The message was clear at this year’s Marketing Alcoholic Drinks Conference: the drinks industry must work together towards self-regulation, or pay the penalties, says Penny Boothman

NOW IN its ninth year, the annual World Advertising Research Centre/Admap Marketing Alcoholic Drinks conference once again attracted senior executives from marketing, media, research and advertising.

Nearly 100 delegates heard seminars on subjects ranging from product development to consumer demographics.  Following the government’s Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy this year, top of the list for discussion were the binge drinking issue and the possibility of stricter government legislation on the alcoholic drinks industry.

The conference was chaired by executive director for the client services team at Interbrand, Graham Hales, who introduced the other speakers, including Paul Flatters, chief executive of The Future Foundation Group; Jamie Lister, director of Drink Works; Roger Neill, managing partner at Synetics Corporation; and Maggie Collier, joint MD, and Chris Francis, associate director, at Flamingo International.

The first speaker was Stephen Thomas, CEO of Luminar plc, the largest operator of late-night venues in the UK, whose keynote address on the importance of self-regulation gave us the view from the on-trade.

"Now is the time for innovation, for an amalgamation of trade associations and businesses, to enable us to better liaise with the government… to make the right socially responsible changes, together," he said.

The first seminar presentation, entitled "From Obesity to Binge Drinking," was from Paul Flatters of consumer insight specialists The Future Foundation Group, who gave us an overview of the changing market for drinks marketing and advertising.

We are all aware that the issues of binge drinking and obesity could be catalysts for new legislation, but what is alcohol’s role, and how responsible are beverage manufacturers? Unfortunately for some, a drinks retailer serving food is ultimately involved in both debates.

Flatters underlined the fact that drinks marketers may need to re-assess their target markets for the future by demonstrating that the population is ageing, and there is a shift in the demographics of drinkers and household types, driven by ever higher disposable incomes in an increasingly affluent and spending oriented society.

Modern consumers accumulate experiences rather than "things", and beverage marketing is now about selling the experience.  However, increased pressure from and visibility of lobby groups means that marketers must also consider their reactions when formulating new campaigns, which should result in more responsible drinks advertising.

Wine is growing its share of the alcoholic drinks industry at the expense of beer, but are brewers missing out on an important opportunity? Jamie Lister explained how the premium positioning of beer is driven by brand, yet the sector lacks a premium-level brand at less than 5% abv.

In these times of increased awareness over alcohol consumption, this could be a profitable niche, proving that even a mature market like the UK has some hidden opportunities.

Innovation and development are what keep any industry alive and Roger Neill of creativity and innovation advisors, Synetics Corporation, presented his views on these themes in the drinks market.

Originality is particularly vital in a mature category such as the beer sector, and managing director of Greene King Brewery, Rooney Anand, spoke about the recent rebranding and launch of its "Beer to Dine For" project, which promotes beer as a meal accompaniment in a bid to follow wine’s success on the dinner table.

Maggie Collier and Chris Francis of global market research organisation, Flamingo International, examined how our attitudes to drink change as we get older and underlined the positive points about the use of alcohol in a social context.

They contrasted attitudes to drinking in the UK and other global markets, pointing out that Italian has no word for "hangover" and yet English has countless words and slang phrases for being drunk.

Yet the UK is not the only country with a heavy drinking culture; drinking to excess is also socially acceptable in Japan, for example, yet interestingly without the consequences of violence and social disorder.

Understanding such cultural differences in accepted alcohol consumption could be a useful starting point in changing our society’s attitude to drink and drinking.  Former head of beers, wines and spirits, at Sainsbury’s, Alan Cheeseman, joined the panel discussion to give us the benefit of his considerable experience in the alcoholic drinks industry.

Establishment of minimum pricing was seen as a critical issue by all members of the panel as the foundation for responsible drinks retailing, especially in the on-trade. 

However, deep discounting and multipurchase promotions mean that the offtrade is not immune to the binge drinking debate and national proof-of-age cards were identified as a key factor in stopping underage drinking as a no ID, no sale" stance would massively simplify responsible retailing.

The possibility of a ban on smoking in the on-trade was also seen in a largely positive light by the panel – as an opportunity to attract more consumers rather than alienate the existing clientele.

However, the fall in profits of the drinks industry in Ireland since a total smoking ban was implemented was seen as a clear warning of how the trade could be negatively affected.  We were reminded that the government could change legislation for the drinks industry without warning and with immediate effect, so it is in the interests of the industry to act together to prevent tighter restrictions.

However, it was also the feeling of the panel that the police need to enforce existing laws and the government needs to address its role in developing and implementing standard drinks unit labelling regulations, across Europe or even internationally.

Richard Storey, planning director at M&C Saatchi, returned to the original focus of the conference: advertising.  He spoke about the challenges and responsibilities of self-regulation facing the alcoholic drinks advertising industry, and how marketers can adapt to them to explore new advertising territories without angering the censors.

Chris Searle, executive director of Bacardi-Martini Ltd examined the best tools for building brands in the drinks industry, and beer writer Pete Brown of Storm Lantern, spoke about intelligent use of sponsorship to promote sales as well as responsible consumption in the alcoholic drinks industry.

The new market research tool for the 21st century, Vox Pops International, presented some of its innovative consumer research videos throughout the day.  A broad cross-section of the general public had been quizzed about a range of issues relating to binge drinking and alcohol advertising, such as "How do your drinking habits change in different social situations?" and "What makes you try a new drink?" through to the more hard-hitting "Should alcoholic drinks advertising be banned?" The responses were illuminating, particularly those on binge drinking, which ranged from "England’s boring, there’s nothing else to do," to "I work all week, it’s my right."

Clearly there is much work to do on the public’s awareness of the dangers of alcohol abuse. As so often within the drinks industry, trade recognition and understanding of issues facing the business precedes consumer awareness by some distance.

Arguably, it is ultimately up to consumers to decide how much they drink, but the responsibility lies with marketers, advertisers and retailers to make the necessary adaptations to protect the public from harm, and their own industry from more restrictive and potentially damaging legislation.

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