Pre-mixed spirits have been the success story of the last decade. Ben McFarland investigates the PPS' past and future.
Whether you like it or not and whatever you call them, be it alcopops, flavoured alcoholic beverages (FABs) or premium packaged spirits (PPSs), the astonishing demand for pre-mixed spirit concoctions is showing little sign of fading.
Less than a decade ago, when beer and lager reigned supreme in the nation's pubs and bars and the PPS phenomenon was a mere twinkle in the eye of a visionary marketer, not even the most clairvoyant of industry observers would have predicted its unprecedented impact.
The roots of today's flourishing PPS category can be traced back several years to the emergence in the 1990s of the now-defunct alcopop. The launch, and subsequent runaway success, of brands such as Hoopers Hooch and Two Dogs was swiftly followed by a plethora of gimmicky imitations eager to clamber aboard what was clearly becoming a fast moving bandwagon.
At its zenith in 1996, with sales of more than 74m, the future of the alcopop category was looking very bright and the likes of Hooch and Two Dogs were proving extremely popular among a new generation of younger drinkers - a bit too young if the truth be told - which ultimately proved to be its downfall.
The sheer weight of the controversy surrounding the perceived image of the products, spearheaded by high-profile tales of tipsy toddlers and outraged parents, was the beginning of the end for alcopops and although the principal brands agreed to new packaging and positioning, the phenomenon disappeared almost as quickly as it had first arrived.
The vacuum was quickly filled with more mature, responsible pillars of the drinks community, the majority of which boasted both premium brand credentials and a fistful of marketing spend.
Those pessimists who dismissed the new generation of fruity spirit-based players as just another passing fad of the alcopop variety have been forced to consume large quantities of humble pie as the PPS market has become the UK's fastest-growing alcoholic drinks sector and is currently worth a staggering £400m.
Despite the deluge of brands, ranging from the premium to the peculiar, few have been able to clip the wings of the omnipotent Bacardi Breezer, which has dominated the market from the word go and currently commands a 37 per cent share of the entire market.
Bacardi Breezer boasted sales of more than £500m last year, currently sells an astonishing 30,000 bottles every hour in the on-trade and, to the dismay of its competitors, is showing little sign of complacency.
Not content with merely rattling the cages of the leading lager brands, Breezer has embarked on a mission to eclipse the ubiquitous Budweiser in terms of distribution and invested a staggering £20m in TV and promotional support in order to do so.
Roger Harrison, marketing controller, low proof, at Bacardi, said: "We want to get Bacardi Breezer distributed into other parts of the trade. We currently have 61 per cent and our aim is to overtake Budweiser, which has 69 per cent, by the end of the year."
In addition to the multi million-pound Tom Cat advertising campaign (pictured left), Breezer has invested a further £1m in its Vivid concept. The Breezer branded clubbing experience is in its second year and is indicative of Breezer's new marketing strategy.
"We're trying to create an adult image and unless we're communicating on all levels, especially TV, then it's extremely difficult to develop either the brand or the category," added Mr Harrison.
"With so much competition out there, we have got to be the best communicator and what we're trying to do with Tom and Vivid is to talk to consumers from the moment they wake up to the time they go to bed. There's a brand empathy throughout the day and we're trying to hit people on different occasions."
Breezer can ill afford to rest on its laurels as UDV has intensified the increasingly competitive battle for fridge space with the launch of its hugely successful Smirnoff Ice brand and more recently the introduction of its Archers Aqua range.
"We welcomed the arrival of Smirnoff Ice as it keeps us sharper, makes the category more premium and helps drive the category forward and bring in consumers," added Mr Harrison.
Since it was introduced nearly two years ago, the success of Smirnoff Ice has exceeded all expectations and on the back of its "As Clear as Your Conscience" TV advertising campaign has established itself as one of the few PPS brands deemed masculine enough to appeal to the 18 to 24-year-old male drinker.
With Smirnoff Ice courting the relatively untapped male market and Bacardi Breezer finding favour with the ladies, the two brands managed to complement each other. However, it remains to be seen whether UDV's £10m launch of Archers Aqua, targeted solely at the female PPS market and set to go head-to-head with Breezer, will be welcomed by Bacardi-Martini with such open arms!
"They've marketed Smirnoff Ice for a male consumer while Archers Aqua is very much aimed at females, but I'm not sure if life really works like that. I think it's a risk to potentially alienate 50 per cent of the market," added Mr Harrison.
In addition to the two-pronged offensive from UDV, Bacardi Breezer's dominace is under threat from a number of other well-supported and innovative brands. The PPS specialist Beverage Brands, purveyor of what has become an eclectic and wide-ranging selection of brands, is snapping at the heels of the major players with its WKD range and recently strengthened its hand with the launch of a laddish TV advertising campaign.
Karen Salters, Beverage Brands marketing manager, said: "WKD is keeping up with Breezer and Ice and following the advertising campaign, our awareness levels are higher than both Smirnoff Ice and Metz which is why we're rolling the ads into new regions."
Karen has seen a lot of change in the PPS market since Beverage Brands first launched its inaugural Woody's range in 1995. "It has definitely become polarised in the last few years. The cost of entry into the market is still pretty low from a marketing point of view but after that it becomes more difficult.
"The fridges are crammed and the routes to trade are becoming increasingly congested. It's easy to access wholesale but getting into the managed houses is a lot harder," added Karen.
And the ferocious battle for fridge space is likely to become even more intense as the major players raise the marketing stakes. Interbrew has invested heavily in targeting the clubbing community with Red and more recently its more laid-back counterpart Blue, while its stable mate Vodka Source is making considerable progress in the male PPS market, thanks in part to the, ahem, support of the brand's ambassadors Tina and Ingrid.
Away from the major drinks companies, the success of the VK brand, from the Chesterfield-based GBL International, is proof that a high-profile parent brand is not a necessary pre-requisite for a product to succeed.
Originally targeted at the nightclub market yet increasingly popular in young person's venues, the eight-flavoured range (pictured, top) currently commands a six per cent share of the market, sells more than two million bottles a week and is backed with an £8m support campaign incorporating sponsorship of the hedonistic documentaries Ibiza Uncovered and more recently Las Vegas Uncovered.
Bob Rishworth of Halewood International, producer of the value-for-money Red Square range, believes that given polarisation of the market and the experimental nature of the PPS consumer, there are still opportunities at the "value-for-money" end.
"It's a difficult market and it's impossible to introduce something without any level of support but I t