High-street alcopops and swish cocktails are not natural bedfellows but, as Sonya Hook discovers, the recent wave of RTD launches could represent the beginning of a rather fruity alliance.
They seem an unlikely couple, the alcopop and the sophisticated cocktail, but if the raft of recent ready-to-drink (RTD) launches is anything to go by, this could be a marriage to rival Wills and Kate's forthcoming nuptials.
This year alone several of the biggest RTD producers have introduced a classic cocktail flavour or two in their ranges, from Mojitos to Mai Tais, and even those not looking to cocktails for inspiration are investing in new product development and marketing support for their brands.
As a result, 2011 could well be the end of a torrid few years for the much-maligned RTD market and the start of a beautiful new chapter — or will its past catch up with it?
So far so good, and the expansion into cocktail flavours has been welcomed with open arms by licensees in the on-trade.
Driving this potential step change is innovation from Bacardi Brown-Forman (BBF), which made the brave move of resisting further extensions to its classic Bacardi Breezer RTD, and instead brought out a new RTD Bacardi Originals cocktail range. The variants include the Bacardi Mojito and Cuba Libre, with more cocktail flavours likely to join in due course.
"The general trend towards classic cocktails has returned, with the Mojito rising to be the most frequently-drunk cocktail in the UK among 29-year-old spirit drinkers, with awareness now at over 85%," says BBF brand manager Nik Krys.
"Cocktails can be time-consuming and complicated. However, because of their popularity, pubs are keen to serve them. For those unable to create cocktails, a cocktail in a bottle, such as in the Bacardi Originals range, offers the perfect solution."
Smaller producers are also looking to take a piece of this "new" sub-category and the popularity of the Mojito, in particular, has been noticed by others in the market. Nuba Cocktails, created by entrepreneur Victoria Novis, has just launched a range of RTD cocktails in a bottle, with flavours of Cosmopolitan, Mojito and Mai Tai, made using only premium spirits and fresh fruit juices.
"There's a real gap in the market for superior-quality pre-mixed drinks," says Novis.
Producer Hi-Spirits also has a presence in this sub-category with its Longshots range under the Antica Sambuca brand, launched early last year. The range includes flavours of Raspberry Refresher (raspberry sambuca and lemon) and Black Bite (black sambuca and lemon).
"The Longshots range allows every outlet to serve sambuca drinks quickly and profitably," says chairman Jeremy Hill. "RTDs are definitely on their way up again. The 18 to 30-year-old demographic in particular has a wider drinking repertoire than previous generations of drinkers and is looking for new experiences, rather than just sticking to their 'usual'. It's important that they 'get' new RTD brands straight away, which is why many new products reflect flavours in popular cocktails."
Hill has confidence the cocktail sub-segment of RTDs will be a driving force in moving the category forwards. "We think RTDs will continue to grow for the foreseeable future," he says. "There is still substantial potential for the category as a convenient alternative to making cocktails to order."
One producer that openly admits to following major drinks crazes with its own innovative interpretation is the RTD brand VK from Global Brands. As a result of the surge in popularity for mixed berry drinks in the cider category and also pear ciders, the company brought out VK Cheeky (a bottled version of the on-trade craze for the Cheeky V cocktail), and VK Pear respectively. Equally, to cash in on the rise of cocktail RTDs and the demand for classic cocktail flavours, the producer now has its own Mojito offering — the VK Mojito.
"I don't believe RTD brands have an average lifespan," says VK brand manager Kate Hodson. "The successful RTD brands are the ones that continue to invest in the product and adapt with their target consumers and the market in general."
This year, says Hodson, the company is investing more money than ever before and its Make A VKend Of It campaign will continue to target consumers through a social media campaign, music festival sponsorships and promotional activity.
Another RTD brand that traditionally has a strong marketing support package is Beverage Brands' WKD. The company says it has held its level of support with marketing for 2011, equating to £30m for the year, and this will include more than 40,000 WKD-related activities.
So far WKD has veered away from cocktails, preferring instead to stick to other forms of innovation. From this month the latest variant, WKD Purple, will be rolled out as a limited edition for a six-month period.
"Cocktail RTDs aren't yet driving much volume in the market but they are a positive move and they are likely to bring new drinkers into the category," says marketing director Debs Carter. "We welcome this kind of innovation into the category and it should bring flavours to bars that want ways of improving their speed of serve."
Carter predicts that the RTD category's volume decline (currently at 6.4% in the on-trade, according to CGA MAT data to 25 December 2010) will stabilise and gradually move into growth, led by innovation.
Another brand to carve out a loyal following in the RTD category is Diageo's Smirnoff Ice, which together with WKD, makes up more than 50% of the total RTD category.
Like WKD, Diageo has no immediate plans to move into cocktail RTDs.
"It is early days to say whether cocktail-based drinks are drawing in consumers," says commercial planning and activation manager for Smirnoff Ice, Clare Moscrop. "However, they provide a perfectly served drink, which is quick and easy for bartenders to prepare, so they are likely to do well."
Harnessing Mojito madness
There's pressure on the Mojito now to drive growth in the on-trade, with three RTD producers showing their faith in the popularity of this classic drink. But do they all have something to offer Mojito fans, or will one outshine the rest?
Bacardi's Mojito is made from Bacardi Superior Rum with soda, mint and lime and has an ABV of 5.4%. It is aimed specifically at men aged 18 to 24, according to the company, and is positioned as a "refreshing alternative" to beer.
"With sales of Mojitos increasing by 60% in the past two years, BBF is confident there is life in the RTD category yet," says BBF brand manager Nik Krys.
In contrast, the Mojito drink from Nuba Cocktails is much stronger — with an ABV of 7% — but, says Victoria Novis, brainchild of Nuba, this is lower than the alcohol content in freshly-made cocktails. So far she has been "overwhelmed with positive feedback" about the drink.
Meanwhile, VK's Mojito, at 4% ABV and made with Caribbean rum, has been on the market since 2008. New Mojito rival variants could reinvigorate the brand's fortunes but VK is also tapping into the 18 to 24-year-old market, so competition could be fierce.