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Published:  23 July, 2008

The Holy Grail for wine producers is to convince the elusive generations X and Y to cast aside their PPSs and PPLs and pick up a bottle of wine. But new research suggests that the majority of this age group feel they will be drinking more wine in the future anyway. So are wine marketeers wasting their time? Jack Hibberd investigates

The wine critic and author Hugh Johnson wrote his first, ground-breaking book on all things vinous, Wine, in 1966, at the age of 27. Although slightly too old to be considered part of the baby-boomer generation (usually classified as those born between 1946 and 1964), Johnson was nevertheless part of an important explosion in wine interest among a francophile middle class that wanted to differentiate itself from the supposedly austere, and ever-so-English, pre-war culture. The amount of wine drunk on these shores has been growing ever since, with consumers drinking more of their favourite tipple as they move through the age bands. But as can be seen with the advancing average age of this country's wine writers, interest in wine among generations X (25- to 35-year-olds) and Y (18- to 24-year-olds) is far from universal. At a time when style seems ever more important than substance - and souped-up syrups seem to command more interest among the youth of today than Pomerol or Pinot - is wine growth about to hit a brick wall? Will an entire generation grow up to consider wine a snob-fuelled irrelevance? At this year's IWSC seminar, Reaching the Young Adult Market', a passionate debate took place over whether or not wine needed to change its focus to guarantee the next generation of wine drinkers. Opinions ranged from that of Darryl Roberts, publisher of Wine X (the world's only youth wine magazine), who explained that the industry needs to wake up to the dangers of losing a generation of wine drinkers, to that of Michael Cox, who stated that the idea of the youth of today slipping through the net is bulls**t'. Research released at the event by Wine Intelligence has since been expanded and re-evaluated, and the 141 interviews undertaken (51% generation X and 49% generation Y) in the form of 21 questions on demographics, drinking habits and feelings towards wine, show that the situation is not all doom and gloom, while at the same time highlighting that the industry should not be complacent. According to the study, the youth market sees wine as its future', with most respondents saying they predict they will drink more wine as they get older (see table A), with all other categories of drinks showing neutral or declining interest. The heaviest wine drinkers are likely to have started at around 18 or 19, usually (but not always) in the home and, as the report states, they are likely to be particularly valuable to the wine industry over their lifetime if they start drinking wine early'. Other results show that young consumers don't like to be patronised and they understandably find wine-buying decisions difficult. This then throws up a number of challenges: how to get young adults exposed to wine early, how to make buying decisions easier, and how to ensure that this intention to buy more wine in future is turned into a reality. Roberts, who last year added an Australian edition of Wine X to his North American original, says he will launch a UK edition when the economic conditions improve'. He has strong views about the current focus of wine companies. Roberts agrees with the study's findings that opinions are formed early, but is more sceptical that generations X and Y will join the wine brigade in later life. Not enough young consumers will move into wine to support the amount currently on the market,' he warns. You have to remember that the big wine boom isn't due to people growing older and starting to drink wine: it's a result of a whole generation "discovering" wine when they are moving through their twenties. They're drinking wine now because they were drinking it then, when they were establishing their consumption habits for life.' Roberts continues: It's that simple. Yet the wine industry continues to market only to those drinking now [the 40+ age group]. Thus, after the baby boomers die off, consumption will fall back to where it was before the late 1960s, averaging a 1% per year growth.' Another subscriber to this theory is Keith Lay, marketing director of Ehrmanns, who says: To say that people will naturally move into wine is a slightly dangerous attitude. People are not going to become wine drinkers overnight.'

Creating a new generation of wine drinkers Why are young people not drinking wine? Mike Paul, managing director of Western Wines, puts it succinctly: Currently, young people don't drink wine unless they are trying to impress their boyfriend/girlfriend in a restaurant (hardly their usual habitat) or socialising with their parents (even rarer). Wine is not cool, nor is it perceived as a "fun" drink. As a product it is not considered as refreshing as lager, as alcoholic as spirits or as drinkable as RTDs.' Moreover, the options for young adults these days are a far cry from the alcoholic beverages available to previous generations. As Lay puts it: Young people drink a lot of different stuff these days - RTDs, shooters, PPLs. And it's not just wine that is losing out: just look at ale. But the big change has been in what women drink,' continues Lay. They used to have either wine or long spirits and very little else, but they have so many options now, so many products marketed specifically at them.' It's not just the products that have changed, but the people who drink them. The young of today have grown up with more advertising than any previous generation and are more media-savvy than many older and supposedly wiser people. What you have to remember about marketing to young adults is that they see it a mile off,' says Roberts. So you have to present your product as a lifestyle choice: peer-to-peer, comfortable, identifiable environment, no gimmicks, no hard sell and no deception.'

Does young' have to equal gimmicky'? Probably the biggest attempt by a wine company to woo young drinkers was made by BRL Hardy in Australia with its range Wicked Wines!' The lurid, shrink-wrapped bottles plastered with vivid metallic and fluorescent colours had names like Lust', Greed' and Envy'. I say had', because the brand is no more. Despite some early success, sales were disappointing and the brand was pulled earlier this year. Its once confident and brash website now runs the header, Who killed Wicked Wines!?', and reads: We know that while there are heaps of you who love indulging in the pleasure principle, there are far too many in this world who are blissfully (read ignorantly') boring and unadventurous. You see, while our wicked devotees consider Wicked Wines! objects of true desire, there are a great many out there who seem to think that fancy or gimmicky packaging equals wine that sucks. Of course, we know otherwise.' Australia-based wine journalist Max Allen wrote in his Harpers column at the time (2 August 2002): In my opinion, that brand has failed because of the packaging and the marketing - because the wine inside was, in most cases, really quite good.' This seems a rather rapid fall from grace for a brand that won the Australian Marketing Institute's 2001 National Award for Marketer of the Year'. On receiving the award, senior brand manager Denys Hornabrook said: To create a wine for a market, rather than a market for the wine, is quite revolutionary in our industry and particularly radical when we are using the kind of language and images that we adopted with Wicked Wines!' Shame it didn't work. It seems Wicked Wines! fell into the main trap highlighted above - it was too obvious. This is a point that the Wine Intelligence research highlights. It asked its respondents to choose their preferred product description (see table D) and, interestingly, the most wacky' was the least popular. Indeed, overall it was the most traditional - some would say boring' - product description that won the day, particularly among males. So does this mean that the end is nigh for funky, spangly' bottles with bells on top? Not exactly. Stand up Waverley Wines. The on-trade arm of the Waverley Group has decided to capitalise on its research (which highlighted the growth of the Chardonnay Girl') with the expansion of its Babe brand. The brand originally started as a one-off Valentine's Day promotion, which saw 5,000 six-bottle cases walk off the shelves in three weeks. Now, Waverley is releasing the brand into the on-trade in both 75cl and 18.75cl bottles, targeting student-union bars. So, any concerns about the demise of Wicked Wines! and research that suggests that directly targeting the youth market doesn't work? Not according to brand manager Katherine Bramwell. A lot of the so-called "gimmicky products" targeted at 18- to 24-year-olds have been for the off-trade,' she says. Our product is targeted at female drinkers in the on-trade. They are drinking PPSs now, which are basically small hand-held bottles, so this is how we are marketing it.' Venues that stock Babe (clubs and restaurants as well as SU bars) get an acrylic pink back-bar display and a pink dispenser for pink straws. Paul Waddingham, group category manager at International Wine Services, feels there is a huge opportunity in this sector. Wine branding is still in its infancy and wine marketing is embryonic. Our research shows that young women are drinking wines as a "wind-up" before they hit the bars and nightclubs. So we have to make sure they carry on drinking it when they get there. Price is crucial, which is why we have positioned the smaller-sized Babe at 2-3.'

Back to the future for German brands However, the wine brands that seem to be having the most success, or at least are being pushed the hardest, are those stalwarts of Seventies' bad taste: Blue Nun and Black Tower. Keith Lay at Ehrmanns, the agent for Blue Nun in the UK, says that it is simply a case of what you pitch and how you pitch it. If you want success, your product has to suit the audience,' and he feels that Blue Nun does just that. Ehrmanns is also going down the route of sponsorship and lifestyle association, together with print advertising rather than a straight advertising approach. This is a similar tactic to that of RTD marketers, who generally spend 10% of their multimillion-pound budgets on non-advertising promotion. Bacardi Breezer is spending around 2 million in this area this year, including club nights in Ibiza and this year's New Year's Eve party at the Dome. The brand managers of brown spirits, such as Jameson's, Courvoisier and Glenfiddich, are also getting in on the act by sponsoring parties at style bars and club nights. The thinking is that the way to build the brand is to convince 'trend-setters' to drink the product and the rest will follow. We sponsored a contemporary multimedia exhibition party,' says Lay. When I went down there, all these incredibly trendy people were drinking the product. It shows that it is not all about budgets. It's very easy to waste your money in this market.' Blue Nun was also the drink of choice at the Model Behaviour party, a Channel Four reality TV show extremely popular among young females, and the winner of the competition, Camilla Priest, was photographed drinking the small-size Blue Nun through a blue straw. The big coup for Black Tower was that the housemates' on another of Channel 4's reality TV shows, Big Brother, regularly drank Black Tower live on television this summer. Simon Russell, director of communications at Matthew Clark, is responsible for the brand in the UK and says: It took us by surprise as well. We didn't pay for it to be in there; the housemates chose it from a list of possible options. But as soon as we knew it was in there, I organised a big campaign around it. The tabloids were desperate for Big Brother stories at the time and we got loads of coverage. We're also backing the brand with a 1 million advertising spend in Sunday papers' colour supplements,' adds Russell. And we are also pushing the smaller-size Black Tower. The key to getting the message over to the young adult market is not by showing vast swathes of vines or a rugged Californian coastline. Young people categorise drinks by occasion, so the onus of the campaign was to say: "When you are in wine-drinking mood, drink Black Tower."' Latest AC Nielsen figures show Black Tower sales are up by 11% year-on-year, with approximately 350,000 9-litre cases sold. And Black Tower's phoenix-like rise from the doldrums looks set to continue. Since Big Brother, loads of big events, such as the Donnie Darko film premiere, have approached us to be the wine sponsor. If you try and get in, they won't let you, but when you have a fashionable name they come looking,' says Russell. However, neither Blue Nun nor Black Tower has eschewed its traditional market of older females - and it does, strangely, seem to appeal to both. Importantly, the two brands are not exclusively for the young, but emphasise fun, enjoyment, relaxation and quality in their advertising.

Quality, quality, quality Over at Thierry's Wine Services, Emiline Cordy, product manager for Thierry's young adult-targeted brands - Blue (a Muscadet) and French Kiss (a Corbires) - says, We must ensure that the next generation of wine drinkers are drinking quality wine'. Thierry's staff aim to do this by ensuring their brands are good-quality wines without a silly name or gimmicky bottle', but that transmit traditional wine qualities in a simple way. It should be easier to understand with simple information - how it tastes, what to drink it with and what temperature to drink it at. We need to capture their interest,' says Cordy. This sets Thierry's brand apart as a superior product, far removed from the usual youth staples of beer and spirits, more aspirational and more connected with wine's traditional image. But is this a bad thing? Not according to Mike Paul, who says simply: Our research shows that wine remains aspirational to young people and this is all we should be concerned with. The danger of marketing wine to young people is that you reduce its added value and it becomes less aspirational.'

Innovation is the key One of the more interesting attempts to revitalise the wine sector - in this case, fortified wine - was made by United Brands, in association with Gilberts, the Port producer. Its G-Porto brand is aimed at young, aspirational drinkers and the price, which runs from 6.29 (for the white and ruby) to 12.99 (for the 1999 vintage) is certainly not cheap, especially when you consider the bottles are only 50cl. However, the success of the similarly sized Warre's Otima is an incentive. Making the brand a success will be a struggle, but if the well-designed and stylish bottles do become a hit, the parties involved will deserve credit for attempting to innovate in a sector that has been static for a long time. And the liquid is quite good - if slightly more wine-like, being more fruity and less sweet than traditional styles. But the producers feel this is what the market wants. This is wine's strength at the moment - the quality of the product. According to the Wine Intelligence report (see table C), although a large proportion of respondents are scared of making the wrong choice when buying wine, a slim majority are not. Further removing this fear has to be a priority for the trade, but young people generally know that any wine they buy (particularly if it comes from a reputable chain or a supermarket) is going to be pretty good. This might make wine writers seems a little redundant, but when it comes to young drinkers, who have few preconceptions over region or grape, this is of massive benefit. Hopefully, as soon as someone starts to drink wine, the quality of what they are getting will convince them to continue. The lack of TV coverage, especially wine programmes that would appeal to the younger generation, is a problem, but it would be a shame if the wine trade beats itself up about the lack of younger drinkers. Certainly, the number of young males drinking wine, which according to Waddingham is still dropping', is a great worry. But as the Wine Intelligence research shows, those men who do drink wine are quite confident about their knowledge (see table B). Let's hope, in the best traditions of young male behaviour, we get a few, wine-friendly leaders of the pack.