How do you define a truly international brand?  And does it matter. Can it be decided purely on volumes? Patience Gould digs out her atlas as she ponders the issue 

With the spate of brand statistics that have been bowling out over the last few months one question remains paramount: What constitutes an international brand?

Set the bar too high – say, available in over 200 markets – and albeit surprisingly you’d probably be left with a mere handful of brands; set it too low and far too many brands would garner the description, because there is a 'je ne sais quoi' when it comes to the “international” tag.

It’s so much more glamorous to be a global player than a regional or a local one – but many do get referred to as being an international brand when in fact they are regional at best. This is particularly true of vodkas from the one-time USSR countries, Ukraine in particular. 

So, I was somewhat surprised to see that the Ukranian vodka Khlibniy Dar accorded international status in the IWSR’s Top 50 International Spirits Brands List. I mean who in the western world has heard of Khlibniy Dar? And yet, it is a brand that turns over 6.75m cases a year – although its heartland is mainly Ukraine and Russia, which surely makes it a ‘regional’ vodka and probably the same is true of Nemiroff as well as Khortytsa. 

But, this Ukranian trio are all “international” as the three brands accord with the IWSR’s methodology that states that “to be considered for the Top 50 International Spirits Brands List at least 20,000 cases must be sold in at least three different regions, and due to its international nature, duty free counts as a region”. Brands are then ranked on their global sales volumes in nine-litre cases.

At the end of the day though, does it matter?

Well, it does, because it gives the wrong impression. For starters, no one would dispute that the likes of Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Smirnoff and Absolut are not international brands to be reckoned with – but in terms of stature these Ukranian ‘brews’ do not hold a candle to these global thoroughbreds, regardless of their significant case volumes.

The very fact that there are just a handful of multi-nationals, led by the likes of Diageo, and Pernod Ricard, underlines just how difficult it is to forge an international act, let alone develop an international brand – daunting is not the word. Indeed, I remember when I was on Drinks International proudly telling someone that the magazine was available in over 150 countries, and being somewhat flattened when he asked me to name them! Suffice it to say, he was not at all impressed by the claim, but I digress.

Arguably, one of the biggest local boys on the block is United Spirits – a company which entirely dominates its native India with its Indian whiskies McDowell’s No. 1 and Bagpiper, which between them rack up an annual case tally in excess of 30m, indeed putting all its spirits brands together the total is a dizzying 120m-plus cases. 

In sheer number terms, this puts the company ahead of Diageo and Pernod Ricard, but to my mind United Spirits is not a "global player" as the lion’s share of its operations are still in India, where it is now twice as big as its nearest competitor. It does, of course, own the Scotch whisky business Whyte & Mackay in Glasgow and the French sparkling wine producer Bouvet Ladubay – but this does not add up to international might.

However, the company’s mission statement is lofty: “To be the most admired global leader in the spirits industry by creating unique high-quality brands for consumers, driven by highly motivated employees and supported by best-in-class processes and continued innovations.”

So, what would make United Spirits international or global? Well, it would have to be a significant acquisition of a company with a portfolio of drinks and an already-established international network – and that, for the time being at any rate, seems unlikely.