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After years of trying - and failing - are the drinks industry's attempts to educate consumers finally falling on open ears? On-premise and spirits commentator Laura Foster investigates.

Patron has been using technology to connect with consumers

Patron has been using technology to connect with consumers

Wading through the latest pile of press releases, one of them from earlier this month stopped me in my tracks. It was about a new on-premise venue in London, called TT Liquor, founded by a pair who "previously founded Mixology Events" which "hosts over 15,000 people a year in cocktail classes alone." Fifteen thousand is a lot of consumers. I replied to the release with a request for an interview, only to be told that they were too busy right now.

I presume they were struggling under the sheer volume of masterclasses they're organising.

It got me thinking, though: Is this unusual, or is consumer demand for learning how to make cocktails particularly high? If it's the latter, then are spirits companies really capitalising on this hunger in order to help sell their brands?

"I have seen the rise of cocktail masterclasses," says Greg Sanderson of Eau de Vie in Australia, which hosts 1,200 people a year in the company's two bars in Sydney and Melbourne. "However, I have also witnessed a huge rise in [the number of] venues offering these sessions."

Over in Washington DC cocktail bar Barmini, reservations manager Maria Guerrero confirms Sanderson's observation: "We have been offering monthly cocktail classes ranging in topics from technique-driven (beginner, level two, level three), to more theme-based approaches to classes [such as] tiki cocktails, vegetable cocktails, and Chartreuse cocktails," she says. Meanwhile, in the UK, cocktail bar chain Be At One, which has 33 outlets, has welcomed an impressive 11,244 guests in the last 12 months.

It's safe to say, then, that there's plenty of interest. But, what's driving this enthusiasm for cocktail masterclasses?

"I would say the majority of guests book for home knowledge," says Guerrero. "Most of our guests are either attending solo, or with a partner … because they have a particular interest in home bartending or one of our themes. We also have quite a few guests who are repeats, attending multiple classes."

Sanderson concurs: "Consumers are most certainly getting more involved in making cocktails at home. In Melbourne, there are now cocktail equipment shops devoted to selling largely to non-trade; there are more and more cocktail books in mainstream bookshops, and our big chain bottle shops have display stands putting all the cocktail ingredients in the same place."

At this year's Global Drinks Forum in Berlin, Tim Simmons, senior analyst and global head of travel retail at The IWSR, spoke about the rise of 'hometainment' – consumers might be staying in more, but they're entertaining at home, wanting to create "ceremony and spectacle, which is becoming very much a reflection of personality".

Are the brands doing enough to capitalise on this opportunity? From a quick straw poll of a handful of the key drinks companies and distributors in the UK, it appears that they're not doing very much, my enquiries being met with a collective shrug.

"We treat bartenders as the gate-keepers to the cocktail world," says Amit Sood, senior ambassador for Maxxium, the UK distributor for Beam Suntory. "They're the ones shaping tastes and trends, pushing the boundaries by creating new and exciting serves, and ultimately engaging with - and educating - consumers every day. Because of this, we focus our expertise on helping to educate them as they, in turn, educate cocktail lovers."

This is all well and good, but companies are still missing a trick here. If they teach customers to make cocktails using their brands, the loyalty for that product should remain high – knowing that a particular whiskey works in the cocktail recipe they learnt, for example, is likely to encourage repeat custom, while straying off the path and experimenting with other brands of whiskey may not lead to such a satisfying drink.

It may lack the personal interaction of cocktail masterclasses, but some brands have been moving into the virtual world to provide cocktail education. Bacardi's partnership with Jamie Oliver's DrinksTube saw a host of its brand ambassadors demonstrate how to make cocktails with their products in short video clips.

Meanwhile, Patron has taken the game to a whole new level, as marketing VP Adrian Parker shared at the Global Drinks Forum. Having been tasked with "reimagining the customer experience", he embarked on a huge amount of research that highlighted a few key things: 30% of all cocktail consumption happens at home; 87% of consumers discover cocktail recipes on their own from several different resources, but lack a go-to source, and twice as many people prefer printed recipes to videos.

Off the back of this, Patron created, a cocktail website that features 395 recipes from 50 top bartenders worldwide, and boasted 350,000 users in its first year. By asking a visitor questions such as 'do you like spicy?' or 'what's your vibe?', the options are narrowed down until a recipe is suggested. It's fun, quick, and inviting, and even works on Amazon Echo.

This really is an age of wonder.

"Last year," says Parker, "Patron was the most talked-about premium spirit brand, precisely because we democratised our brand and allowed our consumers to connect with bartenders and let them be a part of our events, and they're spreading and sharing the gospel of Patron. The process allowed us to step back and arm our customers and educate them." he said.

As is so often the case with consumer engagement, education is key. Consumers are hungry for it. They want to know what to do with the bottle that they've just bought.

Those brands that provide the best experience – be that face-to-face or virtually – will be the ones to prevail.

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