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This month, just-drinks' brown spirits commentator, Ian Buxton, considers the sector's efforts to entice the Millennial consumer into the fray.

Have brown spirits companies got their Millennial targeting right?

Have brown spirits companies got their Millennial targeting right?

It's the buzz-word du jour, semaine and, indeed, ans: We hear spirits companies talk a lot about the Millennial these days. Indeed, there are times when the sector seems almost as obsessed with Millennials as they are with themselves, which would be quite some achievement.

And yet, recent pronouncements from The IWSR suggest that Scotch whisky is beginning to lose ground to its rivals, thanks to, among other factors, "a failure to connect with the new generation of Millennial consumers". Even more recently, Bacardi's CEO-designate Mahesh Madhavan complained to just-drinks that he is kept awake by the question: "How do we make it [Bacardi] relevant to Millennial consumers?". All this at the same time Pernod Ricard's Chivas Brother division believes the exceptionally-dynamic premium gin segment is colonising Millennial loyalty at an ever-faster rate.

Let's take a quick break, here, to define some terms; 'Millennial' appears to have been first coined by US authors Neil Howe and William Strauss in their influential 1991 book Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069. For them, the Millennial cohort consists of individuals born between 1982 and 2004, making them between 13 and 35 years old today. Other commentators place them between 1976 and 1990 or 1980 and 2000.

That may seem an arcane point, but it matters. In terms of spirits marketing, 16 to 21 - depending on your market's LDA - could hardly be more different than 35. The attitudes to and consumption of alcohol, especially spirits, are going to be very different between an 18-year-old and a 21- or 25-year-old, let alone a grizzled veteran of 35. Individuals mature at very different rates over that period of their life and folks at either end of this spectrum will have been exposed to very different influences and technological experiences, let alone the huge life changes that might be expected for any generation as it matures (employment; developing relationships and home ownership to list just three).

There have been numerous reports of alcohol consumption – and not just spirits - declining amongst today's 18- to 22-year-olds. But, while that's of some long-term concern, it may be merely a short-lived function of economic pressures. It's also far from clear that the trend will continue as this group ages. In any event, few spirits brands are looking to 18-to 22-year-olds for their core consumer (this has never - in recent history anyway - been an industry target and woe betide any spirits brand that's seen attempting it today).

Call me cynical, but it seems to me that 'Millennials' covers too wide an age group to be particularly useful for spirit marketers. Besides, if the proliferation of whisky blogs - oft-bearded, multi-tattooed 'brand ambassadors' with regulation tweed cap - new cocktail offerings and the growing number of whisky and rum tasting events serve as a guide, dark spirits are in good shape.

In fairness, the spirits category has made great strides in reaching out to Millennials old and young through its greater use of experiential marketing, consumer and trade education and training programmes, not to mention its use of social media. While some of this activity resembles embarrassing dad-dancing, no one can criticise the spirits sector for want of effort – even the stuffiest marketing manager sees the importance of keeping their brand relevant to new audiences. In some ground-breaking instances, such as Johnnie Walker's politicised-marketing short film campaigns, there may be a danger of 'virtue-signal washing' (a term I've just invented; think 'green-washing'), but it's a canny appeal to the social justice agenda that exercises so many Millennials, and aims to keep this long-standing brand pertinent for a new, self-aware generation.

More simplistically, live experiential marketing events such as Highland Park's Midsummer Solstice gig in London last year, complete with live DJ set from Eelke Kleijn (I have no idea), cleverly references the brand's Orkney heritage and origins but in a manner far removed from the kilts and tartan imagery that once characterised much Scotch marketing. Social consciences notwithstanding, Millennials still like to party like any previous generation. To me, tapping into that while avoiding an overly-earnest message is sound thinking.

Music has also been at the heart of efforts by Ballantine's to challenge category perceptions and break away from the latter-day reverential seriousness, with its emphasis on rules. As Chivas Brother's global marketing director, Sophie Gallois, explains: "Core to recruiting this generation of consumers to the Scotch whisky category is changing the perception of the drink to one that is more accessible for this audience.

"Some Scotch brands," she adds "are at the innovative edge of digital communications and as such are seen as iconic brands by Millennials." For Ballantine's, that has meant line extensions and NPD releases such as Brasil ("an exciting new product that allowed us to enter an exceptionally-dynamic category, and introduce new consumers to our products", says Gallois) and "high-energy" occasions associated with the Ballantine's True Music activation.

So, is Scotch losing ground to other spirits segments in the race for the Millennial? Not really, maintains Chivas Brothers, noting that the segment has "returned to a period of positive growth in recent years, increasing 0.2% in 2015 ... [and] demonstrating Scotch whisky's ability to connect with new consumers".

Maybe the spirits sector just needs to wait for today's Millennials to grow up a little.

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