Some gin brands have that elusive element of kwan

Some gin brands have that elusive element of 'kwan'

For a spirits brand, what does being a “category leader” mean? Is it purely a blunt measure of cases sold? Profit made? Or something more elusive and nebulous? Richard Woodard, gin in hand, investigates.

As gin continues its revival around the world, you might expect the best-selling brand in the category to be spearheading that renaissance. But it isn’t.

An American football-playing character in the film Jerry Maguire talks about his desire to have the “kwan”. This intangible concept isn’t – despite the same character’s clarion call to “show me the money” – just about financial gain. Instead, it’s “love, respect, community – and the dollars too”.

It may be a somewhat wishy-washy, Western liberal idea, but I think we all know what he means. If you’re a film director, you probably want to have a box office hit, but some positive broadsheet reviews and an Oscar nomination or two wouldn’t go amiss either. Authors target the top of the best-seller lists, but aren’t averse to taking the odd literary prize as well.

In gin, the top spot in the charts (excluding low-priced brands) has long been occupied by Diageo-owned Gordon’s, thanks to a historically-strong position in the UK and assorted other markets such as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

But, at a time when the premium and super-premium segments are gathering speed in markets around the world, the market leader risks being left behind and dismissed as the dull, default option favoured by the casual consumer.

Instead, the big winners in the gin recovery are Bacardi’s premium-positioned Bombay Sapphire and William Grant’s super-premium offering, Hendrick’s. In the 21st century gin world, these are the guys with the “kwan”.

Bombay Sapphire is a modern branding masterclass, created (ironically) by Diageo precursor IDV as recently as 1987, but dripping with heritage thanks in no small measure to a superlative package that combines clever echoes of the Victorian Raj with a showcase of its botanical ingredients.

You’d never dream it was distilled in unglamorous Warrington.

Meanwhile, Hendrick’s has taken super-premium gin by storm in the US, Spain and the UK thanks to a blend of quirky marketing irreverence and botanical originality (cucumber and rose petal). Persuading the on-trade to personalise a Hendrick’s & tonic with a cucumber garnish gives an added touch of branding brilliance, and has almost catapulted it into the global gin top ten.

Through all of this – and here at least I doff my cap – Gordon’s has managed to hold steady in its top market, the UK (although it has declined elsewhere), but only through a series of line extensions involving pre-mixes and two flavoured variants. And, somehow, fannying around with elderflower and cucumber (now, where did they get that idea from?) spin-offs doesn’t quite do it for me.

The flavours are a particular concern. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Gin has a hard-won, distinctive identity, and anything that monkeys around with that USP risks trespassing into flavoured vodka territory. Given its current turnaround in fortunes, why on earth would gin want to do that?

Diageo will say (indeed, has said) that these products are a great way to entice new consumers into the category, but for me that won’t wash. If you want to get people to drink gin, get your branding and your product right (as have Bacardi and William Grant). Don’t try to shore up an ailing brand franchise by diluting it further with some frankly uninspiring NPD.

I can see the difficulty that Gordon’s faces as a standard gin in an increasingly-premium world, and it isn’t alone: in Spain, Beam Suntory-owned Larios has seen its volumes halve in the past decade, and even the introduction of a premium variant, Larios 12, has done little to stop the bleeding.

Sometimes the market just leaves some brands behind.

Come to think of it, Gordon’s isn’t the world’s best-selling gin anyway. That accolade goes to Ginebra San Miguel, although it has been typically left off the rankings because it’s a low-priced product almost exclusively confined to its home market of the Philippines.

San Miguel outsells Gordon’s by almost two to one, but if the Diageo brand is having a bit of a fallow period right now, it looks downright buoyant compared to its larger rival.

Ten years ago, San Miguel had annual sales of more than 22m cases – but by last year, that figure had shrunk to just 8.4m cases. That's still big - the biggest gin brand in the world, remember - but, like Gordon’s and Larios, can San Miguel really claim to have the “kwan”?

I think not.