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Why there must be more to your spirits brand than provenance and quality - Part II - comment

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Earlier this month, category commentator Richard Woodard set the cat among the spirits pigeons when he argued that there's more to a successful spirits brand than the traditional cues. Richard returns to our pages here with... more of the same.

Has just-drinks spirits commentator been unstuck by Pernod Ricards recent purchase of a holding in Japanese gin brand Ki No Bi

Has just-drinks' spirits commentator been unstuck by Pernod Ricard's recent purchase of a holding in Japanese gin brand Ki No Bi

It's a funny old world. Within a week of my last visit to just-drinks, two brand transactions were announced that - at first glance - appeared to contradict my central argument. Take some time to look deeper, however, and it's my belief that the acquisitions in question only add weight to the points I put forward. But then, I guess I would say that.

The gist of what I wrote earlier this month was that a brand's aspirations to provenance and authenticity can only do so much to influence the consumer purchasing decision, especially when that consumer is short of time and faced with a vast choice of products. On the day that the column was published, it was announced that Pernod Ricard is investing a "significant" sum to acquire a minority stake in Number One Drinks Co Japan, producer of the distinctly high-end Ki No Bi range of gins.

Then, a week later, CEO Alex Ricard got out his chequebook again to snap up a 50% holding in Italian aperitivo brand Italicus, the creation of former bartender and Martini brand ambassador Giuseppe Gallo.

Both of these stake acquisitions fall firmly into the 'bolt-on' category: small volumes, but high value. Ki No Bi's core offering retails in the UK for about GBP45 (US$55), while Italicus costs about GBP30. In a category context, both are, in other words, ambitiously priced.

More importantly, both are absolutely dripping with cues of provenance, authenticity and craftsmanship. So, Woodard, you with your "who cares about provenance?" nonsense: what have you got to say about that?

I'd argue that both of these products represent the epitome of what I originally wrote. Not that provenance and quality aren't important, but that you need more than that. Crucially, you need to communicate your product's underlying qualities in an attractive and easy-to-understand way, so that the consumer's eye is fixed on your bottle, and not somebody else's.

Product quality is in part a subjective measure. It's quite possible that you or I might not like either Ki No Bi or Italicus, either because we don't like gin or Italian liqueurs, or because we don't enjoy these particular expressions of them. Objectively, however, it's clear that both products have benefited from an unusual amount of effort and attention in terms of recipe formulation, ingredient sourcing and production. Underpinning this is a deeper cultural appreciation of Japan and Italy, respectively, and of gin and liqueurs as product categories.

In both cases, the creators understood that it wasn't enough to make 'just another'. Ki No Bi avoids being 'just another gin' by identifying itself through its Kyoto origin and using this as a prism through which to view the sourcing of botanicals (yuzu, hinoki wood chips, gyokuru tea, green sansho berries and so on).

Similarly, Italicus swerves away from being 'just another' Italian aperitivo by reinventing the historic rosolio liqueur segment, but with an up-to-date recipe that chimes with 21st-Century consumers and bar culture. Where Ki No Bi uses geography to give gin a new spin, Italicus delves into beverage history to do the same with the aperitivo.

This goes a long way towards explaining why Pernod - or any other drinks multinational - would struggle to create a Ki No Bi or an Italicus of its own. There's a level of involvement, passion, cultural understanding and sheer geekiness here that larger corporate entities find it hard to generate.

Instead, they're faced with two choices: imitate or acquire. Pernod has chosen to acquire; in terms of Japanese gin, Suntory has chosen to imitate, first with Roku and now with the recently-announced Sui (which uses botanicals including yuzu and tea. Well, I never).

All of the passion and sheer hard work that goes into creating these products is a complete waste of time, though, if you can't find a way of communicating as much of that as possible, in a simple and engaging way, to the consumer. You can witter on endlessly about sansho pepper and bergamot, but a healthy chunk of your target consumer base doesn't want to be bashed on the head by a bunch of complicated and nerdy facts.

Unless you get the branding, packaging and design right, you might as well not bother.

So, clear your mind and take a look at the Ki No Bi and Italicus bottles. Both are highly attractive and tactile. More than that, they are supremely effective messengers for the defining qualities of their brands, however deep (or shallow) your knowledge of gin, aperitivo liqueurs, or the respective cultures of Japan and Italy may be. In other words, products that play on 'provenance', 'authenticity' and 'craftsmanship' have to find a way of distilling all the complexities of their creation into the first thing that any consumer sees: the packaging.

Pernod didn't fork out for those stakes in Ki No Bi and Italicus just because the pair have sexy bottles. But, the style of both - as well as their undoubted substance - remains a crucial factor in their success.


Sectors: Spirits

Companies: Pernod Ricard, Suntory

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