INDIA IS a peculiar country. I was once told by a departing French lady—one who had lived in our country for over a decade—that, here, if there is no solution, there is no problem. You just need to analyse the situation another way and you are bound to find a way out. Since then, I have always admired the pragmatic point of view that a European mind is capable of achieving once left to handle this country on its own. By that logic, we are truly the burgeoning breeding ground for a whole new set of talents and skills, which can’t be acquired in a more orderly world.
But at a quotidian level, this chaos is nothing more than a nuisance. And while this is true for all things, it is more so for the beverage industry, for which chaos is most retarding a force. The various laws that impede the distribution of alcohol, the taxes that are imposed at not one or two, but three different levels, and the general inertia of the system, which ensures that nothing is proactive and everything is covered with a desperate, dismal pall, all serve to create an environment that is not conducive for any budding entrepreneur to consider entering the business of liquor imports, manufacturing or distribution.
The few who do often work in the industry have to not only ensure that they are in utter compliance with every archaic century-old law from the book that is thrown at them, but also have the added pressure of educating consumers about their product in order to ensure that what they have managed to make available after much painstaking effort doesn’t just sit and rot away on the shelves of some dodgy liquor store with no proper storage or air-conditioning. And all this without any formal marketing or advertisements because these, too, are banned in India. We may be mature enough to vote to power a government in the world’s largest democracy and yet we can’t be trusted to exercise our wisdom when it comes to alcohol and possible adverts related to it.
And yet, I go back to the original ‘no-solution-no-problem’ adage. Companies have been quick to realise that while there is no way around the law, there is certainly a way to reach out to consumers and create brand recall without having to resort to standard TV commercials or billboards. The answer lies in surrogacy.
Surrogate advertising, made popular by the creativity-lacking large-scale manufacturers of mostly crude spirits and beers, was limited to creating packaged water or music CDs with the same brand name as their prized product (rum, whisky, beer, etc) and then to run an ad around these. Who hasn’t seen a massive board displaying the brand name of a popular beer with something smaller than a fine print scribbled beneath it saying ‘club soda’, ‘party life’ or something equally ridiculous?
And then, some brands smartened up. Not only was this plain silly, it wasn’t doing anything to build brand identity. And so, some brands introduced the idea of competitions. This was a massive shift, as instead of speaking to consumers, they were now addressing the trade, the people who would, in turn, speak to consumers. Smart move because for every tradesperson trained, it meant he/she could reach out to an easy 100 consumers, and they would listen to him/her more than they would to some stupid jingle on TV inviting you to ‘seize the moment’ or ‘make it large’.
Bartending championships are all the craze today and the stakes are higher than ever before: trans-continental trips to practise the art of mixology with the biggest and best names in the business, absolutely decadent evenings with the kind of memories that even rockstars can only dream of, and, should you win, a one-way ticket to superstardom!
Bacardi organises one massive do around its ‘Legacy’, as does Diageo with its ‘World Class’ brand. The cocktails presented in the competition pretty much define what the world will drink in the coming year. And that is perhaps the best way to ensure that the stuff moves off shelves and stays contemporary.
I, too, organise a wine competition. Well, not me personally, but my very able team of sommeliers. In the last few years, we have managed to train over 500 sommeliers and introduce wine to a number double of that. Not bad for the modest means we have and the stringent laws that control most of what we can do.
But all said and done, in recent years, consumers have now started showing an interest in attending these competitions, if only as guests to be enlightened about the trends of the future. And that is perhaps the best marketing, one where the consumer comes back asking for more.
So if you happen to be in the liquor business and are hitting a wall with how to reach out to the consumer, don’t despair. Just try and see things laterally and you will see light at the end of the tunnel.
The writer is a sommelier.