Hard Sell Distillers Seek to Pitch Liquor to Generation X

Article excerpt

Marketers of hard liquor are chasing after Generation X. Hoping to reverse two decades of steep sales decline, the liquor industry is trying to woo young adults with lighter-tasting spirits and a trendier image.

Distilled spirits marketers are throwing liquor-tasting parties in bars and are sponsoring rock concerts and sporting events in an effort to bring into the '90s drinks synonymous with boring business lunches of 20 years ago. The industry's strategy is being put to the test during the winter holidays, the most important selling season for hard liquor.

Besides offering the usual holiday gift packs, spirits companies are making an effort to reach young adults on their turf. Stolichnaya vodka will deliver electronic holiday greeting cards that visitors create on its Internet site. Sauza tequila is running an on-line contest for an invitation to a festive party at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.

But as the liquor industry cultivates a hip, more accessible image, consumer advocates worry that hard liquor will become attractive to people under 21. Although underage drinking has declined in recent years, some experts see anecdotal evidence that spirits consumption is on the rise.

"It may not be purposeful, but the bands and events they sponsor are definitely appealing to kids under 21," said Makani Themba, associate director of the Marin Institute, a research organization. "It is an aggressive attempt to place distilled spirits in youth culture."

Representatives of liquor companies are sensitive to criticism that their promotions entice underage drinkers. Last summer, Jim Beam Co. shut down its virtual bar amid criticism that it allowed underage Internet surfers to receive recipes, listen to bartender banter and scribble graffiti on the wall.

Skyy Spirits won't use bar parties to promote its vodka, an unusual policy. "We feel like it's another excuse: If you want to get drunk, drink our product," said marketing director Marsha Nog.

Hard liquor no doubt is getting a boost from its increasing presence in pop culture. Rap artist Snoop Doggy Dog mentions Tanqueray, a popular brand among young adults, in his song, "Gin & Juice." On a recent "Late Night" program, host David Letterman poured singer Tony Bennett a drink from a Stolichnaya bottle. (He spit it out.)

Hiram Walker & Sons is forging its own cultural link for its Kahlua Royal Cream, having acquired from Spelling Entertainment Co. the right to throw "Melrose Place" bar promotions. Held at 4,000 bars nationwide, the parties feature life-sized cutouts of "Melrose Place" stars and banners that sigh, "Steamy, Creamy, Dreamy," playing up the sex appeal of the show.

"It is a very hip show and the demographics are a perfect match for whom we want to target," women between 21 and 29, said Mike Seguin, group product manager for Kahlua. The parties allow Hiram Walker to reach dedicated TV viewers despite a voluntary ban on advertising hard liquor on television. …

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