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31 MAY. 2016

Alcohol Branding for the New Generation: Be Culturally Relevant

Mathilde Veyrat

Chinese people’s alcohol consumption habits are extremely diverse: drinking happens when celebrating a wedding, enjoying a family dinner during the New Year, unwinding at KTV, and most commonly when closing a deal with a business partner. Alcohol has indeed for a very long time acted as a business facilitator at lavish banquets attended by top-level leaders and bureaucrats.

Until recently, domestic and foreign spirits brands mainly focused their branding efforts on appealing to these high-income, status-conscious consumers. Statistics show that the average baijiu (China’s national sorghum-based liquor) consumer is 39, indicating that the industry’s core target is mostly composed of mature clients rather than young adults. However, this is changing.

Why are alcohol brands adjusting their positioning?

In the last few years, both foreign and domestic alcohol labels have switched their brand messages, product design and communication strategy in order to reach Chinese urban millennials. Two reasons can explain this:

  • Governmental policies: shortly after coming to power in late 2012, China’s President Xi Jinping launched an extensive anti-graft campaign aimed to fight extravagance among Party members. These measures saw sales of premium spirits dipping significantly and led alcohol manufacturers to seek new revenue channels.
  • Generational mindset shift: for young Chinese born under the one-child policy, drinking alcohol is more about having fun and celebrating the present than building business relationships or showing off one’s social status. Like their Western counterparts, Chinese 20 and 30-somethings are more individualistic than their parents, which requires brands to find new ways to cater to this audience’s tastes and needs.

How are they doing it?

In recent years, one common strategic move for foreign and domestic alcohol brands alike has been to lower their price point to compensate for the consumption decline among high-ranking officials and premium consumers. While a lower price tag is definitely more attractive for the young middle-class segment, it is not enough to raise brand awareness and create brand loyalty. Famous labels thus had to step up their marketing efforts to match the expectations of this new demographic.

BRAND VISUAL IDENTITY

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, however when it comes to alcohol packaging, Chinese consumers are very likely to judge a bottle by its wrapper. Baijiu manufacturers were the first in the industry to modernize and give a new youthful look to their products. The earliest example of this trend dates back to 2011, when Sichuan-based baijiu producer 我是江小白 (I am Jiang Xiaobai) hit the shelves with its bright, colorful bottles displaying a young cartoon character as the brand’s mascot.


In the same vein, historic liquor producer Luzhou Laojiao 泸州老窖 tried to reinvent the traditional perception of bajiu in 2014, which was until then a very dusty image. That year they unveiled their Rose Edition which came in a fashionable bold red or bright blue packaging resembling a perfume bottle.

Limited editions have also proved to be efficient ways for brand to test the waters of appealing to younger audiences. Research showed, for instance, that Chinese beer lovers complained that the usual bottle’s neck was too thin and the rim was too small to properly enjoy a drink with friends: last year, Tsingtao sought to solve this problem by flipping its bottles upside down, turning the base into a glass-sized opening and allowing drinkers to go bottoms-up more easily.

BRAND MESSAGES

In recent years, we have also noticed some changes in the choice of taglines: brands adjusted their messages by using Internet slang or relating to young urbanites’ life aspirations. Despite its lack of heritage and history, Chinese brand I am Jiang Xiao Bai successfully managed to appeal to this new segment. With the slogan “I am Jiang Xiao Bai, life is simple” (我是江小白,生活很简单), the brand found a powerful way to resonate with Chinese young people’s thirst for a simple life, free from the social pressure to buy a house, find a good job and get married as soon as they graduate from university. The brand also created dozens of ads and customised bottle packaging, inviting consumers to recall the fond memories of their youth around a glass of baijiu.

Wuliangye, China’s largest baijiu producer in terms of volume, is progressively repositioning itself with new products in order to appeal to Chinese youngsters. In 2015, they launched a new range specifically dedicated to party goers, hoping, as their tagline suggests, to become youngsters’ go-to choice in clubs and bars.

Foreign manufacturers are also hopping on the bandwagon, with recent examples including French cognac producer Remy Martin and its latest campaign “One Life, Live Them” (一生,活出不止一生), which encourages consumers to pursue their dreams and passion without setting restricting boundaries and simply doing what is conventionally expected of them, an effective message for millennials who have an increasingly strong sense of individuality.

BRAND EXPERIENCE

A common strategy employed by well-established foreign alcohol labels in China has been to leverage the power of social media to increase brand awareness. Swedish vodka maker Absolut can be considered as a newcomer on the Chinese market, and tapped into the potential of limited editions and social engagement to appeal to a younger audience. We already talked in the past about one of the brand’s most notable attempt to localize its products with the China-exclusive “72 Transformations” (72变) bottle, a cultural reference to the Monkey King character’s ability to undergo 72 transformations in the Chinese mythological novel Journey to the West.

After establishing a successful presence on China’s major digital channels WeChat and Weibo, the brand is now inviting the newly-converted vodka lovers to create their own cocktails through its mobile mini-site themed “Everyday there’s a good reason to have a glass” (每一天都有值得喝一杯的理由), a good way to engage with customers and encourage them to be bold and creative in the ways they experience vodka drinking.

Another example comes from Cognac manufacturer Hennessy who was among the first brands in 2011 to launch a specific line named Classivm aimed at wooing young Chinese drinkers. Following its “I Can Shine” campaign held at various clubs and bars across the country in 2013, the brand recently organized an exclusive offline event in Shanghai for the launch of a new flashy, compact 200ml bottle designed to enable consumers to party whenever, wherever they want.

Last month, Hennessy created the buzz around this new product by installing huge neon green doors around the city, piquing the curiosity of locals wondering what could be hiding behind them.

The doors were actually an invitation to find a hidden space in Shanghai’s Former French Concession where everyone could experience the Hennessy Classivm universe in a variety of ways. For instance, each bottle came with a QR code which when scanned would change the music displayed in the room, letting people becoming their own DJ. Also, an interactive screen allowed consumers to complete a quick test that created unique cocktails based on their personality.

Conclusion

While foreign and domestic spirits producers have undeniably shifted their branding strategies to refresh their image and attract younger Chinese consumers, they still have a long way to go before being able to replace beer as the most popular alcoholic beverage in this segment.  We believe that brands must consistently develop creative campaigns that hit home culturally, educating consumers on drinking rituals and promoting a lifestyle that resonates with today’s Chinese millennials’ aspirations. Brands that do this will be likely to realize success the coming years.

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