Flavored spirits are distilled beverage alcohol products to which a specific flavor profile has been infused or added. Similar to the expansion of flavors in the overall food and beverage category, the past several years have seen significant growth in the flavored spirits category.
Background and The Issue
Flavored spirits are an important and growing consumer trend. Vodka has been at the forefront of this trend with a 10 year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16%. Flavored vodkas are currently over 9M cases and make up 15% of the total vodka segment. They are driving growth of the vodka category overall.
Brown-Forman seeks a presence in the flavored spirit segment to maintain consumer relevance and competitiveness. Marketing practices by some suppliers, however, seem to have “crossed the line” of responsible marketing. Not only is the combination of flavor name and type problematic in their potential appeal to those under the legal drinking age, but the packaging, advertising, and other marketing elements are also cause for concern. These questionable practices are problematic for the industry as a whole and for companies such as Brown-Forman that are trying to demonstrate responsibility leadership and the effectiveness of self-regulation.
The full development of flavored vodkas took the better part of a decade, but this trend will likely also be accelerated for whiskey. While volume and share of flavored whiskey are relatively low (estimated at 1M cases, approximately 2% of the whiskey category), new product introductions have resulted in triple-digit growth rates.
As the flavored spirit segment grows, we want to be vigilant in the application of our marketing standards to avoid appealing to those under the legal drinking age.
This concern caused us to do our own assessment around the acceptable and unacceptable development and marketing of flavored spirit products. Through a third party firm, we conducted interviews of a small sample of opinion formers, including educators, researchers and policy makers, on their perspectives toward flavored spirits. We also solicited legal drinking age (LDA) consumer opinions on whether they perceived specific flavors appeal to any drinker or a particular type. In addition, we performed secondary research about how our competitors are addressing this concern.
Major points of feedback were as follows:
- The responsibility profile and perception of flavored spirits will be mainly determined by how they are marketed
- All offered that there is some form of “gut test” to define acceptable vs. unacceptable, in addition to more formal criteria to consider
- Brown-Forman should demonstrate leadership by sharing any criteria it develops with the industry and valuing the long-term health of the brands and company over short-term commercial opportunities
We also conducted a nationally representative internet survey of legal drinking age consumers (n=742, past 30-day spirits drinkers and non-drinkers) to understand their perceptions of whether various names of flavored spirits were meant for more mature drinkers, for anyone, or for immature drinkers. Flavors with brand names that are marketed predominantly to youth (e.g., cereals, candy) and certain specific flavors that have strong associations with youth (e.g., bubble gum, cotton candy, PB&J) were seen as “for immature drinkers” by consumers we surveyed.
This enabled us to determine that from both a stakeholder and consumer point of view, certain flavors or names of flavors may be unacceptable, and those that are acceptable must be presented in a responsible way.
Flavor and Presentation Drive Perception
From our research, we found that how the flavor is perceived is a result of the qualities of the flavor itself and the way it is presented. Presentation and marketing of the flavor is the core driver of responsibility. But evaluation of responsibility must also include its potential to primarily and overtly appeal or be associated with those under the legal drinking age. Chart A depicts how presentation of different types of flavors – from a single-ingredient/naturally occurring flavor to a fabricated/branded flavor – can be presented irresponsibly or responsibly.
As we consider the appropriateness of a particular flavor, this information will inform Brown-Forman’s rubric for evaluation. We intend to evaluate presentation, appeal and associations in addition to feedback from consumer perceptions and stakeholder opinions when appropriate.
Marketing and Self-Regulation
As with all of our current brands, marketing and promoting flavored spirits is an activity that falls under well-established codes for responsible marketing worldwide. We are members of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) and as such abide by the voluntary Code of Responsible Practices for Beverage Alcohol Advertising and Marketing. In addition, industry organizations outside the U.S., such as the Portman Group in the U.K., the European Forum for Responsible Drinking, and the Distilled Spirits Council of Australia (DSICA) abide by similar codes of responsible marketing.
Brown-Forman also maintains its own code of responsible marketing guidelines. It is applicable in every country in which we do business, regardless of whether that country has voluntary industry or government advertising regulations. The Brown-Forman code also goes above and beyond the industry codes in key ways, including our commitment to media placements.
Our approach is based on the content and placement of our marketing and promotional activities. Our guidelines confirm that:
- Brown-Forman only markets to consumers of legal drinking age and commits to ensure that underage drinkers are not and will not be targeted by our marketing and promotional activities.
- Our content will appeal primarily to adults and placements will meet our demographic standards.
- Advertising and marketing materials will not utilize or depict children, and will not employ sports figures, cartoon characters, or other symbols that appeal primarily to people under the legal purchase age.
- In the U.S., in accordance with the DISCUS Code, advertising and marketing materials will only be used in communications where at least 71.6% of the audience is reasonably expected to be above the legal purchasing age.
- Outside the U.S., the minimum demographic used for our advertising communications will be at least 70% LDA unless a higher standard is required by law or industry code.
Brown-Forman Commentary and Postions
We believe that appropriate presentation of a flavored spirit is the core responsibility driver.
It is possible to take the same base flavor and show examples of how it can be presented responsibly versus irresponsibly. Responsible marketing of a flavored spirit is first and foremost determined by the totality of the marketing package (e.g., name, packaging, presentation, advertising).
There are some flavors, due to their potential appeal or association with those under the legal drinking age, that are unacceptable regardless of the package or marketing.
These include flavors that are perceived as inherently immature or have primary associations with youth (e.g. bubble gum or cotton candy). If the flavor is branded, the primary audience appeal can be determined by considering the core communication target of the parent brand.
Brown-Forman supports and encourages:
Enhancing our internal behavior
We will assess new flavors and their presentation early in product development and marketing process to avoid primary and overt appeal to, or association with, those under the legal drinking age. This includes testing of consumer perceptions of potential new products. If we find that certain flavors - or their packaging and/or marketing - risk being seen as having primary appeal to those under the legal drinking age, we will reconsider the flavor and/or the way it is being presented. In doing so, we will decide if changes can be made to be more responsible, or if product development should cease.
Taking leadership action in the industry
While we can act unilaterally, we believe that we should seek to influence others in the industry. We will work with others to strengthen self-regulation around flavors in order to avoid producing, marketing and/or selling of flavored spirits that are perceived to be disproportionately attractive or appealing to those under the legal drinking age.