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Spirit of the 60s!

Club Mirror may be alive and well at 50. But how many of the brands we were writing about back in the day are still with us? Matt Eley reveals how a spirited approach has kept iconic brands firmly where they should be – at the club bar

When Club Mirror first hit the presses the world was at a pivotal point. The Vietnam War was in the early stages, the Civil Rights movement in America had been dealt a huge blow with the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, while the Beatles and the Stones continued to provide the soundtrack to global events. Back home, England were the world champions at football and George Best had inspired Manchester United to follow in Celtic’s footsteps by winning the European Cup – the first clubs from these shores to do so. There was then, as there is now, plenty of reason for going down to the club for a drink. In some instances the brands that clubs stocked have long been consigned to the dustbin of history, along with food in jelly and smoking on aeroplanes.

However, some have evolved to stand the test of time and still have a place in our hearts and on our bars. Here are some of the spirit brands that have been around for as long as – if not longer – than Club Mirror and how they have moved with the times.

Vodka

Think vodka now and the category is dominated by Smirnoff. In fact, Smirnoff Red remains the biggest selling spirit across both clubs and the wider on- trade. Just have a look at Club Mirror’s annual Brands Report – number 1 since the Report (with CGA Stratgey) began 10 years ago. But back in 1968 it had yet to secure such a stranglehold, even though it was actually first developed in Russia more than 100 years earlier in 1864. Early editions of Club Mirror feature adverts for brands such as Cossack and Vladivar. Smirnoff first appeared a year later as this mysterious category began to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain to gradually secure its seemingly unmovable position on our back bars.

Over the years the bottle shape and label design have been tinkered with but the most significant recent change came three years ago when the famous red shield was ditched. The aim was to make the brand look more premium and modern while main- taining a design that reflected its traditions. At the time, brand owner Diageo’s Julie Brahman said: “The new design was borne from a desire to reflect some of our 151-year history, while also want- ing to nod to the contemporary spirit of our drinkers.”

One of the keys to Smirnoff’s ability to stay on top has been to simultaneously evolve and remain a classic. Brand extensions such as Smirnoff Ice took cen- tre stage in the 1990s while in more recent years we have seen the emergence of Smirnoff Flavours and Smirnoff Cider. Recent campaigns have focussed on inclusivity. This has enabled the brand to tap into the growing cocktails and fruit cider markets whilst cementing its position as the go to vodka.

Gin 

Unlike the vodka market, which is generally domi- nated by a few big players, gin has taken a different route in recent years. Inspired by the craft beer movement and helped by changes in legislation, the number of spirits distil- leries in the UK has doubled to more than 300 in the last five years, according to the Wine & Spirit Trade Association. Much of this is down to the gin boom,particularly in England. There are around 100 different gin brands fighting for space on UK bars. How many of those will still be around in 50 years’ time?

When you look at it like that, it’s impressive that a gin that first appeared in Club Mirror in 1969 was then – and remains – the market leader. Gordon’s was joined in early editions by Booth’s and Beefeater gin, both of which are still around today. Gordon’s, however, has proved to be the biggest success story. It is the third best-selling spirit in UK clubs and is the only gin to feature in the top 10 spirits in our 2018 Brands Report (May issue).

Things were not always so rosy though. Gin sales declined steeply throughout the 1990s leading to Gordon’s making radical changes. First the ABV was dropped to 37.5 per cent to bring it in line with other spirits, and then in 2002 to address what it recognised as an ‘image problem’ £15m was invested in a bottle redesign and marketing campaign. Gone is its dusty image and instead we now have variants such as Crisp Cucumber and Elderflower. Most recently it introduced a pink gin.

Advertising has seen Gordon’s assert itself as a contemporary brand by linking with the likes of Gordan Ramsey, Philip Glenister and Emilia Fox in recent years. In fact, some of the campaigns hint back at the playfulness that actually helped establish Gordon’s all those years ago, albeit with an added contemporary twist.

Rum

Rum has also had its fair share of brands that have stuck around since 1968, the likes of Bacardi, Captain Morgan and Lamb’s Navy Rum staying the course. Bacardi remains the must-stock white rum with its sales figures helped in recent years by the rise of cock- tails and specifically the mojito. Recent campaigns have focussed on its history and this year it returns to TV in a campaign based around freedom of expres- sion, tapping into contemporary platforms and music performers to connect with younger audiences.

Captain Morgan has, to an extent, returned to the ‘Yo-Ho-Ho’ pirate imagery that accompanied adverts in Club Mirror in the late 1960s. Morgan’s Spiced became Captain Morgan’s Spiced in 2011 with the Captain front and centre of several multi-million- pound advertising campaigns ever since. In fact, Morgan ranked top of the rum charts in our Brands Report with the ever popular Bacardi White rum, in at number two slot. It’s been an interesting battle of the rums in fact, with Bacardi making a move into the dark rum market and Captain Morgan launching a white rum of its own. As it stands, both retain greater strength in the category they are more recognisably associated with. It will be interesting to see how such big brands respond over the next few year,s with rum expected to follow a similar trajectory to the one being enjoyed by gin.

Whiskey

The early editions of Club Mirror saw adverts for the likes of Haig (‘don’t be vague’), Long John whisky, Red Hackle Scotch, Teacher’s and Johnnie Walker, again showing that the long game is filled with success and not quite so successful stories. Teacher’s itself is a good example of the up and down nature of the category. It was launched in the 1860s and enjoyed great initial success as distilleries opened and markets at home and abroad flourished. This all changed with the temperance movement and prohibition and the industry shrunk from 150 Scotch distilleries to just 15.

Things changed again and by 1972 Teacher’s was selling 1 million cases a year and had become the second best-selling blend in the UK. It is still a top 20 Scotch brand but is some way behind the likes of the Famous Grouse and Bell’s (two of the four best-selling spirits in clubland).

You can’t really look back over the last 50 years of whisky and ignore a certain American import. The myths and monochrome surrounding Jack Daniel’s makes it feel as if it has been with us from way before 1968. In truth it was only really being discovered by Brits in the States around that time and didn’t have much of an impact on our market until the 1970s and 1980s. It is now of course one of the most recognised spirits brands in the world and a top 10 spirit in UK clubs, reaching the number nine slot in Club Mirror’s Brands Report. Its story is a great example of how brands have stayed the course: get the product right, expand, tinker with the ABV, create campaigns and brand stories that resonate with customers and carefully evolve with product extensions to engage a new audience of drinkers. Which makes the recipe for long-term success sound far easier than it is.

One thing that the likes of JD, the rums and Smirnoff have in common is that they will often appear over the bar with a certain soft drink that has been around for longer even that Club Mirror’s 50 glorious years. But that’s another story

 

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