The recent Imbibe show was a curious demonstration of the divisions in the alcohol business, and hopefully one that will encourage things to change.
In a lightly packed Earls Court 2, Imbibe Magazine brought together players from the worlds of wine, spirits, beer (mainly from the craft world, not big brands) and a few mixed others such as Teapigs (… though strangely no coffee I could find). It was very interesting to see the effort spent not just on the exhibition, but also the 5(!) separate seminar areas.
I was only there briefly, mainly to say hello to people I know and to get to know the event. I was not disappointed in that – lots of familiar faces were among the crowd, but the crowd itself also included a lot of new faces you do not see at existing events – bar staff!
Therein lies the rub.
Bar staff do not buy alcohol for their business, but they do influence what alcohol is sold to consumers. In other words, the main behaviour that this show might influence was not the action of getting products listed in bars and restaurants, but ensuring the products are poured when they already are.
Almost all wine stands had tables around the edges of the stand, … creating a physical and psychological barrier
In the case of spirits, with lots of BIG brands with broad distribution, this is very useful. It is a chance to encourage existing customers to recall your brand and incentivise them to sell more … but that only works if the staff already know the brand and have it available to them. With tens of thousands of wines available in the UK alone, this is highly unlikely for the wine brands.
What particularly stood out for me was the difference in the approach to customers taken by the spirits brands compared to the wine stands, and it seems I was not alone in this view – even the editor of Imbibe, Chris Losh agrees (see his Just-Drinks column here)
Almost all wine exhibitors had tables around the edges of the stand, each with dozens of different wines available to taste, creating a physical and psychological barrier between taster/outside and exhibitor/inside. They probably intended this as a benefit; “Look at all my wines you can try.” Instead, it looked more like a gauntlet for any passing attendee to run.
Wine was coming across as challenging, testing and exclusive, something to be examined and learned rather than enjoyed.
On the other hand, the spirits stands were focused on many fewer products, maybe even just one. Their boundaries were open & inviting. The stands themselves included music, carpets, sofas, mock bars, tables and chairs. Attendees were invited to join in, rest and spend time experiencing the brand … and maybe also interacting with the exhibitor.
Which do you think might be the more effective of the two?
In the end, wine stands often had more staff than visitors, whilst dozens of visitors congregated in groups to chat and enjoy themselves on the spirits stands.
There will always be the issue of budgets. Spirits are products with big margins and bigger promotional budgets. They can afford to work on loyalty and relationships because they often already have distribution for their products, and drinkers expect to find the same brands in each bar. This forces new products to do the same and arrive not only with unique products, but with marketing plans and promotional budgets. It means that launching a new spirit brand is expensive, but the rewards are potentially high.
How might wine replicate some of that success?
It may be time for wine to stop trying to “educate” customers and consumers and more time entertaining and involving them.
If the Imbibe exhibition has another edition, I wonder if we will see a different approach?