More and more spirit companies are offering brand training, but is it marketing guff or good educational stuff? Bethan Ryder finds out.
When it comes to drinking and bars, consumer expectation has risen dramatically over the past five years. The proliferation of the style bar throughout the UK has introduced a higher level of quality in terms of product, design and service - or so we would hope. One glance at the back bar of a decent pub reveals a startling array of brands, and a new spirit seems to appear weekly. It has become quite unsettling.
So drinks companies and suppliers have realised that, in order to achieve consumer product loyalty, they need to communicate, educate and befriend the person on the sales frontline - the bartender.
According to bar consultant Dick Bradsell, Oliver Peyton pioneered this approach when he introduced Absolut vodka to the UK market in the early 1990s. Now, brand training initiatives are all the rage. You're not a serious contender in the 21st-century drinks market unless you offer some form of educational support to bartenders in the venues you supply. Bombay Sapphire, Campari and Tanqueray, among others, are all running schemes and spending 20-70% of their marketing budgets to promote brand awareness, introduce the brand to new consumers, or simply ensure that bartenders know what they're selling and how they should be selling it.
Guinness UDV has implemented "bespoke initiatives" with several premium brands. "As a business, we don't like to go along with a chequebook for listings," says on-trade development manager Ben Lewis. "You can play the game to a degree, but it just gets ridiculous. We prefer to offer support by commissioning artwork, or providing training or functional equipment. We don't just want to bankroll bars, because they can move on to another brand when that cash runs out."
Such training initiatives are not being implemented for altruistic reasons, they are a form of PR and marketing. It comes down to sales targets and, with so much competition, these new approaches are inevitable. Brand owners are increasingly choosing to work in partnership with top mixologists to communicate with bartenders, because they speak the same language. As Lewis explains: "Training bartenders has to be done in a relevant, motivated way. That doesn't necessarily mean it can be done by a company sales person."
Guinness UDV has employed Alchemist Management Services to undertake the "Fusion" training programme (basic bartending skills and vodka cocktails) for Smirnoff Blue, in outlets where it is the pouring brand. For Tequila giant Jose Cuervo, training is to involve "regional launches around key conurbations", using influential local bartenders. The Tanqueray Academy training sessions have been conducted by Angus Winchester of IP Bartenders for the past 18 months and the programme is to be expanded internationally. He is also conducting a series of "Classrooms" sponsored by Guinness UDV and Class magazine, in which practical seminars teach bartenders about Tequila and whiskies.
So is it all marketing guff, or good educational stuff? Winchester says that he doesn't force the brand issue. "I've never been told what to train, they've entirely allowed me to formulate my sessions," he explains. "I say, ‘I'm not going to tell you Cuervo Especiale is the best tequila, or Tanqueray is the best gin in the world', because there isn't one, brands are just different." However, he'll work only with brands he trusts, or with those for which he feels he can make a difference.
Other brands are attempting to make a difference by introducing their products to the cocktail-literate young professionals. Campari brand manager John Evans explains: "Campari is a classic drink that everybody knows but not many people drink, so we're introducing Campari to bartenders, encouraging them to think about using the drink in their cocktail repertoire."
To help them in their quest for a new Campari-drinking generation, they've employed Alex Turner of United Training and Alex Kammerling of AK Enterprises. They are visiting 80 top London bars, talking to bartenders and concocting cocktails. The logic is that once consumers have tried a softer version, they'll be eager to experiment with the harder end of the drink.
Turner has been working in an ad hoc way for various brands, providing brand awareness and training sessions for Seriously vodka, in bars where it was their pouring brand, and he also works for Bombay Sapphire. It's an interesting departure from operations for seasoned professionals. "I like educating bartenders," he says. "I find it easier to deal with spirit companies, and after 12 years I got sick to death of serving the idiots you get on the West End bar scene."
Chivas Regal has snapped up the late High Holborn's bar manager, Wayne Collins, to become its full-time "brand ambassador". Collins' aim is "to get people to identify with Chivas Regal's integrity as a premium brand that's been around for 200 years". Again, it involves working with various top bartenders to create cocktails including Chivas Regal. Collins says that it's a step in the right direction towards an improved industry. "I have a respect for brands and bartenders alike," he says. "I think bartenders doing this kind of training is more bona fide."
Bradsell has his reservations about brand-orientated training. He talks of the "tentacles of corporateness" and believes some big companies miss the point. "Bartenders don't need to know how to make 20 bourbon cocktails that aren't very good," he says. "They need to know a lot about bourbon, and other drinks as well."
Although Bradsell trains for Bombay Sapphire, he says: "I talk about that brand. But I'm perfectly free to talk about other brands, because they have perfect faith that their brand is great." He suggests an alternative approach. "Sometimes, it really works and can be really inspiring," he says, "but it would be better if they joined together with the UK Bartenders Guild and the whole thing was sponsored by the drinks company."
Jonathan Downey, owner of London's Matchbar, has opted for guidance from the more independent companies. "We've had people such as Bill Samuels from Makers Mark or Desmond Payne from Beefeater Gin," he says. He feels that large company initiatives are sometimes done for the wrong reasons. "They're too trend-led, like ‘gin is the new vodka', rather than building blocks," he says. "Fundamental drinks knowledge, that's what we want to get to. You know - what is bourbon? Why is it different to rye?"
Educate and entertain
Downey has commissioned monthly sessions from Mark Ridgwell's Taste and Flavour, a company that educates and entertains people on drink. Ridgwell was tired of the "what's on the bottle" advertising focus and noticed that suppliers in the industry were no longer attending educational courses. "That was all fine when the breweries restricted suppliers to one gin, one vodka and two whiskies," he explains, "but it's obvious now that back bar is as busy as a wine list, and bartenders need educating." Taste and Flavour employs a team of spirits experts, "people without brand loyalties", such as Tom Estes (tequila) and Ian Wisniewski (vodka), and also liaises with some of the aforementioned mixologists. It now trains supply companies, bars and even drinks companies' sales teams.
Brand owners have sponsored Taste and Flavour sessions. A recent rum roadshow for Bacardi worked well, Ridgwell says: "It enabled Bacardi to be recognised as a rum company. Only three of the nine rums on the mat were Bacardi. Over the past 20 years, it had been thought of as a marketing tool, rather than a rum, but people listened and began to reappraise it."
Ridgwell has just set up a seven-week spirits course in conjunction with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Open to all, it culminates in an exam and costs £355. This is a reasonable enough fee, but cost is surely the issue - bartender training is vital in order to maintain standards, to improve quality and for the industry's progression, but who pays? It seems to make sense that the corporate drinks companies are putting their hands in their pockets, and choosing intelligent experts or experienced ex-bartenders may be the best way forward.
But bar owners should be more enlightened about staff training. Whether that means calling up the big brands or relying on independent drink or bartending experts, there's no longer any excuse not to learn what's in the bottle, not what's on the bottle.