Daily Archives: November 2, 2008

Booze. It’s all in your head.

My recent post about the Irish pub i worked in aroused a funny memory of my time there. And an important lesson for marketers of alcoholic beverages.

It’s that drinkers’ choices of brands are based entirely on criteria that exist solely and uniquely in their heads. People will swear their choice of lager tastes better and that they could pick it out in a taste test. They’ll usually have some “reason” in their head why they’re right.

And it makes sense that it would be this way. People have no way, other than their taste buds, of telling what’s good and what isn’t good. But the drink you hold in your hand says something about you. So people, young people especially, don’t want to make the “wrong”choice. But they’re not going to ask someone what they should drink, are they? That would be weak.

So they kind of need to convince themselves of their own drink choices. They look for exterior justification. Is the lager from Germany? Great. Is the ale from Belgium or England? Great…etc..They look to rationally justify their purchase. At various points in the ’80s, in Ireland, Australian lagers came into vogue (“it’s hot in the outback, they must know refreshment” was the justification there), higher-alcohol German pilsners were also big for obvious reasons. And Heineken was everyone’s default lager. Solid choice. The Dutch know how to have fun! Btw, Heineken tastes a hell of a lot better in Europe, where it’s actually brewed.

Back to the story. So, late in the 1980s, some idiot beer marketer decided that it would be a great idea to introduce Colt 45 malt liquor to Ireland. Now having lived here in the USA for a long time, it’s even funnier to me that someone would ever have thought that this was a good idea. It was a lousy idea. Malt liquor, to Irish ears, sounded like American for whiskey. You want us to drink pints of beer-lookin’ whiskey??? And the advertising didn’t help. It assumed we knew what malt liquor was. Consequently, drinkers were afraid to ever even try it. They didn’t know what the hell it was.

So, in a desperate effort to boost sales, the distributor decided to hold an inter-pub competition to see who could sell the most Colt 45 in Ireland. The prize was a free holiday in sunny Spain. And Galway’s weather consisted of year-round merciless and constant lashing rain from the angry Atlantic ocean. So that was a very appealing prize.

Now all the popular Guinness-produced draft beers — Guinness, Harp, Smithwicks — shared a similar idiot-proof keg-tapping mechanism. But the European beers – Heineken and Carlsberg – shared a slightly less well designed, more tricky tapping mechanism. Colt 45 kegs were identical in every way to the European kegs. So one of the bar staff hit on a genius idea: at a certain point in the night switch the Heineken lines over to Colt 45 kegs. The reasoning being that the customers would have had about five pints by then and they wouldn’t notice the drastic difference in taste. They were, after all, mostly young and drinking primarily for effect.

And it worked. Because we were insanely busy and sold a lot of Heineken we drained our Colt 45 kegs dry in a matter of hours. Now that it had suddenly become Heineken! I remember feeling nervous but the older bartenders were very confident that no one would notice a thing. We didn’t get a single complaint. And there was quite a wild disparity between the taste profiles of the two beers. But because they had been conditioned to thinking it was Heineken, they swigged it back without batting an eyelid. Hey, it was lager-looking and carbonated. And someone they trusted, me, had just sold it them as Heineken. So it must be Heineken. I couldn’t believe it.

The bar effortlessly won the Colt 45 competitition. Alas, I was part-time so wasn’t eligible to go to Spain. And Colt 45 never took off in Ireland. But it might now. Play up the hip-hop/gangsta connection. Fiddy Cent is huuuuuge in Ireland. I could totally sell malt liquor to Ireland. Now. It’s a good idea in 2008. In 1988, not so much.