This summer, Bacardi introduced Plume & Petal, a “spa-inspired” lineup of low-calorie, low-alcohol vodkas aimed at “the modern woman.” It was met with social media backlash that inspired the brand to walk back its approach.
Last month, spirits writer Becky Paskin highlighted the sexist language in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. Major brands like Glenfiddich and Beam Suntory, whose Canadian whisky was named best in the world, publicly denounced it.
Both controversies prove the need for nuanced approaches to spirits marketing. They also demonstrate a limited understanding of who is buying and making these products.
Women have substantial collective purchasing power. According to a fall 2019 study by consumer market research company MRI-Simmons, women account for more than half (54.5%) of vodka sales in the U.S., and about 30% to 40% of whiskey sales. The study also reports that women account for 39.1% of Canadian whisky sales; 38.5% of blended whiskey and rye; 36.5% of Bourbon; 37.6% of Irish whiskey; and 29.8% of Scotch.
More women are at the helm of distilleries, too, like CEOs Heather Greene at Austin’s Milam & Greene, and Fawn Weaver at Tennessee’s Uncle Nearest. In May, Catoctin Creek co-founder/chief distiller Becky Harris was elected to lead the American Craft Spirits Association.
Why, then, does stereotypical spirits marketing persist?
“Do you want a pink pen? Or a pink pen for a woman?”—Tami Kim, assistant professor, University of Virginia
It’s common practice to target consumers based on their identities, particularly gender, says Tami Kim, an assistant professor of marketing at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. She’s also the co-author of the paper Calculators for Women: When Identity Appeals Provoke Backlash.
“Often, it works,” she says. “It can be very effective.” Where these campaigns go wrong, however, is when people creating them don’t understand the nuances of their target demographic. Instead, they play into stereotypes—such as that all women desire low-proof, low-calorie spirits, with the goal of staying thin, or that floral labels signal a universally “feminine” aesthetic.
Kim points to “Bic For Her,” a 2012 campaign that touted pastel-hued pens for women, which resulted in hilariously sarcastic reviews on Amazon and general public ridicule, as a notable misstep.
“Do you want a pink pen? Or a pink pen for a woman?” she asks. “The product doesn’t change, but shifting the message drastically changes consumer behavior. People go out of their way to avoid purchasing a product they don’t feel good using.”
If there’s a “right” way to market alcoholic beverages to women, that can only be accomplished if the strategy is steered by women themselves, says sociologist/consultant Nicola Nice, who’s also behind the Pomp & Whimsy gin liqueur brand.
“It’s not about removing gender, it’s about removing gender stereotypes,” says Nice. “And it’s about doing this all with authenticity and genuine intent.”
Do women need a drink of their own, though? Perhaps, Nice says.
“The suggestion, often implicitly, that women should not have any brands that put them first at all is equally dangerous, in my opinion, because it shuts them out of the conversation entirely,” she says.
These conversations also frequently overlook gender fluidity. Beck Ceron, head distiller for Wood’s High Mountain Distillery, in Salida, Colorado, who identifies as non-binary, believes the best approach is to stress who makes the spirit, not who’s intended to drink it.
“It’s got to be for everyone,” says Ceron. “If it’s made by women, that’s great. Let them know that awesome spirit you’re trying is made by some awesome women. But make it for everyone.”
The industry has taken giant strides to broaden who makes and enjoys spirits. These stumbles into “gendered spirits” are just that, stumbles. They don’t have to undo all the progress that has been made. But such missteps need to be acknowledged to continue the journey forward.