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Bitters have historically been held back by an outdated image and a positioning evocative of sharing stories around the fireplace in an old people’s home rather than socialising under the stars or flirting in an edgy bar on the outskirts of town.
The stagnant performance of the category’s plethora of varietals is a testament to its limitations, while the most ubiquitous, Jägermeister, is nothing more than the exception proving the rule.
However, it is apparently not the only one. Aperol, a previously obscure fluorescent orange herb and root bitter is currently taking Italy by storm, fuelled by the skyrocketing popularity of its signature cocktail, Spritz. Interestingly, the brand’s target demographic is as young and hip as they come, while owner Campari’s scope for expansion oozes ambitious determination.
Could the industry have a fledgling Jägerbomb ticking in its hands?
Aperol’s success story is one of optimism, carefully staged planning and risk-adverse investment. It is also a colourful example of the untapped potential hidden away in domestic specialities, a potential that once unleashed under the right circumstances could provide massive returns for those players investing in the segment.
According to Euromonitor International, Aperol’s share of the Italian bitters category has grown dramatically since 2003. Initially only focusing on merely three cities around the general Venice area, Spritz, an archetypically North Italian concoction by and large based on Prosecco and bitters, was used as the brand’s vehicle for growth and an ideal ambassador to the cohorts of young urbanites lining the streets in the cities’ most vibrant quarters.
Aperol’s relatively low 11% ABV – further diluted in the Spritz cocktail format – proved to be a key selling point, while its embrace by younger demographics within a rigidly outlined area would provide the company with the template for its next strategic steps.
From that point on, it was only a matter of geographical expansion. Rome was next, and as the brand gradually entered the mainstream and became established as a staple offering throughout the country exports to neighbouring Austria and Germany were put under the microscope. A step by step strategy was religiously followed and implemented.
Educational and promotional campaigns targeted mixologists at first, followed by special events focused on on-trade-oriented consumption. Advertising investment also escalated, going from print to radio and finally hitting the television screens.
And, over the duration of the past five years, it more than worked. Aperol’s share in bitters in Germany and Austria went from negligible in 2004 to 6% and 10%, respectively, in 2010, an incremental increase rarely witnessed in Western markets these days.
German and Austrian consumers’ traditional acquaintance with the Spritz cocktail format certainly played its part, but there is little doubt that Campari pushed all the right buttons.
Moving forward, markets in the Mediterranean basin, namely Croatia, France and Spain, appear to be the brand’s short to medium-term targets, while the UK and the US are long-term targets for a brand that seems set to take over the world, one step at a time.
In the cases of both short-term and longer-term target markets, Euromonitor International expects bitters to post rather sobering performances over the 2010-2015 period, ranging from mild declines to straightforwardly stagnant sales.
But tourist influx, a buoyant cocktail drinking culture and – first and foremost – the fact that the brand has successfully carved a niche for itself, make such general projections largely irrelevant.
The only concern – and one is hard pressed to find one – is the danger of Aperol becoming generically identified with Spritz and hence dismissed as a one-trick pony. But then again, that never proved to be a problem for another obscure, darker hued, herb-based bitter that was little known outside Germany, until it became a global phenomenon.