In a two-part special Dr. Nick Morgan looks at what happens when distillers mess around with the formula of well-loved brands. First up the sorry saga of when United Distillers lowered the strength of Gordon’s gin. Dennis Thatcher was not impressed and he wasn’t the only one.
I once heard a very senior marketeer at the company I used to work for deny that consumers had relationships with brands. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, partly because at the time I was responsible for a very successful and rather expensive relationship marketing programme called the Friends of the Classic Malts, and also because it had always seemed a self-evident truth to me that many consumers had deep-rooted bonds with brands that transcended the merely transactional. That was clearly the truth in the world of spirits, where some consumers’ emotional attachment to brands led them to talk and behave as if they, and not producers or marketeers, were the true custodians of the brand’s identity. At the heart of these intense relationships was a bond of trust: trust that the integrity of the brand would be maintained, trust that quality would never be compromised, trust that pricing would always be ‘fair’, and most of all, trust that no one would be stupid enough ‘to fuck with my brand’. Which makes it all the more surprising that so many brand owners do, and so often get away with it.
New improved formula, same great taste
In the modern world of shrinkflation sweet-toothed snackers are only too used to shape-shifting confections reducing in size but not in price. Moans, groans, and occasional social-media storms rarely move corporate owners and their steely-faced accountants. But occasionally they can. Back in 1985, it took Coca-Cola less than three months to capitulate to what The Times described as “the forces of the market and sentimentality” and return its original ‘classic’ cola to the shelves, consumers having firmly rejected a ‘new improved’ formulation, which was soon quietly withdrawn. In the absence of Twitter, loyalists had bombarded Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters with over 1500 telephone calls a day, and ‘heaps of letters’ (remember those?). Outraged and indignant loyalists can sometimes save the day, but in the modern world of spirits, regardless of their ferocity, they are rarely as effective as the cola drinkers of the 1980s, no matter how deep that bond between consumer and brand.
“To understand the strength of reaction to the reformulation of Gordon’s gin in 1992”, recalled Ken Robertson, then United Distiller’s corporate relations director, “you need to remember that Gordon’s was not just Britain’s most popular gin in terms of sales, it was an emotional fixture of national identity as evocative as the London bus and red telephone boxes.” With its iconic green bottle (now lost to posterity), and bold claim to be ‘the heart of a good cocktail’ (helpfully removed from the label in the 1990s just as the fashion for cocktails was gaining momentum) Gordon’s was that rare thing, a category-defining brand. At the time it sold over eighty-eight million bottles around the world, albeit in a declining category with an ageing demographic. Changes to EU regulations provided an opportunity to reduce the strength of the brand for the ‘home trade’ from 40% ABV to a cost-saving 37.5%, a chance that was grasped by Crispin Davies, soon-to-be managing director of United Distillers (UD), and parent company Guinness chairman Tony Greener. The on-shelf price would not change.
Dennis Thatcher was not impressed
While export strength Gordon’s, in its gaudy yellow labelled bottle, sat at 47% ABV, the brand was already being sold in some European markets at 38%. A former distiller at Gordon’s Laindon Distillery recalled the efforts that the team there went to to ensure that the 37.5% version was true to both Alexander Gordon’s original recipe, and to the flavour that British gin and tonic drinkers were used to. But both experts and enthusiasts were, rightly or wrongly, unconvinced. What caused even more outrage than the perceived loss of flavour and character was the claim by UD that it intended to reinvest the savings, in the region of £6 million annually, in a marketing campaign aimed at revitalising the category by bringing in a new generation of younger consumers. Few trusted the company to deliver on the promise. As Ken Robertson told me, “the spurious claim that the money saved would be reinvested in the brand to boost future growth was never credible and was certainly never believed – not by the media nor by the many long-standing and loyal Gordon’s consumers whose letters of complaint, outrage, and downright disgust poured into UD’s Hammersmith HQ.” Many other gin (and vodka) producers followed suit, but it was Gordon’s that got the flak.
Questions were asked in the House of Lords; the then prime minister’s husband, Dennis Thatcher, the epitome of the old school Gin and Tonic drinker, was incandescent: “his displeasure at the reformulation” said Robertson, “was relayed clearly to Lord Macfarlane [then UD Chairman] in fairly blunt terms.” The Campaign for Real Gin (‘Floreat genever verus et haec nostra societas esto perpetua’) removed Gordon’s from its pedestal as their official gin of choice. The press had a field day. “The new Gordon’s tastes wishy washy and insipid” complained Robin Young in The Times, adding “the truth is, anyone can tell the difference …”. Jane MacQuitty in the same newspaper scorned “Gordon’s mean move”; while Walter Ellis wrote that “true connoisseurs resent the assumption that they cannot taste the difference”. “I have written letters to United Distillers”, protested one outraged correspondent to The Times, “regarding the quality of Gordon’s, and the standard of their replies is of a similar low level to their diluted gin”. “At Beefeater“, read a three-quarter page advertisement from Gordon’s main competitor in The Sunday Times in September 1992, “we have no intention of watering down our gin”, promising consumers instead “a gin and tonic. Not a thin and tonic”.
Then it was Pimm’s turn
Of course, UD and its forebear the Distillers Company (DCL) had form when it came to strength reductions. In 1969 the DCL had acquired the Pimm’s brand, and within twelve months decided to reduce the alcohol content from 60 proof (34.2% ABV) to 55 proof (31.4% ABV) in order to help put the brand into profit. No change was made to the price, but changes were considered for the recipe in order reduce the use of costly imported liqueurs, and the range of six Pimm’s ‘Cups’ reduced to focus on the ‘original’ No 1 Cup, with occasional bottlings of the No 6 vodka cup. As the DCL struggled to see a return on its investment a further change in alcohol content was repeatedly under consideration, but not effected until December 1987, after the acquisition of the DCL by Guinness and the formation of UD to manage its spirits brands. It was only in the following July that Jane MacQuitty realised that UD had “quietly and somewhat sneakily” reduced the strength to 25% abv, but not the price. They had also introduced a new (and smaller) 70cl bottle.
Soon joined by Diary columnist Clement Freud, MacQuitty waged war against the covert change in the pages of The Times, urging readers to adopt a “cheat Pimm’s” recipe of one measure of gin, one of Italian or French sweet vermouth and half a measure of orange curacao, much to the displeasure of the brand owners. Then as now, she argued that “when you remove alcohol from any drink, you remove flavour”. Robert Munro, in 1988 the head barman at the Groucho Club, responded to complaints from customers by “reconstituting” Pimm’s, “adding a little gin or vodka to bring the strength back to its former level”. Freud’s complaints, supported by bundles of reader’s protests, led him to a posh lunch with senior UD people, where “I learned the truth: old Pimm’s, such as we drank and admired, lost money. New Pimm’s, smaller, weaker and dearer, has had a 60% jump in sales.”
The dog that didn’t bark
And there was the rub. For all the letters of complaint from ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’, and for all the strongly-worded articles from respected authorities in both national and trade press, when it came to the strength reductions negatively influencing sales, the dog simply did not bark. “The lesson”, bemoaned Walter Ellis in The Times in 1993, “that the average British palate is as refined as diesel fuel, is one that manufacturers have no doubt taken to heart.” Pimm’s prospered, and Gordon’s lurched along until it caught the coattails of the twenty-first-century gin craze, since when it has become a seven-million case brand regularly winning plaudits for its quality.
The wounds that resulted from the Pimm’s and Gordon’s strength reductions have never healed with many of those drinks journalists who covered the story, resulting in long-term reputational damage for both UD and later Diageo among an important group who could have been their principal cheerleaders. Unlike today’s mostly compromised, compliant, and obsequious influencers these writers stuck to their guns. “I was and still am highly critical of the sneaky moves by United Distillers to reduce the alcohol content of two of their leading and very British brands”, Jane MacQuitty told me. “What was especially sneaky about Pimm’s is that the alcohol content was lowered at Christmas, a period when few folk would be drinking this summery mix and therefore easier to bury it then. Gordon’s reduction was passed off as being undetectable and that drinks writers were barmy to highlight the reduction … attempting to pass off the reductions was a foolish and misguided move.” Returning to the subject in 2013 drinks-trade veteran Patience Gould (with whom a long lunch could never pass without a reference to Gordon’s) wrote in Drinks International that “the savings on duty are not to be sniffed at … however, what can be sniffed it at is if these changes affect the overall character of the brand and in the main they do, because they are often accompanied by a change in the liquid inside the bottle.”
Over time many reformulations go unannounced and unnoticed, often as much as a result of circumstance as of the pernicious ‘value engineering’ that casts a shadow over the quality of so many great brands. As described here, the after-effects of Prohibition and then the Second World War were key factors driving the many changes made to the recipe of Southern Comfort, largely unknown to consumers who were possibly surprised when new owners Sazerac announced in 2017 that they would put whiskey back into the recipe, rather than grain neutral spirit. And quite how were all those much-treasured botanicals obtained by gin distillers during the Second War, and for that matter how will current supply constraints of Ukrainian coriander impact on the character of gins that are forced to change suppliers?
Next week Dr. Nick Morgan looks at what happened when Diageo relaunched Cardhu, disastrously.