Liquid Thinking

Late to the Party

Do brands joining the aperitif gold rush stand a chance?

12th October 2023

It’s been ten years since Aperol rose to prominence, almost entirely booting summer drinking staples like Pimm’s from the scene. Now a year-round fixture, the brand has managed what most cocktail-led spirits rarely achieve; to create a serve you can confidently request in any pub. Now that’s mainstream. Initially slow off the mark, the past few years have seen a number of me-too brands launch. None have truly made a dent in the market. Yet, they’re still coming thick and fast. Are they too late? And what will it take to succeed?

You know how it goes, the sun’s out and all you want is a spritz. So ingrained is the serve, we barely need to preface it with the brand name Aperol anymore. Forget branding, forget having to use branded glassware, or even advertise the serve, the brand’s distinctive orange hue is its most powerful calling card. Once you see it, you instantly know what it is. And likely want one – well, we do anyway. What can we say, advertising works on us.

As a marketing ploy, that’s a stroke of genius. With no other drinks quite like it, and with its own moment – the aperitivo hour – and easy-to-make serve, Aperol has built an extensive market that it still largely has all to itself. So its no wonder other brands now want a piece of the pie.

Not an overnight success

In some ways, Aperol’s success was a slow build. This game-changer of a drink was not an overnight sensation. Originally created in Padua in 1919, the bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb and cinchona aperitif had been largely forgotten when owners Gruppo Campari – who purchased it in 2003 –  began to breathe new life into it back in the early 2010’s. With the liquid long established by this point as a cheaper, fairly mundane option in its native Italy, making a traditional brand relevant to a wider, younger group of consumers, and creating a new occasion for them to enjoy it in, was key.

Or as Venetian reggae musician – yes, it’s a thing – Sir Oliver Skardy put it so succinctly in one of his songs: “Spritz used to be cheap, now it's a luxury for yuppies". Aperol’s brand overhaul worked because it sold the traditions and oddities of the brand, with its sunset-matching hue, to consumers in a way that neatly tapped into both the lifestyles and lifestyle aspirations of a new generation of consumers.

Game-changing appeal

Low in strength, at just 11%, it’s a refreshing, relatively guilt-free, sessionable option. Lunch times and midweek? No problem. The brand is built around being social. The appealing ‘aperitif hour’, a pre-dinner gathering of friends is an appealing moment of peace in a hectic day, an alluring celebration of slowness most rarely get to indulge in. Through extensive summer pop-ups, and further marketing pushes over the years, the brand has been able to considerably extend that sociable consumption moment so it’s now just an idea, rather than a specific, limited occasion. Again we say, shrewd.

So, with a decade of rampant success behind it, why are we now seeing a flurry of me-too brands try to topple its crown? While Campari claims the negroni, and established brands such as Select – often described as a midway between Campari and Aperol – have been working hard to penetrate markets outside of Italy, it’s in recent months that we’ve seen a hoard of new Italian entrants emerge.

New contenders

First up, there’s Orancio which has been devised by the creator of Italicus, Giuseppe Gallo. He is of course no stranger to the power of a pretty bottle and a distinctive liquid. To that end, Orancio’s Stranger & Stranger-designed bottle is clearly intended for on-shelf standout. But what about the liquid?

Its hard not to notice that it too is bright orange in colour. But Orancio is claiming a world-first in its liquid formulation. Inspired by the silk road, it’s made using a base of orange wine, something the brand is claiming as a first for aperitivos. It also uses orange, lime and bergamot, alongside saffron, red tea, ginger, nutmeg, black pepper, pink pepper, pomegranate, and cardamom, inspired by the storied trade route.

World firsts

Speaking to the Spirits Business, Gallo says: “Savoia Orancio is very unique, it’s very difficult to categorise behind the bar. It will play into the bitter apéritif but also plug into any wine-based product. It’s kind of a hybrid between bitter apéritif and wine apéritif.” That distinctive bottle recalls both wine in its shape, while the deco-inspired ridges link it firmly to the ‘golden age’ of cocktails. And at 17.2% ABV, it’s fairly low strength. Overall, the brand is towing a line between forging its own path and piggybacking on the cues that have made Aperol so successful.

Another brand to claim to spot a gap in the market – and subsequently launch another ‘world first’ directly into it – is Cordusio (19.5% ABV). Hailing from Milan, and launched prior to Campari’s bottle revamp, it too takes on art deco cues with its ridged, bright-red glass bottle.

The gap in the market it’s aiming for is untapped demand for a fruit-forward, less bitter aperitif. Cordusio’s claim to uniqueness is that it is the world’s first red berry aperitif, which is, it claims an easier entry point for consumers who don’t, or at least think they don’t, like bitter drinks. But is it distinctive enough? It’s here again that you can see the growing tension among new aperitif brands to claim new territory, but to also not wander too far from the winning formula.

Visual disruption

Perhaps the most visually disruptive Italian aperitif to launch this summer is Doladira. Another ruby-hued liquid, also with a fruit-forward offering – leading with rhubarb and bitter orange, followed by  ‘Alpine’ botanicals of plum, gentian, elderflower, pine and rosemary – it aims to tempt those who have not yet joined the category.

As far as originality goes, it’s playing into some of the same evocative imagery as Aperol. Its name is derived from a combination of its home region of the Dolomites, and a local word, ‘enrosadira’, which describes the red afterglow left by sunset or sunrise. Again, its key serves are what you would expect them to be. Perhaps its boldest point of difference is that it claims to contain 60% less sugar than other brands, yet it’s a heftier 22% ABV.

So how much do brands have to fit in to the norms established by Aperol, in order to ride on its coat-tails? And how much do brands need to stand out in order to truly steal share from it? Judging by these new launches, it seems undecided. The need to focus on one clear USP is evident, and from being low in sugar, boldy fruity, to distinctively wine-based, brands are evidently exploring what the most effective one could be for pulling new consumers into the category. The question is, are they already too late?

Change the record

Aperol caught the market by surprise, and was left largely unchallenged for so long, so that it now holds such an ingrained place in people’s repertoires. But as we know, consumers are fickle. This then needn’t be a problem. Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing brands is visual distinctiveness, and we’re not talking about the bottles.

New entrants are working hard to have conversations with consumers about why they should choose them, even why they would be better suited for them. But brands need to get themselves in front of consumers in the first place to do so.

One of the great strengths of Aperol is that from across a bar, if consumers see another patron drinking a spritz, most instantly recognise it. How could that be said for brands that similarly choose to take on an orange colour? And for those that are deep red, long-established brands such as Campari and Select are already ahead of them, and yet don’t have quite the same visual familiarity as Aperol. Could it be that it’s actually the liquid colour that the brand has had to itself for too long, rather than the aperitif moment?

How to stand out

Brands should be looking outside of the aperitif category for inspiration of how to stand out within it. They need to be identifiable when they are in consumer’s hands. And with liquid colour out of the question, we know that claiming a serve – a new serve – or distinctive glassware are both effective ways of doing just that. Just look at how Hendrick’s, a gin not visually distinctive from any other when in the glass, became easily identifiable for its clever use of a cucumber garnish. Or look at how gin sales exploded once balloon glasses entered the conversation. Brands need to pick their own visual cue and claim it.

Even though we see the RTD space slowing down and losing both momentum and excitement, there are very few RTD aperitifs on the market. Aperol has notably chosen not to cannibalise its sales by widely launching one. They are available only in spaces where making its three ingredient serve from scratch doesn’t make sense; if you ever dislike yourself enough to book yourself on to an EasyJet flight, you’ll find Aperol RTDs there. Could a premium spritz RTD work for a new entrant? It would certainly speed up service and make life easier for many on-trade businesses.

And lastly, is it time for new brands to abandon the spritz altogether? Or at least modify it and not put so much emphasis upon it? We know that the serve has been wildly successful, but could it be time to move on if new brands truly want to challenge existing players? We think so. The challenge for new Italian aperitif brands entering the market is to sing louder than the existing competition, and to do that, they may just have to choose a different song or risk offering very little that’s distinctive.

New aperitif brands may be late to the party, but they have a chance if they dare to step out on their own. If not, they risk being lost amid a crowd of similar looking, and similarly behaving wannabes. And no-one remembers a wannabe.

Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?

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