20 July 2014 18:46

Denzel Heath's Diary of a travelling bartender (#5)

The Africanism!

Following my last diary insert, a guest blog entry by Cuan Dumas, I felt it necessary to explore the topic of the uniqueness of the African consumer a little deeper. So here is a post from the Black Star country, Ghana.

REAL Africa (and this rings true even for South Africa) is obsessed with top tear BRAND NAMES. While the rest of the world is falling into the craft trend, Africa is becoming more and more brand conscious, BUT for all the wrong reasons! While the US and UK obsess over small batch and hand crafted spirits because of their unique taste complexity and so called higher quality (this too is a matter for deliberation), Africans drink name brand spirits for one reason and one reason only: To be the OGA!

It is all about image and this why we see so many premium brands being drunk with Red Bull and Fanta, as opposed to the perfect pour. It is about what you are seen drinking rather than the content of the bottle. We drink in the marketing, rather than the holy water. The consumers follow very specific market trends. In Nigeria one dresses to impress with a bottle of French cognac on your hip, in Uganda, the elites prove their worth to their golfing buddies through their single malts and in Ghana a premium blended Scotch or some French champagne proves you are holding the flush and some.

Here in South Africa single malt whiskies have been the top hat to the Edwardian dandy for many years, but recently we have seen the American thirst for premium vodkas hit a little harder. French champagnes have also always been a game changer and thanks in part to the recent arrival of Ron Zacapa, I expect premium rum to also become a pedestal pusher in the near future. Oh and you best believe, we Africans order by the bottle! None of this wee drab bull! A bottle or two on the table in a massive ice filled vessel for the entire world to see! The louder and prouder, the better – so please make some noise!

I am pro large brands. They produce consistently good quality products and pay my salary, darn it! But there has to be a reason why a brand like Johnnie Walker has survived for over 190 years and is still going strong. I classify huge brands by either heritage or marketing. Johnnie, for example, is a heritage brand. He has been around for so long that we all know his story, his walk and his blends.

Then you get Africa's giants. These brands gain their fame and fortune through heavy and expensive marketing. But African consumers are not imbeciles, and these brands will only maintain their status through the quality of their product. Nike spends $2.7 billion annually on the marketing of their brand, but we keep buying their running shoes because they are comfortable, not because Cristiano Ronaldo wears them. People buy big premium brands not only because they are expensive and a sign of stature, but also because they can be trusted.

In my opinion, this African trend will naturally evolve into spirit appreciation, given enough time and consumer education. For the time being though brand companies exploit this Africanism by making icons like Jamie Fox their brand ambassadors rather than spending money on doing broad market tastings. Luxury brands are what make us Africans tick and brand companies are very well aware of this burning desire we have to be seen in the right light. We see it on American TV and we want to be it.

In conclusion: get comfortable with seeing your big spender drinking out of the bottle, while pouring some on the floor for his dearly departed. We cannot only rely on the big spirit houses to spread the love of the water of life to the imbiber, so get involved! It is as much up to the bartender as it is to Mr Don Julio. Get with the program and educate your regulars. You will need to be in this for the long haul, as the evolution of the African consumer will take a while. Be patient, diligent and dedicated. Rest assured African bartender, we are the emerging market; brand companies are spending the time and money on educating the consumer and this trend too shall pass!

And that's all from my diary for this time! Until next time, keep mixing!

Yours Truly,

The Travelling Bartender (Denzel Heath)

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