The beverages go by names like malternatives, alcopops, alternative malt beverages and clear malts. Whatever they are called, their sales are already growing far faster than sales of beer or distilled spirits - hence their appeal to brewers like Anheuser-Busch, Coors Brewing and Miller Brewing and distillers like Allied Domecq, Bacardi, the Campari Group and Diageo.
"The push is enough to drive consumer pull," said Caroline Levy, senior beverage analyst at UBS Warburg in New York. "They’re gaining momentum, and I think we have at least two more years of them gaining market share."
The risk for the advertisers is that malternatives - lightly carbonated, slightly sweetened, fruit-flavored clear malts that cost $1 or $3 more a six-pack than beer - will turn out to be fads like ice beers or wine coolers, never justifying the enormous investment in marketing, packaging, distribution and development. But in an era of fierce fights for every percentage point of market share in competitive categories like alcoholic beverages, it may be less of a gamble to proceed than not to.
"We’ll be watching closely as the flood wave hits, who tries them and who sticks with them," said Bill Pecoriello, beverage analyst at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in New York.
"What’s clear is that this will be a big `trial’ year for these products," he added, "as hundreds of millions of dollars goes into marketing them."
Most consumers trying malternatives will be 21 to 27, the generation that grew up with myriad choices in other beverage categories like soft drinks, juices and coffees. The goal is to land clear malts a place in their alcoholic-beverage pantheon between beer and distilled spirits.
Opponents of efforts to expand the marketing of alcoholic beverages consider alcopops to be Trojan horses, meant to appeal to teenagers and encourage younger drinkers to step up to liquor from beer because they are packaged and marketed like beer but do not taste like beer.
"It’s a category we call `designer drinks,’ an idea looking for a market," said George Hacker, director for the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy organization in Washington.
"In an effort to attract new users, these products are designed to disguise the taste of alcohol and are jazzed up to more resemble nonalcoholic beverages," he added. "Forty- year-olds don’t drink this, nor do they respond to the advertising."
The critics are intensifying their battle as the new products begin to appear. Last month, Bacardi and Anheuser-Busch, the largest brewer, introduced Bacardi Silver, an alcopop with an ad budget estimated at $60 million. At a meeting today in Orlando, Fla., Miller, part of the Philip Morris Companies, will show distributors the ads for its first clear malt, Skyy Blue, a joint venture with the Skyy Spirits division of Campari. The 2002 budget for that campaign, featuring sexy, European-style commercials and print ads by Lambesis in Carlsbad, Calif., is estimated at $42 million.
Miller plans at least two other brands, both joint ventures with Allied Domecq: Sauza Diablo and Stolichnaya Citrona, with an estimated combined ad budget of $50 million.
"There is a consumer opportunity here, and we’re capitalizing on it," said Denis McGarry, vice president and general manager for enterprise brands and business development at Miller in Milwaukee. "The category is here to stay, but the number of players is still to be determined."
The category began in this country in 1992 with Zima, a malternative sold by Coors, a division of the Adolph Coors Company, which met with only limited success; a variety called Zima Gold bombed.
The trend has picked up steam in the last couple of years as marketers began trying to emulate the success of alcopops in Europe, which typically are citrus-flavored, by introducing products bearing fanciful names like Hooper’s Hootch, BoDean’s Twisted Tea and Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
The boom really started early last year, when the North American division of Diageo, the British alcoholic beverage behemoth, introduced a clear malt under the name Smirnoff Ice and spent about $50 million on a catchy campaign by the New York office of J. Walter Thompson, part of the WPP Group, carrying the theme "Intelligent night life."
Smirnoff Ice rang up a robust $615 million in sales in 2001, helping malternatives capture an estimated 3 percent of the total beer market. Emboldened by that success, Diageo North America will spend about $100 million to advertise the brand this year as well as an additional $75 million on a second malternative, Captain Morgan Gold, being introduced in early April.
"It’s going to get more competitive, and we are girding ourselves," said Paul Clinton, president and chief executive at Diageo North America in Stamford, Conn. "The extra competition is not necessarily negative. Other products, with the backing of the big beer companies, can legitimize the category."
"Our belief is that the category can be 9 percent of the total beer market," he added, or triple its current market share. "This is not a flash in the pan."
To help counter the critics, Diageo North America has spent a quarter of the Smirnoff Ice ad budget on commercials with messages to drink responsibly and designate drivers, Mr. Clinton said, adding that the percentage may be increased this year.
The warfare among the malternative marketers has become so intense that the advertising industry’s self-regulatory apparatus was brought in to referee.
Mark Anthony International, the maker of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, complained that consumers were misled by the Smirnoff Ice name into believing it contains Smirnoff vodka. A few malternatives have as ingredients the liquors in their brand names, like Skyy Blue, but most like Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Silver and Captain Morgan Gold contain no distilled spirits. The complaint was referred by the national advertising division of the Council of the Better Business Bureau to the Federal Trade Commission and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
"It’s less about what the product is made of and more about what the product delivers," Mr. Clinton said.
The name "allows us to get to `beer occasions’ with the Smirnoff brand," he added, in that "beer products are available in eight times more outlets than spirits products" and are consumed "exponentially more" often than liquor.