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Once relegated to a few major holidays and sporting events each year, event marketing with beverages has spilled over into almost every holiday and event imaginable, as retailers and manufacturers tap into a multitude of promotional channels to boost sales. And while a slew of national promotions around events like the Super Bowl still exist, retailers and vendors are embarking on more local promotions

Once relegated to a few major holidays and sporting events each year, event marketing with beverages has spilled over into almost every holiday and event imaginable, as retailers and manufacturers tap into a multitude of promotional channels to boost sales. And while a slew of national promotions around events like the Super Bowl still exist, retailers and vendors are embarking on more local promotions than ever before, as their market research becomes more sophisticated and they realize the growing importance of community-based marketing.

Event marketing with beverages really began to take off in the 1970s, when beer and soft drink vendors started using more sporting events and alternative holidays as platforms to promote their brands and increase sales. Who can forget Coca-Cola's classic Super Bowl commercial featuring "Mean Joe Green" and a young fan, or Pepsi's inimitable summertime promotion, "Have a Pepsi Day," which spawned one of the catchiest commercial jingles of all time.

The success of those promotions, as well as many others at both the national and local levels, sparked unprecedented growth over the past 20 years in the number of beverage promotions retailers and vendors run in a given year. This led supermarket and beverage company executives to start looking for more sophisticated research that would help them target specific demographics and to hire consultants who could help them customize promotions to individual markets. As a result, retailers and vendors began collaborating more closely to develop more appealing beverage promotions.

"My sense is that beverage marketing calendars at supermarket chains and beverage companies are more full today than ever before," said Gary Hemphill, vice president of information services at the New York-based market research firm Beverage Marketing Corp. "This trend has grown stronger in recent years as retailers and vendors have become more sophisticated in their research. As a result, they are able to market specific types of products in specific types of packages to specific types of customers."

Although there is no hard data on the increase in the number of beverage promotions, nor is research available to gauge the success of these promotions, the fact that retailers and vendors acknowledge they are running more beverage promotions annually suggests that many of them have been successful, Hemphill added.

"Why else would you keep running more?" he asked. "Retailers and vendors aren't just running promotions for the sake of it. Customers must be responding. If you look at most states, drinking laws are tougher than they were years ago, and it costs more to go out than it does to stay home and celebrate. As a result, more people are attending in-home parties, which are great targets for beverage promotions."

Retailers SN spoke with agree and said they've seen double-digit increases in sales of beverages featured in many of their promotions, which has led them to try to capitalize on every event and holiday they can throughout the year.

"We certainly run more beverage promotions today than we did 10 or 20 years ago. I think that's evidence that most of them have worked for us," said Joanne Gage, spokeswoman for Price Chopper, Schnectady, N.Y . "Of course, I think with some retailers and vendors there's an element of keeping up with the Joneses. If one retailer or vendor is doing more beverage marketing and seeing good returns, then you're going to see their competitors launching more promotions."

Anecdotal evidence of this trend can be seen in the sheer number of holidays and events retailers and vendors include on their marketing calendars today, compared with only a decade or two ago. Whereas, years ago major beverage promotions were focused on the Super Bowl, Independence Day and the winter holidays, today marketing calendars also include Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, all the summer holidays, NASCAR events, country music concerts and Halloween, which has become one of the biggest beverage promotions of the year.

"Halloween is a perfect example," said Hemphill. "Not so long ago, this was a candy event. Today, you have beverage companies marketing heavily around this holiday." Another event that has gained steam in recent years is Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the Mexican army's defeat of the French in 1862. Sometimes mistaken in the United States as Mexican Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo for many years was an event celebrated solely in Mexico. But as the Mexican and overall Hispanic populations have grown in America, particularly on the West Coast, Cinco de Mayo has become a major event around which retailers and vendors can market their brands.

"Cinco de Mayo gets bigger every year for us," said John Tarasi, retail advertising specialist at Unified Western Grocers, which represents 4,000 independent retailers in California. "We have a huge Hispanic population in California, and the turnout for events on this holiday is always great."

This year, Unified partnered with Anheuser Busch, Coke and Pepsi to develop a regional marketing campaign around the event that featured radio and TV advertising, in-store displays, contests and a huge indoor/outdoor fiesta at one of Unified's biggest locations in Los Angeles, where vendors set up booths and sampled products. The campaign was so successful, Tarasi added, that the wholesaler and its sponsors are developing a similar campaign for Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16.

Growth in the number of beverage promotions also has been driven by more aggressive vendors who want to market specific products to particular customers through certain events, according to several retailers. And these vendors are more than happy to provide retailers with a local advertising push, targeted marketing vehicles and in-store promotional materials.

"As they've expanded their calendars of promotional events, we've seen more support from manufacturers, which has led to collaboration at the local level that has resulted in our retailers creating ideas for promotions of our own," Tarasi said.

That was the case earlier this year, when Unified developed a Valentine's Day promotion and partnered with Coke to create in-store displays and point-of-purchase materials. In addition, the retailer and vendor offered a contest whereby one customer and the one local retailer who created the best display won tickets to attend a concert featuring the teen pop group Backstreet Boys.

Event-marketing campaigns typically start many months before advertising hits the media and displays are erected in stores. Although beverage vendors still drive most of the major campaigns and bring retailers into the fold after they've identified key markets, retailers are increasingly approaching vendors with ideas of their own for new and improved campaigns. This has led to closer collaboration between retailers and vendors on annual marketing calendars, types of promotional materials to be used and customization for regional and local markets. Most campaigns will include some combination of print and electronic advertising, in-store displays, POP materials, outdoor signage, coupons, discounts, giveaways and product sampling.

"As vendors became more aggressive in promoting their beverage brands around events, retailers saw an opportunity to market their brands in the same way, which led to even more promotions being launched each year," said Peter Costa, president of promotions firm Target Marketing, Richmond, Va. "Retailers were trying to think outside the box and expand their marketing capabilities. As they began to realize this trend, they jumped on the bandwagon by partnering with manufacturers to market themselves and their products around events."

In fact, some retailers don't run beverage promotions around events unless they can link their corporate brand and private labels with the campaigns in some way. "We always tie our store brands in with all the event marketing we do," said David Pruitt, promotions director for IGA, Chicago. "That is critical -- to promote our brand as not just discount, but also value-added."

Another critical element of beverage marketing campaigns is the ability to customize promotions for particular events or localities to maximize value for the customers and return for the retailers and vendors.

"We try to do more interactive promotions because there is so much clutter out there today," Pruitt said. "Our focus is always on interactive, regional event marketing that will reach out and touch our customers. By that I mean somehow rewarding the customers, retailers and bottlers. In this business, successful promotions create excitement among all three of those groups, which results in increased sales."

While Halloween and Cinco de Mayo have been the holidays creating more excitement in recent years, NASCAR races and country music concerts have been the events drawing more attention. NASCAR's popularity with marketers rocketed in the mid-1980s after a photo of then-president Ronald Reagan congratulating driver Richard Petty on his 500th victory appeared on the front page of the New York Times. Marketers subsequently began to see NASCAR as a way to reach blue-collar Middle America.

Country music, on the other hand, is the most widely programmed format by radio stations in the United States today, offering marketers a broad range of demographics -- from teenage girls to middle-aged men.

To reach these coveted demographics, IGA in the past couple of years has co-sponsored several NASCAR and country music events with big-name bottlers like Miller, Anheuser Busch and Coke. Among the promotions was the "Bud Shootout" -- the kickoff to the NASCAR season -- where consumers, retailers and bottlers were offered opportunities to win free tickets to the event and mingle with the drivers, as well as tour the raceway. Another was the "All Access Weekend," where consumers, retailers and bottlers also were offered chances to win a free weekend with their favorite country music stars in Tennessee's Opryland.

"These events really move beverages," Pruitt said. "We saw an average of double-digit sales growth for the beverages featured in these promotions in the stores that participated."

While those promotions were run at the national and regional levels, retailers are even developing and tweaking promotions to reach consumers at the local level. Unified this year kicked off the Major League Baseball season by running "The Dodger/Padre Sweepstakes" in Los Angeles and San Diego, which offered consumers and retailers with the best displays opportunities to win free tickets to baseball games, Tarasi said. And an IGA store in Wisconsin last year teamed up with a local bottler to launch a promotion around the high school girls softball team making it to the state finals, according to Pruitt. "Those are the best promotions," Pruitt said. "The more creative and local, the better they are received."

In addition to striving for interactive, creative and localized promotions, Price Chopper often packages several beverage brands together in one promotion, in an effort to boost sales across each of the brands. "We've found that, in many cases, a package-type promotion is more successful than one that involves only a single product," Gage said. "It also attracts customer attention to items they may not normally look out for."

One example of this type of promotion was Price Chopper's "Malternatives" summer brew promotion last year, which featured Smirnoff's Ice, Mike's Hard Lemonade and BoDean's Twisted Tea.

Carbonated beverages and the companies that produce them certainly dominate the beverage marketing landscape. But in recent years other beverages, particularly water, have become the focus of many new promotions, as sales soared during the Y2K panic and manufacturers scrambled to launch their own brands. Water was the featured beverage in a myriad of event-marketing campaigns in 2000, including the Olympics and the college football bowl season.

"It seems like everybody today is walking around with a bottle of water, so we've cranked up a whole series of water promotions for the coming year," Gage said. In addition, Price Chopper has been involved in several "goodwill" water promotions aimed at helping out communities experiencing problems with their local water sources. "Good will is important and these promotions always do well," she added.

Water, beer, soda, Cinco de Mayo and Halloween. With so many beverage promotions already on retailers' marketing calendars, and an increasing number being launched every year, could the market one day reach the saturation point?

"No matter what the holiday or event is, there's always pressure on retailers to beat last year's numbers. So they will do what they have to do to achieve that," Gage said. "What would their sales be like if they didn't run a promotion?"