InterContinental Brands Ltd – The Interview

john-hibberd.jpgBritain’s consumers might be tightening their belts in the current credit crunch, but socialising and relaxing with friends remains as important as ever and consumers still enjoy entertaining and partying. That’s the cheery news from InterContinental Brands (ICB) Ltd, one of Britain’s fastest growing drinks companies, which is experiencing a period of sustained success, due in no small part to the soaring success of its St Helier and Vodkat brands. The St Helier Pear Cider brand has taken off spectacularly in the current cider boom and has been in the public eye this summer with its high profile advertising on ITV1 and ITV 4 during the Euro 2008 football tournament.

ICB’s Vodkat brand has also carved out an exciting niche for itself, first as being brilliant to enjoy with mixers and cocktails and now with its innovative brand extension Vodkat Smoothies, the new “sip and chill” sensation, which is sponsoring two hit TV shows, ‘Secret Diary of a Call Girl’ and ‘Entourage’, ensuring Vodkat Smoothies will be on air from now to December. The launch of Vodkat Smoothies is the latest chapter in InterContinental’s continuing success story as serial innovators, with a long track record of serving up branded drinks with a distinctive point of difference. John Hibberd, Joint MD of InterContinental Brands, spoke to The Grocery Trader.

vodkat-cut3.jpgThe Grocery Trader – John, we last spoke in 2005. ICB has been enjoying a remarkable run of success since then. What’s your vision as a company these days, and how has that changed since three years ago?
We just keep going from strength to strength. We are over the moon with both the trade and consumer reception of both the Vodkat and St Helier offerings, and we will continue to build on the success of these two burgeoning brands with innovative promotions and strong support. We have an ever growing and very professional sales team and we have set our sights high.

GT – How big is ICB now in turnover? Which drinks product sectors are you in these days?
ICB now trades with all of the UK’s major retailers, has a turnover in excess of £50 million and manufactures and distributes over 50 top class drinks brands.

GT – The European drinks market is dominated by some huge multi-national brands with massive resources, yet you’re doing fantastically well. How have you done it?
The short answer is great timing and innovation. Consumers are better disposed than they have ever been to experimenting with and adopting new cider products, so there is no doubt that ICB picked the right time to launch a premium cider with a distinctive point of difference. We have always been an innovative company and were amongst the first to champion and promote pear cider, which has quite a different character from apple cider, and which we believe will be a significant stand-alone category. As a result, in this receptive and buoyant market St Helier has carved out an important niche for itself and gone from strength to strength.

st-helier-group.jpgBeing an early innovator in the market certainly gave St Helier a head start. Dynamic support and fresh NPD ideas, including the introduction of fruit ciders in flavours that reflect the current food vogues, have consolidated this.

GT – As a company you have an outstanding record for new product development. How important is innovation to your business?
We know that to stay ahead we have to think ahead of the game. That is why we invest so consistently and diligently in our NPD so that we can continuously innovate and find new and niche market sectors that we can develop and make our own.

GT – The St Helier and Vodkat brands are outstanding successes. Which consumers are the target audiences for these brands?
St Helier Pear Cider is a bright, versatile drink, which consumers can enjoy on its own or with food. It’s versatility and heritage aspects mean that it appeals across the board to a very wide consumer base both in terms of age and income. Vodkat has huge appeal to the party loving 18-30 age group, but it is enjoyed by people of any age and many demographics who are looking for a drink that is great with mixers or in cocktails.

GT – Taking St Helier first, what different products are there in the St Helier range? Why do you think St Helier is doing so well?
St Helier premium bottled cider is available in four options: Original Pear Cider, Blueberry Pear Cider, Raspberry & Lime Pear Cider and Apple. Blueberries have a powerful folklore tradition around them and St Helier Blueberry has very appealing mildly sweet and tangy characteristics. Raspberry & Lime St Helier is gorgeously fruity and distinctive, and St Helier Apple has a unique taste that sets it apart from all other brands stocked in the UK.

As well as its distinctive point of difference, St Helier is very refreshing, with just a hint of sweetness, a delicately fruity nose, clean, crisp taste and a round vanilla-like edge to it. From the outset, ICB’s strategy has been to concentrate on that deliciousness and point of difference in all its support communications. St Helier’s presentation is also very appealing. The brand’s bright, natural, qualities are reflected in eye catching premium packaging.

GT – You’ve launched a stream of different flavour varieties for St Helier. What new St Helier flavours can we look forward to, and when will they be launched?
I doubt that any company has more prolific NPD ideas than we do. We are constantly working up and investigating new ideas, and have therefore always got some innovative NPD project percolating away. I can’t give you too many details at the moment, because they are under wraps at the moment, but I can intimate that these are flavours, although not RTD-style flavours.

GT – St Helier has been advertising on TV to audiences watching the Euro 2008 tournament this summer, which was a superb opportunity to build brand awareness. What size audience did your ads reach?
The Euro 2008 TV advertising deal gave a huge boost to our brand awareness, encouraging brand recognition with both new and existing St Helier fans and it also continued St Helier’s successful association with football. Our 30-second St Helier ads were aired on ITV1 and ITV4 right the way through the 22-day tournament.

GT – Have you any more plans for sports-related marketing activity for St Helier?
We are always actively looking for appropriate ways to support of this vibrant brand. So watch this space!

GT – Your other smash hit success is Vodkat. What is the Vodkat brand consumer proposition?
Vodkat has proved to be one of our meteoric star performers. It directly matches consumers’ such as the sociable 18-30 age group partygoers’ aspirations, and has therefore created a very substantial new niche. It is now one of the UK’s top Speciality Spirits and Liqueurs and continues to put in a stunning sales performance.

GT – What different flavours and formats are in the Vodkat Classics range? Who are they aimed at? What different cocktails and other drinks can you make with the Vodkat range? Do you offer recipe suggestions on pack?
Vodkat makes the ideal party drink, It’s great poured over ice, with mixers or to make into a cocktail. On the back of the extraordinary success of Vodkat we have also launched Vodkat Classics in Cherry, Citron, Pear and Raspberry and supported the launch with a highly visible “Take Home A Party” on pack promotion. Our unique cube shaped neck collars featured a booklet of 9 original “Sip Delicious” cocktail party recipes with names like Pear Colada, Cherry V, Flower Power and Sunset Kat.

Consumers can now download these on our brand new Vodkat website: www.vodkatparty.com

vksmoothrange.jpgGT – The recently launched Vodkat Smoothies sound intriguing. What products are available, and which are the best selling varieties? What is the recommended retail selling price, and how should they be consumed?
Vodkat Smoothies really are something new and different and, as a smooth, silky versatile over-ice drinking experience, are another example of ICB’s commitment to innovation. We spent almost a year developing this drink, which is the first alcoholic smoothie on the market and brings together several winning ideas: Vodkat original is an acknowledged star performer. Fruit smoothies have evolved into the ubiquitous must-stock mainstream retail choice of recent times, and everyone knows about the rejuvenating effect of the over-ice phenomenon in the cider market.

Vodkat Smoothies (50cl bottle) has an RSP of £5.49, abv of 12% and should be enjoyed straight and chilled or over ice.

GT – What is the marketing support programme for Vodkat Smoothies? How did you come to support ‘Secret Diary of a Call Girl’ and ‘Entourage’? What consumer feedback have you had following your support for those shows?
The sponsorship is very much in line In line with our well-proven practice of sponsoring high profile hit shows with adult audiences that closely match our brands’ target consumers. The “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” starring Billie Piper is a huge ITV hit and attracts millions of avid viewing fans, so we know that when these fans switch on to Billie they are also seeing Vodkat’s specially created bumper movie ads.

Vodkat Smoothies will also sponsor “Entourage” (ITV2’s comedy drama set in Hollywood and focusing on the exploits of a happening young actor and his entourage of mates), which airs on September 4th for 14 weeks. As with “The Secret Diaries”, the target audience is a very good match for our brand.

GT – How big a share of your off trade sales are in UK multiple grocery outlets?
Grocery multiples’ share of off trade sales is less than 40% as our brands are very strong in independents, cash & carry/wholesalers and off licence chain specialists as well as regional chains.

GT – What are the peak selling times of year for Vodkat and St Helier? Will you be doing any consumer support before Christmas this year?
Traditionally summer has been a critical for sales of cider and for the whole of the market generally. Christmas and New Year are of course vital, but they only really spread over a few weeks. When we get a fine, hot summer, the period we are talking about can be as much as four months.

At ICB we know that hot sunny spells can have an immediate and noticeable effect on sales of St Helier, driving up orders received on a daily basis up by as much as 200%. Cocktails have experienced a real renaissance in recent times, and I am in no doubt that Vodkat benefits from the fact that these can be enjoyed all year round, as well as the peak times of Christmas, the New Year and on holiday.

GT – Are St Helier and Vodkat available outside the UK and if so where?
We are just beginning to export both Vodkat and St Helier to overseas markets such as Australia, Germany, Far East.

icblogo.jpgGT – Where do you see the Vodkat and St Helier brands going from here?
We are very upbeat about the future. As I indicated before, we have several exciting plans in the pipeline and expect Vodkat to consolidate its top ten position in the off trade Speciality Spirits and Liqueurs sector and that St Helier will benefit from continued growth as pear cider becomes the natural choice for people looking for a light delicate and refreshing drink.

GT – Finally, do you have any plans to launch further ICB ‘power brands’ alongside Vodkat and St Helier?
Yes – watch this space!

InterContinental Brands Ltd
Tel: 01642 256154
www.icbrands.co.uk
www.vodkatparty.com
www.stheliercider.com