One of the fascinating aspects of China's growth and commercialization over the past 30 years is the opening of new niche markets that did not previously exist in the Mainland, even pre-1949. One of these niche markets is whisky. Though foreign liquors -- mostly Russian vodka and, in the 19th century, beer -- have entered the country at a rapidly growing rate for decades, whisky failed to gain a foothold in the country until the late 1980s.
Since then, as median incomes in China's urban centers have grown, so too has Chinese interest in premium scotch, particularly from major producers like Chivas Regal and even premium single malt producers like Glendronach. As we wrote last week, the tough dilemma for premium scotch producers like Chivas is whether to play up the "mixer" angle for younger, free-spending consumers or heavily promote the brand's taste, pedigree and history, and exacting standards:
One interesting characteristic of scotch consumption in China is the sizable gulf that separates the devotee from the social drinker. In bars across China, it is common to see premium scotches like Chivas offered in a promotional “package” for a relatively high price, typically bundled with a bucket of ice and several bottles of sweetened iced green tea. While serious scotch drinkers would recoil in anguish at the sight of partygoershaphazardly mixing high-quality scotch with sugary tea, this home-grown concoction is one of the main drivers of Chivas Regal’s growth in the Chinese market, and the agreeable taste of the resulting cocktail suits the local market extremely well.
A news item today seems to indicate that Chivas wants to try to span the gap between older, more sophisticated scotch aficionados and younger consumers who simply want to flaunt their new-found wealth (or spend half of their paycheck to look as if they're doing so). Following last year's partnership with Alexander McQueen on a limited edition of 2,000 bottles created for key markets like China, Russia and Japan, Chivas has created a new limited edition with Christian Lacroix only for the Asian market, with roll-outs spanning Southeast Asia to East Asia over the next several months. Despite Lacroix's recent bankruptcy, his ornate bottle design should benefit from the name recognition he still enjoys in luxury-mad Asia.
One innovative thing that Chivas is doing withthis limited edition (15,000 bottles) design is focusing mainly on airports rather than bars or other high-visibility areas for its launch. By starting with Singapore's Changi Airport, the company can tap in to a number of key consumer markets at the same time -- the disparate Southeast Asian countries, and, perhaps most importantly, China. The number of Chinese travelers and businesspeople going through Changi on a daily basis is not to be underestimated, and these individuals have a reputation for stocking up on expensive liquor, cigarettes, and luxury products of all stripes at the duty free on their way home.
Chivas, by rolling this product out first not in China, but in a relatively nearby Asian country with a huge amount of Chinese traffic, is essentially creating exclusivity that will create buzz in big markets like China. Whenever Chivas drops the Lacroix bottles in the China market, that pent-up demand will most certainly lead to success and build on the company's existing prestige in the Mainland.
Like last year's McQueen bottles, Chivas has made a very smart move with their Lacroix collection that will definitely appeal to scotch lovers in China as well as Southeast Asia. As Chivas Brothers regional director global travel-retail Robin Johnston told DFNIonline:
“Chivas is probably the world’s first luxury whisky, founded in 1909 and a symbol of having arrived, generosity and wealth. It has always done well in periods of economic upturn in different countries, be it the US in the 1950s or China in the past five years. Lacroixalso represents craft and heritage, so we share some of the same values. We have worked with other designers too, such as Alexander McQueen last year; it adds something interesting to Chivas. In the liquor sector in travel-retail we always need to stimulate something different from what you would see in the domestic market, a bit of theatre.”
He added: “We are selling [the new Lacroix limited edition] at roughly 80% above the regular Chivas price, at $90–100 in travel-retail. After the Asian roll-out we hope to send it to retailers in the Middle East and Europe. Christian has managed to capture Chivas’ essence of luxury through his design. We hope our customers are as thrilled with this limited edition as we are.”