Bitters are far from a uniform category. Posting 1.5% total volume growth in 2012, their top line performance is actually masking widening discrepancies, varying degrees of penetration and a cornucopia of herbal ingredients. While recent years have seen the popularity of some of the most iconic of western specialties skyrocket on the back of the resurgent cocktail culture and retro inspired, higher–end innovation, it is merely a handful of star performers that are enjoying regional, let alone universal appeal.
Jägermeister, by now a de facto household name, has utilised its inherent traditionalism to scale the almost impenetrable walls of brand equity for millennial and generation X consumers, eventually crowned as the proverbial king of high energy drinking occasions.
Aperol was whole heartedly embraced by the resurrected apperitivo culture at the same time that its Italian heritage and summery disposition provided strong momentum in metropolital centres across the west.
And yet, the most dynamic of bitter brands in the world is not hailing from some small German or Italian town, its recipe shrouded in closely guarded, medieval mystery. It cannot be located in trend setting mixologist hives in London or San Francisco. It is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the press and does not feature in ubiquitous advertising campaigns. It is, however, taking Nigeria by storm, spawning imitations and even derailing the seemingly unstoppable advance of stout and lager in the country.
Alomo Bitters, distilled in neighbouring Ghana and only launched in Nigeria in 2010, posted a booming 56% total volume growth in 2012, securing the leading place in terms of dynamism within an expanding global bitters arena for the second year running. The product’s proposition is simple as much as it is effective. A branded yet affordable version of artisanal offerings historically available in the region, the brand enjoys a reputation for subtle medicinal properties with an interesting, if controversial twist. Alomo Bitter’s supposedly aphrodisiac attributes are the real driving force behind its explosive sales trajectory.
Rather unexpectedly, non-alcoholic beer has been an unlikely benefactor of the trend as it tends to be used as a mixer for the popular drink. This shift is also underpinning the steady high single digit growth witnessed by the non-alcoholic beer segment in the country at the same time that both lager and dominant stout are facing a severe slowdown.
While such virility associations would have faced a heavy handed clampdown across the majority of western markets, they are apparently hitting all the right buttons in Nigeria where a word-of-mouth driven aura of sexuality is not a taboo.
The lesson here is twofold; affordable branded versions of regional specialty drinks with strong artisanal roots can prove extremely successful, really quick since they answer a genuine and pre-existing demand. Second, the language and semiotics employed by brands have to be relevant to the respective cultural references of the markets they target. And there are as many ways to tell a story as herbal essences in a bottle of bitters.