Alcohol companies have their eyes on the ladies

Sandy Xia enjoys a glass of wine when having lunch with friends. In the evening, she has the occasional beer and one or two cocktails at the weekend.

With a busy business schedule, the 32-year-old marketing manager at a logistics company in Beijing is constantly on the go.

"Having a healthy portion of alcohol helps me relax. I enjoy having a drink when I mix with friends, and we often talk about various wines and spirits," she said.

Xia is just the sort of middle-class professional woman that major beverage companies are looking to target to prop up falling sales after the government launched its anti-corruption campaign at the end of 2012.

Since then, the fallout has affected the luxury goods industry as well as the alcoholic drinks sector. In a move to boost sales, China's leading baijiu producer Kweichow Moutai Co Ltd has rolled a new drink for women customers.

U MEET comes in an elegant, elongated perfume-style bottle and is mixed with high-grade liquor from Moutai and natural blueberry juice.

Yuan Renguo, chairman of the group, has predicted that sales revenue from U MEET will be between 1 billion yuan (S$224 million) to 1.5 billion yuan in three years. Moutai is banking on its highly successful brand name to stimulate growth.

With a female population of about 630 million in China, leading beverage companies are hoping to tempt women consumers in the 18 to 59 age group, which makes up 60 per cent of the overall total. U MEET, for example, comes in nine colors and will retail at 48 yuan a bottle. It is expected to become popular with the younger generation that love trendy nightclubs.

But Moutai, which is famous for producing baijiu, which is made from a mixture of grains including rice, wheat and corn, faces tough competition in a crowded marketplace.

Global player Diageo Plc has always had a major presence in the sector with the company's Baileys brand, popular with women drinkers. The multinational alcoholic beverages group from the United Kingdom is expanding distribution of Baileys, an Irish whiskey and cream-based liqueur, through e-commerce platforms and convenience stores.

"We have also updated the bottle size for Baileys from 750 milliliters to a smaller size, so female customers will find it easy to carry and share with friends at parties or at picnics," said Tang Wu, Diageo's brand communications public relations manager.

In another strategic move, Baileys is now collaborating with Costa Coffee, a UK coffee chain, to develop a beverage named Cortado for the Chinese market.

Driving growth in China has become a priority for leading spirts labels such as Diageo and Pernord Ricard, a multinational beverages group based in France. Even Chinese companies that produce baijiu, which has 99 per cent of market share in the spirits category, has felt the pain.

Upmarket brands have cut prices by nearly 50 per cent, according to a 2014 report released by Mintel Group Ltd, the global market research firm based in the UK.

In the wine industry, the impact has been more pronounced, despite the fact that China consumed 155 million cases in 2013, making it the world's No 1 market. France and Italy are just behind. The slow growth in beer sales is another problem as the sector has reached saturation point.

"(Yet,) while luxury and premium drinks have been affected, midrange products targeting the mass market have seen a surge," Mintel reported. "The market is moving from a business-driven model to a consumer-centric model, with socializing with friends and family the top two occasions (when alcoholic drinks are consumed)."

Breaking down the numbers, Mintel found that certain kinds of alcohol are more attractive to women than men in China.

Wine is favoured by 71 per cent of women compared to 66 per cent of men. As for champagne, 37 per cent of women prefer the drink compared to 30 per cent of men, while cocktails are favoured by 33 per cent of women compared to 26 per cent of men.

Still, tapping into the female market will be challenging. David Zhang, a senior drinks analyst at Mintel, pointed to the fact that women prefer to drink at home.

"That makes it difficult to identify female consumer drinking habits," he said.

In terms of products, lighter, sweeter and niche types of alcoholic drinks stand out for women consumers, according to Mintel. As for venues, Western-style restaurants offer a rare opportunity for brands to reach female drinkers.

"Women are more likely to have an alcoholic drink in such venues compared with their male counterparts," Zhang said. "Consequently, brands should benefit from establishing partnership with such venues to offer female consumers an all-around experience."