Getting in with the gin-crowd

It's the turn of trendy young things to be targeted by drinks companies.
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The Independent Online
Question: what do Andrew Lloyd Webber, the patrons of a hip-hop club in Soho and the cookery writer Delia Smith have in common?

Answer: they're not cool enough to be seen drinking a certain brand of gin.

What you drink is a matter of choice, but the difference these days is that you don't choose the drink - the drink chooses you. That's the theory of the people marketing spirits, designer beers and mineral waters who are engaged in a fierce battle for the loyalty of Britain's young "opinion formers".

The battleground is in the galleries, studios, catwalks and clubs where the worlds of art, fashion, booze and bullshit collide; the weapons, not conventional advertising and promotions, but "under the line" marketing campaigns. Put another way, if the marketing men think you are young enough and hip enough, they will fall over themselves to fill you up with free alcohol. The hope is that you'll stick with that drink and that those who follow fashion, rather than lead it, will imitate you.

PR man Steve Hicks, 23, lays on up to four parties a week in London on behalf of Tanqueray gin - "the sophisticated, intelligent style leaders' drink" as he puts it. On Wednesday he will be at the Blue Note gallery in Islington, north London, for the opening of an exhibition of Sony products revamped by "cutting edge" artists and designers including Damien Hirst.

Mr Hicks prefers artists, designers, authors and products who are not such household names. "As a general rule, if I recognise the name straight away, I think twice about sponsoring their party," says Mr Hicks, who for a typical event will provide a mobile bar, drinks for up to 250 people and Andre, an all-singing, all-dancing, bottle-juggling bartender.

In recent months he has laid on parties for the finals shows of graduates from the London College of Print and Design, the Internet magazine C'Lock, the street style magazine Code and a host of alternative galleries and fashion shows.

"We hold very diverse parties, but the guests tend to be drawn from the same group of Londoners," says Mr Hicks. "There are about 3,500 people on the London arts circuit who really matter. The aim is to get people at the cutting edge of whatever industry drinking Tanqueray cocktails in an exclusive, relaxed environment. We don't do a hard sell on the drink, it sells itself."

Mr Hicks' round of parties costs Tanqueray's parent company, the drinks giant United Distillers, about pounds 100,000 a year. "It's very good value, and more effective than running expensive advertising campaigns in magazines," says Mr Hicks. "This way we know we are reaching Tanqueray-appropriate people." Next month he plans to expand the concept to Glasgow, Manchester, Nottingham and Brighton.

"Tanqueray-appropriate" is a phrase Mr Hicks uses a lot, along with "cutting edge" and "opinion formers". He receives about 30 applications a month for sponsorship, and turns down more than half. One recent applicant which failed the Tanqueray test was the Whitechapel Gallery in east London. "We looked at their mailing list and found it was full of people in their fifties and sixties," says Mr Hicks. "Not what we're about at all. And the exhibition was landscape painting - not very Tanqueray-appropriate."

Surely Beats and Breaks, a Saturday club night launch at The End club in Soho would be more, er, appropriate? "It was aimed at a hip-hop, graffiti, skateboarding, surf-dude crowd. Not the sort of people we're interested in. We advised them to try Smirnoff." The premiere party for the new West End musical Martin Guerre also got the thumbs-down. "We don't want the Andrew Lloyd Webbers, the people who have already made it," says Mr Hicks firmly. And Delia? Mr Hicks adopts a slightly pained tone: "We did do a party for Delia Smith once, because of other factors - a lot of important food writers and restaurant people were going to be there. But Delia isn't really our profile - she's a big turn-off for Generation X."

Mr Hicks' generous hospitality has hard-headed commercial motives. Drinks companies are worried about the decline in spirit drinking, apart from vodka, among the young, and are desperate to make whisky and gin fashionable once more.

The other factor is that arts events have become hip. "Galleries and launches are the new meeting places of the Nineties," says Mr Hicks. "Night clubs have become too big, too expensive and too diverse. People go to galleries now to appreciate what's on the walls, sure, but also to be seen and to have a good time."

Other sponsors active on the party circuit include Absolut vodka ("very in-your-face," says Mr Hicks); Martini ("for the beautiful people - did Burt Bacharach's party, top-end gay events"); Sub Zero ("new alcoholic soda; mid-range clubs"); Naya ("Canadian mineral water; big gay clubs") and Bell's whisky ("sponsor events among young academia").

Adam Dant runs The Gallerette, in Shoreditch, east London, currently showing an "installation" by Sarah Taylor entitled Dirty Knicker Girl. Tanqueray organised the opening party. Mr Dant says: "It has become quite common for alternative art spaces to attract sponsorship in the past three or four years. It's a quid pro quo. They get the free marketing, we get a larger turnout because free drink is a draw.

"As a marketing device I think it works, because people like having direct contact, a real encounter, rather than being blitzed with ads."

Absolut vodka provided the drink for the launch party of David Huggins's first novel The Big Kiss because Absolut got a mention in the book. "It was a great party," says Mr Huggins, "but I don't think that they realised the book is a satire on these rather pathetic people who are obsessed with style and brands. Certainly, putting free drink in front of people is a big draw - the obliterati came from miles around."

Mr Huggins is already working on his next book. "I guarantee that there'll be lots of drinking and smoking in it," he says. "I've got the launch party to think about, after all."