The frequently asked question, “What should I have to drink?” was the inspiration for Diageo’s flavored malt beverage (FMB) strategy. This summer’s advertising for Diageo’s Smirnoff Premium Malt Mixed Drinks answers that question featuring a “Fridgetender,” a portable bartender character who appears in refrigerators and coolers at the right time.  In addition to Smirnoff Premium Malt Mixed Drinks, Diageo’s FMB lineup also includes the recently launched Jeremiah Weed FMBs and Smirnoff On The Rocks, which is a multi-serve version of the Premium Malt Mixed Drinks.

Diageo was one of the pioneers in the FMB category in the early 1990s when it introduced Smirnoff Ice, the company says. Since then, the segment has expanded to include a number of new brands and products.

“After several years of strong consumer interest in this segment, we started to see a decline,” explains Abby Wise, director of innovation for Diageo USA, Norwalk, Conn. “But last year, the launch of Smirnoff Premium Malt Mixed Drinks signaled a step-change in what consumers could expect from an FMB — a more sophisticated flavor profile and a different drinking experience. This has caused a fundamental shift for the segment resulting in innovation across the board and a return to growth.”

Developed to provide variety and convenience to consumers, Smirnoff Premium Malt Mixed Drinks and Jeremiah Weed FMBs build on the heritage of two of Diageo’s spirit brands, but are malt-based and brewed like beer. FMBs are a key driver of the company’s beer strategy, which includes Guinness, Red Stripe, Harp, Smithwicks and the new Guinness Black Lager.

Recognizing the consumer demand driving the FMB category, Diageo invested in the innovation and growth of the portfolio, which includes Smirnoff Ice, Smirnoff Premium Malt Mixed Drinks launched in 2010, this year’s release of Smirnoff On The Rocks and the new Jeremiah Weed FMBs. The Jeremiah Weed offerings are the latest addition to the Diageo FMB lineup and, similar to the fellow FMB brands in the lineup, deliver on consumer demand for exciting and authentic alternatives to beer, Diageo says.

“Now more than ever, consumers are looking for alternatives to traditional beer and wine,” Wise says. “Particularly, 21- to 28-year-olds, the millennial consumers, are demanding something different.”

The company developed both lines based on feedback from consumers who show an increasing demand for new tastes and flavors, Wise says, but also seek convenient options.

For the development of the flavor profiles, the Diageo liquid innovation team also took the intended occasion into consideration, says Matt Sabo, director of liquid innovation for Diageo.

“Diageo’s new malt beverages are for social gatherings — when you’re with your friends, you’re relaxing, you’re hanging out,” he says. “When people approach cocktails, it can be intimidating. Our malt line delivers a convenient and refreshing alternative to beer that is very familiar and authentic.”

The standard of mixed drinks was a key inspiration during the development, Wise says.

“It’s interesting because consumers have spirits at home, but sometimes the effort of mixing a cocktail, of taking the vodka and the orange juice and mixing it up and getting the glass out, can sometimes be a bit too much after a long day at work, which is typically when we see consumers reaching for a beer or a glass of wine instead,” she says. “There was definitely this need for convenience, but also this need for a taste profile that is not too sweet, was refreshing tasting, and that brought that sophistication of a spirit to that occasion.”

During the R&D process, Diageo tests the FMB flavor profiles against freshly mixed drinks to ensure the flavors meet or exceed bar-made options, Sabo says.

Flavor development

The Smirnoff Premium Malt Mixed Drinks line includes familiar flavors inspired by traditional spirit mixers, such as lemonade, Sabo says.

“These are simple mixed drinks,” he says. “It’s not a cocktail. It’s not just another FMB on the market. It’s a simple mixed drink that you can see yourself putting together, but we’ve done it our way with fresh flavors. We’ve captured the authenticity of a drink you could actually create yourself, and then put a spin onto it.”

In addition to Lemonade, the Smirnoff Premium Malt Mixed Drinks line also includes two flavors featuring the “twist” Sabo mentions, including Cranberry Lime and Blueberry Lemonade. 

“Cranberry Lime is a good example,” Sabo says. “You might not sit there and say, ‘I’m going to mix my vodka with cranberry and a twist of lime.’ We’re going to try to add a little bit of complexity in the background that you might not be able to put your finger on and it helps round out the profile and raise the experience.”

The line’s Blueberry Lemonade variety also embodies that “twist” and was developed during consumer testing, Sabo says.

“The flavor combination of blueberry and lemonade turns out to be very natural,” he says. “When we worked through different mixed drink profiles, this is something that consumers said, ‘I never would have thought this, but this tastes delicious.’”

Building from the Jeremiah Weed line of spirits, the new Jeremiah Weed FMB line includes similarly Southern-inspired flavor profiles, such as Lightning Lemonade, Roadhouse Tea and Spiked Cola. The Jeremiah Weed brand resonates strongly with male consumers, the company says, so it was chosen as the host for the next development in the Diageo FMB innovation pipeline, which aims to provide a great-tasting authentic alternative to beer, the company says.

“The real difference with Jeremiah Weed is that the flavors that go into it are real drinks, which is a step-change for FMBs,” Sabo says. “These are things that a guy can grab and make himself.”

Wise says the authenticity makes for a lemonade variety that tastes like lemonade and a sweet tea option that tastes like sweet tea. For Jeremiah Weed’s Spiked Cola variety, the team spent time identifying preferences on cola flavors and then added a “twist,” Sabo says.

“We spent a lot of time with consumers to try and find out, ‘What is it that you’re drinking?’” he says. “We want this to be something that you built, so you tell us where we need to point our radar and that process works into us balancing out the drink itself. In the Spiked Cola, we included a bit of a smoky bourbon note to the background that makes the taste jump and creates complexity in the profile. The history of the Jeremiah Weed brand is that it’s a bourbon, so this keeps it authentic and true to the heritage.”

In addition to the authentic flavors, Jeremiah Weed FMBs are intended to be consumed straight from the package, which is in contrast to Smirnoff On The Rocks Premium Malt Mixed Drinks, which are best poured over ice. These serving suggestions are led by research into the occasions in which consumers would drink the different products, such as relaxing after work versus while watching sports or attending a barbeque, the company says.

Marketing authenticity

As both FMB lines build on existing spirits brands, Diageo is careful to market the products in line with their heritage, Wise says.

“With Smirnoff, specifically because it is such an iconic, worldwide brand, it has fantastic brand equity with consumers,” she says. “Consumers have expectations about the quality of the product and the high quality of the liquid, so our role is to make sure that we’re doing the right thing. So when we come out with a product, we are making sure that the product fits with the equity and that the liquid is at the highest caliber.”

The casual vibe that inspired both the Smirnoff Premium Malt Mixed Drinks and Smirnoff On the Rocks products is depicted in the “Fridgetender” advertisements that Diageo rolled out in May. In addition to setting the scene of a casual evening get-together or low-key backyard party, the advertisements also communicate that the products taste like having a bartender in your refrigerator or cooler, Wise says.

The Smirnoff Premium Malt Mixed Drinks were developed to taste “as great as a real mixed drink, but it has that casual vibe and the ease of a beer,” she adds.

In addition to the TV spots, Diageo also developed a “Fridgetender” commercial specially designed to run as a pre-roll advertisement when consumers are watching TV shows online.

“[The ‘Fridgetender’] is joking about how you can’t skip this ad, so we’ve got this time together and he tries to hand you a drink through the computer screen,” Wise says. “It’s clever and also speaks directly to the medium that it’s in.”

Diageo also released a new variety pack of the three Smirnoff Premium Malt Mixed Drinks flavors this year, which caters to consumers’ desire for variety, she says.

For the Jeremiah Weed FMBs, which launched this spring, Diageo rolled out the “This is Jeremiah Weed” campaign. The campaign aimed to fit in with the authenticity of the Jeremiah Weed brand, Wise says.

“The guys who are in the TV commercials are just real dudes, they’re not actors, they’re not pumped up for television,” she says. “Basically, our director went out with a handheld camera for a couple of days and just lived with these guys and captured footage and then we used that footage and made the ads. What really resonates with our consumers is just the authenticity of the brand and the authenticity of the spots. We’re not trying to be something that we’re not, so it’s about real honest, cool guys doing cool things.”

The videos, which profile a rock band, alligator wrestlers and 10-pound hamburgers, are included on Jeremiah Weed’s Facebook page, which has more than 136,000 fans.

The company’s immediate goal is to support the innovations, but Diageo also sees the FMB category as one that is dynamic and fueled by consumers’ search for variety. That search for new flavors inspires the team to continue looking at new combinations that are authentic and link to the brand heritage, Wise says. BI