Gillian Cowan, a 30-year-old Londoner who works in retail marketing, had her first Aperol Spritz last month when friends ordered the bubbly orange drink on a night out in Soho, one of the trendy areas beverage maker Davide Campari-Milano is targeting for the aperitif’s expansion. Despite its cachet, the concoction—a mélange of Campari’s bitter Aperol spirit, sparkling prosecco, and soda—wasn’t to her taste. “Maybe it’s a drink I would like if I was more sophisticated,” she says, “or had a yacht on the Amalfi coast.”
Cowan’s Aperol aversion shows the difficulty Campari faces in its push to make the spritz Europe’s go-to drink this summer. Aperol, which brought in 11 percent of Campari’s revenue of €1.3 billion ($1.8 billion) last year, has accounted for more than a third of the growth at the maker of Skyy vodka and Wild Turkey bourbon since Campari acquired the libation a decade ago. “Aperol’s been by far the biggest contributor to Campari of any brand,” says Jamie Isenwater, an analyst at Deutsche Bank (DB) in London. But the buzz is fading. In 2012 sales of Aperol fell for the first time in at least five years amid Italy’s economic slump and a pricing dispute with a big German retailer that took the drink off its shelves.
Campari has responded to the drop by ramping up advertising in Germany, Italy, and Austria while expanding to new markets unfamiliar with the aperitif. In Britain and Spain, the company is training bartenders to push the drink and has plastered billboards that illustrate the right way to make the flagship cocktail.
Aperol has been a northern Italian favorite since its creation in the city of Padua in 1919. It’s usually consumed as an aperitif of three parts prosecco, two of Aperol, and a splash of soda over ice with a slice of orange. The spritz’s low alcohol content, slightly less than that of a glass of wine, makes it an alternative to beer. “The drink is extremely social,” says Campari Group Chief Marketing Officer Andrea Conzonato. “It’s about getting together in the piazza before dinner.”
Italy’s taste for spritzes is a legacy of Austria’s influence over the north of the country, Conzonato says. The word “spritzer” comes from the German verb “spritzen,” to squirt, and consumers in the region adopted their northern neighbors’ habit of blending bitter spirits with local sparkling wines. The drink’s strong flavor, though, makes it a tough sell outside central Europe, says Trevor Stirling, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein (AB) in London.
Sales fell 16 percent in Germany last year after Aperol was pulled from the shelves of a retailer that refused to go along with a price increase Campari wanted. Deutsche Bank says the retailer was discounter Lidl. Campari confirmed the details of the dispute without naming the merchant; Lidl declined comment. While the drink is back in some Lidl stores, rivals that sell for 30 percent less than Aperol’s €10 ($12.87) have grabbed market share.
One bright spot for the Campari brand is Japan, Conzonato says. Sales there and in other secondary markets such as Australia and Britain increased 45 percent last year, vs. a 7 percent decline in Italy, Germany, and Austria. Campari is also eyeing Brazil and Argentina. The U.S., the world’s most profitable spirits market, will take longer, as spritzes aren’t a popular pre-dinner drink. While new markets will shore up the brand, Aperol won’t likely regain its previous growth rates, according to analysts at Barclays (BCS), who expect sales to rise 10 percent to 12 percent a year.
Still, the company is betting there are plenty of new drinkers with a thirst for la dolce vita. At Polpo, which sells Venetian food in three London locations, sales of Aperol now top those of Campari, Aperol’s better-known cousin, according to Managing Director Luke Bishop. The restaurant trains its bartenders to make the spritz and features it on menus. At its Covent Garden location, Polpo has a dedicated Aperol bar with exposed light bulbs and framed Campari ads. It even puts its own spin on the cocktail, serving it Venetian style with an olive and lemon rather than an orange slice. “You sell one or two,” Bishop says, “then every table starts looking and asking, ‘What’s that orange drink?’ ”