Brazil in a Bottle

Hamish Smith on the 2014 World Cup and whether it will be the making of cachaça

IT IS THE SUMMER OF 1950 and Brazil is the host of football’s World Cup. For the tournament’s final game, 200,000 Brazilians are packed into the newly built Maracanã, the largest number ever to watch a football match. Following giddying 7-1 and 6-1 victories over Sweden and Spain, and now facing diminutive neighbour Uruguay, Brazil is the overwhelming favourite.

These are the world champions, the headline of Rio de Janeiro newspaper O Mundo said of the Brazilian team on the day of – not the day after – the game. Ahead of kick-off the city’s mayor proclaimed “in less than two hours you will be champions”. A Uruguay player wet himself during the national anthem – and four fans died in the excitement of the day. Even by South American standards, emotions were running high. 

Ten per cent of Rio’s population witnessed The Fateful Final, and countless more Brazilians listened in at home. For an hour Brazil had gone about its business – winning 1-0 and keeping the Maracanã in good voice. The two Uruguay goals that followed silenced a nation – the second was latterly compared to the gunshot that killed Kennedy, such was its piercing effect on the psyche and confidence of a budding, hopeful nation. According to José Lins do Rego in Journal dos Sports, the fans that spilled from the stadium were “speechless, as if they were returning from the funeral of a loved father”. To Brazilians, this was their ‘national catastrophe’.

That is why World Cup 2014 in Brazil matters – this summer will be about Brazil’s long-awaited and very personal redemption. But it is more than that. It is a window into the Brazilian identity, imbued as it is with football and other joyful things. One of those is cachaça. The sugar cane spirit is the domestic deity that never could spread the word beyond its own boarders. So for its producers, 2014 has more than the one golden prize to aspire to – this is their chance for international recognition.

“Any major beverage brand group that misses this opportunity will be completely foolish,” says Cosme Gomes, founder of export-led cachaça, Bossa. Steve Luttmann of Leblon agrees: “The World Cup will put Brazil on the world stage, significantly increasing the interest levels in Brazil as a country, culture, and unique destination. This, plus the follow-on Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, will undoubtedly have a significant impact in the consumption of Brand Brazil worldwide. Just like the 1968 Mexico City Olympics for Tequila and the 2000 Sydney Olympics for Australian Wines, the World Cup and the Olympics will have a profound effect on cachaça, as people become interested in Brazil and want to take a sip of the culture.”

By all accounts, the cachaça category is contracting by a couple of per cent each year, but it is a goliath that won’t be toppled easily, currently standing tall at around 78-100 million 9-litre cases, according to the Instituto Brasileiro da Cachaça. 

The cachaça body’s chairman, Vicente Bastos Ribeiro, says exports last year stood at just over a million cases, a measily 1% of production. But with the world’s eyes firmly fixed on Brazil for the next two and a half years, we will never get a better indication as to the exportabliity of its spirit. 

“Cachaça is Brazil in a bottle,” says Ribeiro. “The spirit trade can take advantage of the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 – cachaça has the potential to assume an expressive share of the international spirit market.” 

Germany is currently cachaça’s top export market but, according to Ribeiro, this is set to change. “The market for cachaça in the US has been growing at a faster pace than anywhere else, making it possible that it will overtake Germany as the largest export market in 2014.” 

Joining the party

Especially, one would think, if the Americans contract World Cup fever – and go on to create an association between football and cachaça – which now, of course, is a legal term. Churlish as it might sound, the link between Brazilian football and the old moniker, Brazilian rum, might have been an easier sell – certainly in linguistic terms. But on the other hand, what better time to establish cachaça in the hearts and minds of the world’s biggest premium spirits market?

“Without question, Americans will be joining the party,” says Leblon’s Luttmann. “World Cup popularity has grown considerably in the US – the last World Cup in 2010 drew 112 million American viewers, with the final game drawing 24 million viewers in the US – 70% higher than the 14 million viewers for the baseball World Series, and 37% higher than the 18 million viewers from this past June’s NBA Finals Game 7 Heat vs Spurs.”  

Compelling stuff, but Luttmann’s not finished: “Expectations for the 2014 World Cup are even higher. The event will be held just one hour ahead of the US Eastern time zone, so games will be shown live during the afternoon and evenings, boosting viewership immensely versus 2010. Viewers from around the country will be tuning in to watch the World Cup like they watched the London Olympics in 2012. And the net result will be an enormous interest in Brazil.”

Having won the Legalise Cachaça debate in the US, Leblon must be thinking anything’s possible. “We’ve seen 15% growth overall since the legalisation,” says Luttmann. “It’s been a helpful catalyst in the education front, especially with bartenders, and provides a nice foundation and momentum to the run-up to the World Cup. It’s really given the category the credibility and respect it deserves. We have a significant new advertising campaign launching in key markets in the US. The main media will be outdoor, combined with digital and in-store, bar promotions.”

According to IBRAC, the other three of the top four export markets are Germany, Portugal and Spain – coincidently these are also football-mad countries represented at this year’s World Cup. Cachaça has had some success in the UK too – and if the British like anything, it’s themed drinking and football. Then there are the category’s South American strongholds of Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, which will have more than an eye on their continental cousins. All in all, for the 1,500 registered cachaça producers, there is plenty of work to be done. 

Bossa, a super-premium with relatively low volumes, is certainly on the lookout for new listings. “We are actively looking for partners to help us leverage the major marketing opportunities presented by the World Cup and Olympics to grow Bossa more quickly and in many more markets,” says Gomes. 

Luttmann sets out the Leblon masterplan: “We plan on being the drink of choice for people watching the World Cup in bars, homes, and pubs around the world. We have aggressively expanded our geographic footprint worldwide in order to be present and visible during the World Cup, and to be picked up by consumers when they are having friends over to watch the games. We have fielded our own World Cup team of bartenders from around the world – 11 bartender ‘players’ who will be joining us for a week during the World Cup. 

“These bartenders will apprentice at our distillery in Minas Gerais, participate in ‘Altinha’ beach football against a team of top Brazilian bartenders and, of course, go to a World Cup game. It will be a great way to get some top bartenders deep information and knowledge about Brazil, cachaça and our product, who will then spread the word in their home countries and markets.”

Delicate issue

In Brazil itself, one might expect to see the cachaça brands plastered to everything within sight of a television camera, but as Pirassununga 51’s CEO Ricardo Gonçalves tells us, it is a delicate issue. “I don’t have an interest in sponsoring because I can’t compare cachaça with the beer and motor industry. Cachaça is a very inexpensive product and sponsorship costs too much. We have to have a guerilla strategy for people exposed to the World Cup.”

In fact, the constraints don’t end there. “In Brazil you have a lot of restrictions on spirits. We can only advertise on television between 9.30pm and 6am, whereas beer can advertise any time. I don’t think this will change. Spirits have a bad image and lobbying won’t change the reality of our advertising laws.”

IBRAC is working on a “new plan for cachaça and its institutional image”. The body will communicate in all 10 host cities and in several states there are cachaça training sessions with hotels, bars and restaurants. “These training events will intensify as from the beginning of 2014,” says IBRAC’s Ribeiro. “We think for those that directly interact with consumers, it is fundamental to be well acquainted with cachaça. The focus is on the Caipirinha and its variations with local fruit, but also the way it’s served neat, in [other] cocktails and with food.”

Despite 51’s dominance of the Brazilian market (except the Ypióca-stronghold state Ceará in the north east) Gonçalves does not expect much of a sales swing. “We do not expect a change of sales during the World Cup. [Internationally] people will be curious about Brazil, we will have a lot of exposure and there will be more people interested as a result. But beer is the main alcohol of consumption for football. Maybe I am wrong and I will have a big bonus because of a surge in cachaça sales.” But Gonçalves says he expects “some incremental volume sales” accountable to new packaging of his mainstream lines, both domestic and export.

To progress, cachaça has to grow in a similar direction and speed to the country’s gentrification. The recent economy dip and political protests to one side, Brazil has become a wealthy, modern nation whose people are looking to spend their money on international brands more and domestic brands less. 

“The cachaça market is going to improve in value but volume will decrease,” says Gonçalves. We have to improve the image of cachaça and we have to improve the professionalism of the industry. It will become a more sophisticated spirit. It’s the duty of the main brand in the market to do something about the change of image. If you do not, you are not the leader.” 

With Diageo settled down to business with Ypióca, the category has been given a boost. “The growing involvement of large international companies such as Diageo as direct and expressive stakeholders in the process of reinventing cachaça is positive,” says Ribeiro. “Their technical, administrative and marketing actions have already contributed to the sector’s pursuit of higher standards of quality and compliance.”

Diageo is one of many that saw the Brazilian light. “It’s really starting to heat up,” says Luttmann. “There are now a slew of Cachaça brands coming into the market, all of which will increase the interest and enthusiasm in the category.” 

But, as Bossa’s Gomes points out, opportunity can be indiscriminate. “Just look at how even some Scotch whisky is now being dressed in Brazil’s colours to get a piece of Brazil. If that’s not a clear indication that Brazil sells, then I don’t know what would suffice.”

Brand Brazil in 2014 probably doesn’t require the country to win the World Cup like it did in 1950. In marketing terms, campaigns might last a year or more and aren’t purely reliant on what happens when men run around in long socks. For cachaça – and its star-player Caipirinha cocktail – to sell well during and after the tournament, the creation of a strong Brazilian buzz has to help, but really it is the hosting of the tournament that matters. 

“The fact that the World Cup is in Brazil will be the major driver here, and it’s more important the games themselves are competitive and entertaining,” says Luttmann. “No question that having the Brazilian team going ‘all the way’ would be an added plus for us, but the destination is the 80/20 here.”

The last time we were here, Brazil’s colours were not the yellow, green and blue that have become so iconic even Scotch brand Ballantine’s feels the incongruous need to use them. But so much has changed since Brazil’s national catastrophe, not least the five World Cup wins that came outside its borders and its march to modernity within them. 

That said, victory is expected. Just asked a Brazilian: “In 1950 we were a small country – it is much different and the Brazilian people are different,” says Gonçalves. “The silence of the Maracanã that day will not be repeated. If Brazil gets to the final, they will win.”

* Thanks to Alex Bellos’ Futebol, The Brazilian Way of Life, which provided the historical facts and quotes for this feature.