Creating a stir: Heritage and cool make the right mixer for Campari

Annabelle Williams
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Campari 2012 Calendar Launch - Unveil
Campari chief Robert Kunze-Concewitz says a mix of heritage and cool are essential in the drinks industry (Source: Getty)

Gruppo Campari has spent a north of €2.2bn since the financial crisis squaring up to its competitors with a string of acquisitions. In total, it’s made 29 purchases since 1995 and now counts over 50 brands in its stable.

"We have to face the giants of our industry every day," says chief executive Robert Kunze-Concewitz, chief executive speaking of the group's battle as it ranks as the sixth largest premium spirits company in the world.

The scale of the acquisitions are "startling since we’re based in Italy and it’s not exactly the healthiest economy in the world,” says Kunze-Concewitz, a youthful-looking 48-year old.

Italy may be Campari's home, but the warpath its followed has taken it a long way from its roots in 1860 as brewer of the eponymous bitter spirit in Northern Italy. Its drinks are sold in 190 countries.

Campari prides itself on acquiring beverages which have the potential to become iconic brands. All of its acquisitions have a mix of two essential elements – heritage and cool. The one begets the other. Flagship brands include Kentucky-born Wild Turkey bourbon, San Francisco’s Skyy vodka, Italy’s Aperol, and Appleton Estate Jamaican rum. Campari also owns everything from London dry gin to frangelico, ouzo and Irish honey liqueur.

The plan is still to grow Gruppo Campari half through organic growth and half through acquisitions, so there will likely be more to come.

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Aperol is the biggest success. The orange tipple mixed with prosecco has been drunk as an aperitif in three Italian cities for 90 years. Venice, Padova and Treviso accounted for three million litres drunk annually. Bought by Campari in 2003, it’s ridden a global trend for lower alcohol, spritzer drinks. “We took it from an obscure drink and now we’re painting the world orange,” Kunze-Concewitz says.

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The most recent acquisition, Grand Marnier in June this year, will take at least two or three years to get going. “In US cocktail culture it’s in there. Around the rest of the world, particularly Europe, it’s mostly used in cooking. I have nothing against that but we want to get the liquid back in glasses,” he says.

Spirits are a kaleidoscopic world where the top 10 brands account for only 15 per cent of market share. So there’s plenty of room for reshuffling the popular brands.

Campari’s invested significantly in the next great trend – “aged liquids” – and of these bourbon is set to be the big one. Or at least, it is according to the “top and edgy” San Francisco mixologists he’s always mentioning. He speaks of the “right bars” in the East Coast city as the place where cocktail innovation comes from. Artichoke bitters, for example, are popular across the pond. London, apparently, is one step behind.

Read more: Why the creme de la creme of cocktails come from London

But we do have Shoreditch. It’s a place Kunze-Concewitz speaks of highly, and where Campari has heavily focused its marketing efforts. Last year it painted the top of Shoreditch High Street red for a whole month, turning it into a “red night district”.

It’s working, it seems: “One of the hippest brands right now is Campari, in London, in Shoreditch,” he says. He’s referring to popularity of the Negroni, one part vermouth, one part gin, and one part Campari, stirred and poured over ice. With no mixer, it’s bitter as gall and two of them would knock you for six. “We are well poised right now, being in hot sexy categories with brands that are in the right place.”

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The Garavoglia family still retain a 51 per cent stake in Campari, something that’s “business critical in our industry”, Kunze-Concewitz says. Why? Because it’s slow work changing people’s tastes for alcohol – typically a trend for one kind of booze will last 15-20 years. The longevity of the family’s interest in the business helps.

“There’s one truth in this industry and it’s that people don’t drink what their parents do. In some cases you have to wait for a whole generation to wash out,” he says. “It’s not a bazooka industry. You have to be very patient.”

Annabelle Williams was a guest of Columbia Threadneedle Investments