Devil’s Advocate: What Wine Brands Could Learn From Aperol

Robert Joseph considers the success of the world's favourite orange-pink alcoholic drink.

Reading time: 3m 30s

Robert Joseph - with horns
Robert Joseph - with horns

If I have two memories of Vinitaly 2024 in Verona, one is of the increasingly enthusiastic promotion of greenness and authenticity by the exhibitors at this huge, nearly exclusively Italian, trade exhibition. The other is of the similarly visible popularity during the evenings of one orange-hued drink: Aperol Spritz.

I must confess that, while I was aware that Aperol has been pretty successful, I had little idea of just how successful it has been.

When the Campari Group bought the brand in 2003, it was a substantial business, but still just one of a number of amaro – bitters – brands. Its distribution was largely centered around Venice and the Veneto region, and its turnover was under €50m, compared to around €180m for Campari and Campari Soda which jointly contributed just over a quarter of the Campari group’s €714m revenue.

Two decades later, the group’s sales have risen to just under €3bn, and the bitters brands have switched places. Aperol now sells twelve times as many bottles as it did, and last year’s 360m bottle tally could see an increase of another 100m when a new bottling line – the seventh – comes on line.  Now it’s Aperol that brings in nearly a quarter of the cash, with Campari managing just 11%. And that gap seems set to continue to grow, with global demand for Aperol going up by 24% per year.

Sweeter and less bitter

This kind of performance takes effort and skill. First, of course there is the product. Aperol may have been created in 1919 by the Barbieri brothers in Padua, but despite claims that the recipe has remained unchanged, I doubt they’d recognise the drink people are enjoying today. As a true amaro, their version would almost certainly have been less sweet and both more bitter and more alcoholic than its current 11%.

Would the colour also have been less orange? The Barbieris would certainly have created it with powdered cochineal beetles whereas, vegans may be happy to learn, Campari replaced the insects with a dye called Red#40. Now, because of European health concerns, the favoured colorant is E120.

Like many vermouth and amaro producers of their day, the Barbieris commissioned eye-catching posters. A century later, the Campari group relied on events that were sure to get as much social media coverage as possible. Glitzy opportunities in 2016 included the New York Governors Ball and California’s Eat See Hear and KAABOO festivals.

That same year, Campari set up a dedicated office in the UK, with 42 employees. As Nick Williamson, its head of marketing, told Marketing Week, the company was using a dozen different online channels to direct potential Aperol drinkers to a pub or bar. And that didn’t come cheap. “it was costing us maybe £15-20 [$19-25] per person” Williamson recalled. By 2018, that figure had dropped to £2.50 ($3.15) – still an unimaginable figure for almost any wine brand. More recently, since 2021 there has been the opening of Terazza Aperol bars in Venice and Milan and, last year and this, at the Coachella festival in the US.

A competitor to wine - and a collaborator

So, why am I talking about Aperol? Because it’s an alcoholic beverage many wine producers and wine enthusiasts enjoy drinking – quite often on occasions when they might have chosen a glass of fermented grape juice. It is also regularly blended with Prosecco, so one might reasonably say that it is a fairly significant contributor to the wine business. It has tapped into the popularity of cocktails as ‘fun’ drink.

Crucially, none of this has been driven by the kind of ‘storytelling’ the wine industry favours. Nor is it all about the ‘authenticity’ or greenness that was proclaimed by the wine brands at Vinitaly. Ask any of the people drinking an Aperol Spritz where the bitters component was made, or how and with what ingredients and level of sustainability, and I’ll bet you won’t get many satisfying responses.

They choose to buy Aperol because of the way it tastes and looks - and possibly not always in that order. And, crucially, they are happy to pay a price for it that allows Campari to do a lot of marketing while still making a very decent profit.

Are there any wines that have pulled off this kind of trick? Yes, of course there are. Two of them are called Veuve Clicquot Champagne and Whispering Angel Rosé. Are these the finest examples of their category? Do they represent value for money when compared to other alternatives? Would Aperol buyers do better to pick up a supermarket private label effort for a third of the price?

You know the answers to all these questions.

Of course, it is not easy to replicate Aperol’s success. Just ask the owners of a long list of spirits and vermouth brands.

Essential lessons to learn

But it offers a few lessons for anyone with the ambition to create the next Whispering Angel.

Ask yourself how significantly different and special your target customers believe your product to be.

Are you singing the same song as your competitors?

Can you give yourself enough margin to promote it and encourage them to see it that way?

Raising prices is very tricky, but could you make more by changing your distribution? Or packaging? Or by relaunching with a new name and label? This is all pretty radical, but big ambitions call for boldness.

Can you find a way to make it – or the way it is served or enjoyed – look good on Instagram and other traditional and social media?

This is far from simple for wine, but it might involve the shape of the glass and/or the look or the costume of the person holding it. There might be a really innovative, simple food combination: the wine to drink with olives? Or - and this will surely be a step too far for most - might your wine work in some kind of cocktail?

Are you thinking about the opportunities for potential drinkers to experience it?

This may not involve the expense of an event like Coachella. You might consider a local pop-up, or a collaboration with another product or brand.


None of which is to say that you shouldn’t be looking at authenticity and greenness. Just that they may not be enough to generate world-class sales.  



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