Suntory revives nostalgic blend for retiring baby boomers

by Taiga Uranaka

For businesses from banks to high-end stereo makers, the expected mass retirement of the baby boomer generation beginning next year represents the birth of a huge consumer base with relatively deep pockets and a lot of free time.

Born in the immediate aftermath of World War II and generally perceived to be more curious and entertainment-minded than their predecessors, they symbolize both the good and bad days of postwar Japan — from miraculous growth to the hangover following the burst of the bubble economy.

Suntory Ltd. hopes that renewing a whiskey brand that had long been a subject of adoration for baby boomers will help rekindle general interest in the drink.

The company on Tuesday said it will start selling its Suntory Old with a new label and a more mellow blend on March 7, focusing its marketing efforts solely on baby boomers.

Suntory Old was first released in 1950, when whiskey was still beyond the reach of many ordinary Japanese. According to the company, a bottle was priced at 1,800 yen at a time when the average starting monthly salary of a college graduate was 3,000 yen.

When the baby boomers were in their 30s, Suntory Old enjoyed robust sales, driven by the practice of keeping personal bottles at bars and pubs. Old sold a staggering 12.4 million cases of 12 bottles each in 1980.

But due to the growing diversity of alcoholic beverages and younger people’s inclination for lighter drinks, coupled with the protracted economic slowdown, the domestic whiskey market has been steadily shrinking.

Whiskey shipments, including imports, are estimated to have been around 84,860 kiloliters in 2005, less than 60 percent what it was a decade ago. Suntory Old sold 510,000 cases last year.

Ironically, the price tag for a bottle of Suntory Old is lower than it was 50 years ago, thanks to a reduction in the tax on whiskey; the renewed Old will be priced at 1,510 yen for a 700-ml bottle.

As Suntory — responsible for 70 percent of the whiskey sold in Japan — tries to reverse the decline, officials say that luring back the generation that grew up with the whiskey holds the key.

“Our survey shows that 80 percent of baby boomers had drunk Suntory Old in the 1980s,” said Satoru Abe, head of Suntory’s spirits division. “We will fully focus on the baby boomers in marketing the (revamped) Suntory Old.”

In Japan, baby boomers are defined as those born between 1947 and 1949. Given their sheer numbers, there is a growing concern over the so-called Year 2007 Issue, when these people will start reaching retirement age.