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Clamato juice is a curiosity

By Matthew Kauffman
The Hartford Courant

If it weren't for the tens of millions of gallons that people voluntarily consume every year, you'd swear the stuff was a "Saturday Night Live" joke -- a bottled drink that combines tomatoes and spices "and a great clam taste."
Clams. Now that's refreshment!
Welcome to the improbable world of Clamato, which stands alone in the supremely narrow "seafood blends" beverage category.
Clamato has been around 35 years. and it has shelf space in virtually every supermarket in America. Despite its ubiquity, Clamato has not caught on with the nation's vast Anglo market, although it has long been a popular choice among Hispanics. And therein lies a thorny challenge for Clamato's maker, Stamford, Conn.-based Mott's Inc.
Clamato plays a distant second to V8 in the "red juice" category, but it's eager to gain market share. To get there, should Mott's try to knock down what it dryly calls "the clam barrier" and go after the 98 percent of Anglo consumers who snub the product?
Or should the company devote its marketing resources to expanding its hold on the core Hispanic market, which, although smaller, has shown its affinity for Clamato?
Seven years ago, marketers at Mott's made their choice. And they chose wrong.
Clamato's brand managers never had a clear sense of why there is such a strong ethnic split on Clamato, and they tend to play down one widely rumored explanation: Clamato's underground reputation as an aphrodisiac in some Hispanic communities.
"That could play a role," said Georg Rasinski, Clamato's senior brand manager. "But I think it's the taste profile in general, and then being based on tomatoes. I mean, for Mexicans, tomatoes are just part of their diet.
"I think it's the seafood/tomato combination. Have you had ceviche? The seafood cocktail? That's a little bit where this product plays in. You see it all along the beaches. People drink it a lot in Acapulco. It's just part of the palate of the Latino, I think."
Whatever the reason for the Anglo clam barrier, Mott's figured in 1997 that if skeptical U.S. consumers would just try Clamato, they'd be hooked. So the company adopted a light-hearted 14 million campaign, with the ill-conceived tagline: "Great Taste. 99.9 percent Clam-Free."
But consumers, of course, weren't turned off by Clamato because it had too much clamminess. The psychological barrier was that it contained clam juice at all. Telling Anglo consumers that Clamato didn't have all that much of the ingredient that grossed them out was no way to move the merchandise.
But the company learned from its missteps, and in 2000, Mott's said "adios" to the general market, dumped its big ad agency in favor of a small Latino shop and developed Spanish-language ads for television, radio and billboards in key Hispanic markets around the country.
It worked, boosting sales by hundreds of thousands of cases and winning accolades for its architect, marketing director Omar Garcia, who developed advertising campaigns positioning Clamato as a social-occasion drink.
Mott's also has extended the line in the last two years, developing Clamato Campestre, with roasted garlic, cilantro and Worcestershire sauce; and more recently, Clamato Energia, which competes in the popular energy drink category led by Red Bull.
Today, although Clamato has just 6 percent of the "red juice" category, it has a 27 percent share among Hispanic consumers in the U.S., and that number has grown nearly 20 percent in the last four years.
But Mott's is still haunted by the clam barrier. While Clamato is strong in Mexico and parts of Central America, it is also a huge seller in Canada, thanks to a twist of fate decades ago. Shortly before Clamato was developed, bartender Walter Chell was asked to invent a drink to celebrate the opening of a new restaurant in Canada. He came up with a concoction that combined vodka, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce and mashed clams, with a celery stick garnish. It's called the Bloody Caesar -- essentially, the National Cocktail of Canada.

-The Hartford Courant