TOKYO (Reuters) - Faced with a shrinking beer market at home, Japanese brewers are shoring up sales by targeting women with a range of fizzy, fruity canned cocktails, but the strategy hasn't been without some hiccups along the way.
Traditional disapproval of women drinking in public has faded due to social change, with more women in the work force, earning money to spend any way they want.
But attitudes have changed in other ways too, and brewers had to learn old marketing strategies that relied on gender stereotyping weren't going to persuade modern Japanese women to buy their drinks.
"I don't need the patronizing 'kawaii' (cute) in my drinks to tell me that it's appealing to me," said Yukari Hakoiwa, a 26-year-old in the clothing industry. "I would much rather judge based on flavors."
To tap the female market, brewers have focused on canned cocktails and other mixed drinks such as "chuhai" -- a word that combines "highball" and "shochu," an alcohol made from rice, barley or sweet potatoes.
Surveys show Japanese women prefer these to beer.
But first the companies had to get women to overcome their reluctance to buy canned alcoholic drinks, which many women here associated with middle-aged men.
Japan's No. 2 brewer, Asahi Group Holdings Ltd, four years ago started selling a "Dear Pink" series of cocktails in soft pink cans emblazoned with ribbons. It came in strawberry, mango-yogurt and other fruit flavors.
"Dear Pink" bombed.
Asahi's was a common mistake, and not just in Japan.
Other brewers' attempts to tap the female market have largely failed because "they typically try to appeal through stereotypes," said Spiros Malandrakis, senior analyst for alcoholic drinks at Euromonitor.
Czech brewer Aurosa, for example, started selling a beer in pink bottles this July to appeal to women, but faced widespread criticism for sexism and gender advertising.
After its own "Dear Pink" debacle, Asahi tested various can designs and names on both women and men for their new chuhai.
The result was a cocktail in a black-and-silver can called "Mogitate," which means fresh-picked. Coming in lemon, grapefruit and grape flavors, it also contains bits of fruit.
"We tried to come up with a design and name that women would reach for, but wasn't too cute that it would turn off men," said Tomomi Miyama, an assistant marketing manager at Asahi. "In the end, the design was kind of gender neutral."
"Mogitate," introduced last year, is selling well. It contributed to a 13 percent jump in Asahi's first-half sales of canned cocktails to 18.1 billion yen, which helped offset the 1.5 percent decline to 243.2 billion yen in beer sales.
With Japanese beer sales poised to fall for a 12th straight year, brewers see the most growth potential among women, about 73 percent of whom drink alcohol compared to 84 percent of men, according to a survey conducted by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association.
Sales of canned cocktails, which are popular among women, are growing, unlike most of the other alcoholic drinks brewers have to offer.
Suntory, the third-largest brewer, also had to tweak its "Strong Zero" chuhai after women provided feedback that the taste and design were too strong and made them reluctant to buy the product.
It kept the black-and-silver can with a fruit image, but added more flavors, including plum, grape and peach. The reception among women has improved, the company said.
Offering seasonal flavors, such as apple during autumn, is also popular among women, brewers have found.
A white paper on consumer spending by the Consumer Affairs Agency released this year highlighted the decline in spending on beer but increase in spending on cocktails and chuhai.
It concluded that "alcohol tastes are shifting."
As, indeed, are social mores, with greater acceptance for women to go out drinking at night.
Mikako Matsuda, 26, said she and her colleagues go drinking almost every evening, unthinkable for women of her mother's generation who were expected to wait at home for their husbands or care for the family.
"Drinking has become a normal part of my everyday life," says Matsuda. "I love the flavor variations (of chuhai) that give me something new to drink everyday after work."
(Reporting and writing by Chehui Peh; editing by Malcolm Foster & Simon Cameron-Moore)