What Challenger Brands can steal from Alcohol

Stephen Bradshaw

Almost a third of 16-25 year olds in the UK say they do not drink alcohol, while declines in alcohol consumption among young people have also been found across Europe and in North America, according to a recent BMC study.

The changing lifestyles of the more socially responsible and health conscious youth market must be hurting the Drinks trade. To stay relevant, alcohol brands are responding in various ways and there are parallels all marketers can all learn from.

Watering down perceptions

With alcohol losing its appeal to more and more people, some brands are simply lowering its content when packaging up their product. In June Diageo launched the UK’s first ever branded ready-mixed gin and tonic made with Gordon’s gin, but less than 0.5% alcohol. Asahi Breweries have taken this less is more approach to a whole new level, with their sparkling low-malt and transparent Asahi Clear Craft beer. The psychology of making the beer transparent appears to be - what you can’t see, can’t hurt you - so go ahead and drink up.


‘Occasionally’ focused

Pernod Ricard’s recent response to claw back relevance from evolving consumer lifestyles was to shift away from a brand-focused approach to an occasion-based strategy. Pernod Ricard CEO Alexandre Ricard calls it the “five key moments of conviviality” and according to Forbes, these distinct ‘occasions’ include: Let Loose, High-End Drinks, Hanging Out, Out to Impress, and Sharing a Drink.
Among other things, this resulted in the Captain Morgan Cannon Blast, marketed as ‘the shot to end all shots’, presumably to cater for the ‘Let Loose’ moment.
(In my student days we called this ‘Friday night’.)


Speaking of occasion based drinking, is there a more obvious one than beer and footie?

China actually has an empirical answer to that particular rhetorical question. Forbes are reporting that the popularity of the World Cup was one of the principle reasons behind the boom in beer sales, estimated to be at 34% year-on-year growth (even with the price of beer increasing by 8%).
Tequila brand Patrón are also buying into these ‘occasions’ with a side order of social responsibility in their ‘Secret Dining Society’ promotion. Created in partnership with Douglas McMaster, a chef from zero-waste restaurant Silo, the food on offer promotes less waste and greater creativity, involving mainly plant-based ingredients to pair with corresponding tequila cocktails.


For more successful (and more unusual) examples of marketing partnerships, have a read of this: What Challenger Brands Can Steal from Travel 

Not all efforts to stay relevant work out as planned. The Welsh Brewery Tiny Brewing Company drew on nostalgia to appeal to their audience's inner child. The problem of course is that this also tends to appeal to any other onlooking children. Unsurprisingly they had to amend the designs of their Cwtch Welsh Red Ale cans after a ruling from the Portman group deemed that their beer can design could ‘speak’ to children.


Being social

But are all of these product, packaging and occasion based strategies enough to stay relevant to changing consumer lifestyles and stem the flow of declining sales?

Some brands seek to add value to the wider community and society in general to add to their goodwill.  

Indeed research suggests that consumers respond better to brands that display corporate responsibility, with 73% of people believing that companies should do more than just offer a product or service. A further 57% said they would be willing to boycott brands who do not share their social beliefs.

Audiences today expect more from brands than just commodities and they expect to be listened to. Stella Artois joined in the fight against social injustice with their ‘Buy a Lady a Drink’ campaign. In partnership with, and fronted by Matt Damon, the campaign has been driving awareness of the global water crisis for the past few years.

The ones who are doing nothing appear to think that by plastering “Drink Responsibly” at the bottom of a bottle or at the end of a commercial is enough. But with such a laissez faire attitude will they even be afforded the opportunity to engage with their audience for much longer?


Government intervention might have the final say

After much debate, the Public Health Alcohol Bill which was initially introduced by Leo Varadkar during his tenure as the Health Minister in December 2015 has recently gained momentum. In a move that Minister for Health Simon Harris has proclaimed as "a groundbreaking measure" that could change "the culture of drinking" in Ireland, the Bill has considerable implications:

  • A minimum unit pricing for alcohol will be introduced.
  • Segregation of alcohol sales from other products in shops.
  • Cancer warnings are being added to the packaging of alcohol products.
  • Advertising restrictions and a broadcasting watershed.
  • Advertising bans of alcohol products in or on public service vehicles, transports and busses.
  • Alcohol won’t be advertised in parks or sports events where children are present.

Restrictions on advertising come into sharp focus when reading through recovering alcoholic Jess Deeney’s reflections in 2015, on how he suspected online alcohol ads were being targeted at him due to his condition-

“After years of posting about getting sober, I began wondering if the beer ads I was seeing online were part of a deliberate campaign to get me to pick up the bottle again - I naively assumed that it was an error of some keyword scraping ad targeting bot that was capturing my tweets about alcoholism and recovery and decided in error that I was someone who drinks…[but] I began wondering if this was a deliberate campaign to get alcohol advertising in front of a recovering person with the hopes that I would relapse and become a habitual alcohol consumer again.”

Whether by accident or design, the fact that drink ads can end up following Jess around the internet is a concern. But the industry is making progress on their social responsibilities. Just last month, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube joined 11 alcohol producers in a promise to improve targeting and opt-out mechanisms.


Final thoughts

There’s a lot challenger brands from all industries can learn from observing the winning strategies in the shifting landscape of the Drinks industry. You would be well advised to pay attention as the politically charged and socially conscious millennial generation will inevitably broaden their focus. Sugar is another controversial ingredient that is being scrutinised, and how many brands could that affect?

To survive into the future, learn from the Drinks trade and ‘brand responsibly’.

And it just so happens that we have a tipsheet of advice on how to do just that - Download ‘Brand Responsibly’ Tipsheet below:


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