In high spirits: why non-alcoholic drinks deserve their own set of marketing rules

The non-alcoholic drinks market is growing – and fast. With more than 300 established brands now in the category, 1HQ creative director Laurent Robin-Prevallee asks if it’s time to reframe the language used within the category and give non-alcoholic drinks their own set of marketing rules.

“In a society where people feel increasingly confident to not drink alcohol at all (and feel proud about that choice), could now be the perfect moment for low or no-alcohol brands to break away from the perceived marketing successes of the alcohol industry?

What if brands and products broke away from those alcoholic roots, instead carving their own niche away from the established look and feel of alcoholic drinks? The current societal zeitgeist has created the perfect – some may say unmissable – opportunity for non-alcoholic spirits to create a beautiful and uniquely distinctive category and identity of their own. I’ll cheers to that.

Our world is changing and we are adapting just as quickly. Traditionally in the spirits market, there are some strong and accepted category rules for each individual drink, that are replicated by their non-alcoholic counterpart. It feels a bit, dare I say it, lazy. As a designer with experience in creating and crafting bottles for sprits, I say let’s forget those rules, and encourage fresh new ideas for our non-alcoholic lines.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could create a new category with its own set of rules for the non-alcoholic marketplace, all while creating meaningful brands for a meaningful future?

A fresh approach

No and low-alcoholic beer brands are a good example to look at. They behave differently to their boozier counterparts and are proud to own their low ABV.

BrewDog continues to be light-hearted with its positioning but is serious about the options it offers consumers. As a result, ‘Nanny State’ and ‘Punk AF’ – our best seller – continue to perform strongly. In the same vein, Budweiser’s ‘American Prohibition’ beer is a really smart way to connect with the brand’s heritage without putting a big 0.0% on the can.

The alcohol-free beer category has a stronger identity and more established position than the equivalent spirits offering.

“I can still remember the ground-breaking Kaliber ad from the 1980s where Billy Connolly claimed the beer was alcohol free”, says Andrew Philbey, BrewDog’s category head for alcohol-free.

Philbey also highlights that this shows how long the alcohol-free category has been around – he also points out that the current range of products available to consumers is the “best ever, as they recognise the improvement in quality”.

10 years ago, BrewDog’s ‘Nanny State’ was created to offset and offer credible and tasty alternatives to the range of new and higher ABV beers entering the marketplace, giving people a choice of how they wanted to enjoy a refreshing craft beer.

Regardless of whether you drink alcohol or not, brands have the power to encourage the idea that you can still enjoy time socialising without the sore head the next morning.

Many people now embrace campaigns such as Sober October and Dry January, which have helped pave the way for more alcohol-free spirits on the drink marketplace. It’s no longer a case of fighting the taboo of alcohol-free drinks; it’s a case of making sure that these drinks are given the same care, attention and creative originality as their alcoholic counterparts.

Getting it right for consumers

Taste appeal and tasting notes are key for craft beer drinkers, especially those enjoying non-alcoholic varieties. Talking to Frederik Kampman, chief botanical officer at Lowlander Brewery in the Netherlands, it was clear their non-alcoholic offering is one of their strongest sectors due to the pure botanicals they use. Creating a strong range of flavours is their priority.

In the last five years the percentage of low and non-alcohol products they create has risen sharply, with five different beers now on the market. Frederick also noted that countries like Spain, Germany and Australia are leading the market, with up to 25% growth in this sector.

A few years ago, while working with Diageo, I designed a non-alcohol RTD product for Gordon’s Gin. The brief at the time was to design something which would specifically appeal to expectant mothers, enabling them to have a drink to feel like part of the ‘party’ without having to announce they weren’t drinking alcohol and setting themselves apart. The bottle design focused on tapping into gin cues but had a language and identity of its own.

Consumers aren’t looking for carbon copies of alcoholic drinks when shopping in this market. There’s ample room for taking a new approach either in taste or in branding, to create a product that looks and feels truly unique.

Whether drinks contain alcohol or not, the enjoyment of a cocktail with friends, or a glass of something fizzy at a celebration, should always feel special. No- and low-alcohol brands need to work to achieve that.

The future

So now the question is, if alcohol-free beer has been able to establish itself as a strong and distinct market, why can’t low- and non-alcohol spirits create a category of their own?

Alcoholic spirits have strong and established category cues; Whiskies have bulging necks reminiscent of the copper still in which they are created. Vodka bottles are traditionally tall and elegant, and gin has more of a 3/4 proportion. After all, design exists to improve brands and help them to create desirable and compelling stories of new product innovation.

And so, non-alcohol spirits have a wealth of cues to draw on to make a non-alcohol alternative instantly recognisable. But the buck shouldn’t stop there. Brands in this sector should go beyond the established labels and bottles to create unique products; perhaps they could take the light-hearted, witty approach of Brewdog, or the focus on experimenting with taste as seen in the Lowland Brewery.

This is an opportunity to create new, exciting products; there’s no need to remain wholly trapped in the trends of the past.

If they can set themselves apart, could low-alcohol drinks take over the market in the future? Probably not, but they can co-exist in distinct and complementary ways. The market is there; brands just need to be brave, original, and experimental to shine within it. Go on, have another one…

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