Back to Roots
The word alcohol has a long history. Arabic in origin, the term al-kuḥl (‘the kohl’) originally had little to do with what we colloquially know as the sauce today. The term first referred to a method of manufacturing makeup, among other things, via the process of sublimation and distillation, eventually it would find its way into Western vernacular to mean anything that involved these processes.
A couple of millennia later, and it looks as if the term alcohol may be meandering back towards its less alcoholic meaning. The rise of the low/no alcohol market, that of booze with little to no traces of alcohol within it, witnessed a whopping surge in grocery sales value by 25.4% to £164.6m — on units up 22.3% — [Nielsen 52 w/e 30 January 2021] over the course of a year.
Direct to Cup
This is just the tip of the iceberg, as Nielsen’s figure ignores an even greater elephant in the room — that of direct-to-consumer (D2C) sales. Indeed, during the pandemic, D2C had a bit of a moment. With everyone locked away at home, the D2C movement has been fast-tracked, and that includes the alcohol market.
“It’s the new frontier,” says Henry Connell, Co-Founder of The Uncommon, the first English canned-wine company which has also recently launched its own low-calorific spritzer range, “that, together with the fact that the things that you wear and drink are extensions of yourself, allowed consumers to express themselves even when in lockdown. People were looking for cool products and were generally more experimental because everything else was so mundane and dull.”
Expresso Martini Yourself
This was part of the reasoning behind our own work with The Uncommon. As Daniel Wade, Co-Founder points out, “Our social-first campaign for The Uncommon was built off our creative idea It’s Bubblin’ – celebrating the brand at its most expressive and giving influencers a platform to describe the wine in uncommon ways”. This synesthesia-inspired take on describing the wine’s flavour allowed the brand to communicate what the product was when it was robbed of the traditional methods to do so.
Indeed, the ‘instagrammability’ of these new products is one of the many factors that has helped this new market thrive. As the seltzer drinks sector becomes mainstream, design studios are tapping into ‘fauxstalgia’ and gender-neutral branding to appeal to a younger audience.
Out with the Old
Why a younger audience? Because the low/no market is by-and-large a younger gens’ game, with such demographics drinking a lot less than their predecessors. Berenberg for example reported that Gen Z’s are consuming more than 20% less per capita than their Millennial counterparts drank at their age.
In terms of design, the more gender-neutral branding reflects how different attitudes towards gender are changing within the younger demographics. According to a recent study conducted by the advertising insights agency Bigeye, half of the members of Generation Z (or 50%) agree that traditional gender roles and binary gender labels are outdated, whereas even higher percentages of millennials (56%) believe the same.
There are, of course, different and perhaps more relatable design choices at play too. Peter Brannon, the founder of the non-alcoholic beer brand Heaps Normal, explains how his beer is designed to look as beer-like as possible. “For me on a personal level, I wanted to be able to hold this beer by a barbecue without people asking why I wasn’t drinking,” in this sense, there is still a level of stigma to overcome in this space.
In fact, this stigma often finds its roots within the industry itself. As Danny Shell, UK ambassador of Lyres — a non-alcoholic spirits brand — told us, “If you’re not drinking, a lot of people who run bars think you’re wasting their time: in the industry, they see those who don’t drink alcohol as non-drinkers”.
Jason Clarke, Co-founder & Creative Director of light craft beer brand Genius Brewing, elaborates on the stigma, “The industry failed to know where to put our product. The alcohol industry is a very mature business, with an established range of products. When it comes to something like light beer, it’s a big change from the category norms (in the UK anyway).”
Healthy State of Mind
This initial hesitation, however, seems to be fading away. As the low/no market’s growth is coinciding with another trend that was already growing before the pandemic: that of health. Globally, people are looking at what they eat, what they put on their skin, what they wear – everything is open for reconsideration, and this is what is happening in the alcohol space too — something that has been long overdue,” says Jo Bisschop, Brand Partner at The Devant Drinks Company.
During the pandemic, Shell spoke of how he witnessed a shift in Lyres’ customer base. Earlier in his career at a competitor company, the market was basically only designated drivers and pregnant women. Nowadays, “It’s anyone from elite athletes who can’t drink before a tournament to those who just want to cut the sugar out of their diet. Then there are those who are more focussed on their own mindfulness”. Mindfulness Danny says, has been a “huge driver” of adoption.
Indeed, Bisschop even goes as far as to say that the low/no alcohol market is a “response” to this wider trend and that many consumers are asking why it is they even drink in the first place: “Is it the taste? Is it the effects? The social standing? Consumers are beginning to view it all through a different lens for the first time, and being mindful and healthy is a big part of that.”
So where does this leave the low/no space right now? “We’re about a year behind the meat-free trend,” says Danny, referencing growth in the plant-based food industry. As many would have noticed, the plant-based food market has seen immense growth over the past years, with sales of meat-free products having grown by 40% between 2015 and 2020 alone.
For Clarke, whose light craft beer is about being less calorific but just as flavoursome to regular craft beer, it’s about the market providing more choice for the consumer. “What’s happened in milk over the past thirty years is what’s going to happen in the beer market. In the early ’80s, skimmed milk appeared on the scene, and it was healthier than full fat but tasted bloody awful leading to not much uptake. Then came the semi-skimmed stuff, which I would say is what we drink most of the time, the beer market will go the same way.”
It would seem that the bigger legacy alcohol companies agree, with bigger brands across the board pushing low/no alternatives. In the recent Euros the main sponsor was not Heineken but Heineken 0,0, its non-alcoholic alternative. So should smaller brands worry about these larger corporates stealing their thunder? “Not at all,” says Brennan, “if anything, it’s proof of concept, and the bigger brands ultimately just raise awareness for the category, which is very much a good thing”.
Whatever you may think of this new space, it is undoubtedly a growing one. A market that sits at the intersection of health and wellbeing, the low/no space has been galvanised by the rise of D2C and a growing emphasis on personal expression. Plato once said that it was a wise man who invented beer, let’s see if the same can be said of those behind the low/no and new alternatives.