With alcohol consumption declining, brand experience is more important than ever

17 December, 2019 Share socially

The festive season is now upon us, and along with the party invites comes an expectation to partake in a few seasonal drinks - cocktails in the run up to Christmas, champagne or a dry sherry on the day and pretty much anything goes on Hogmany or New Years' Eve. However, in recent years there has been a societal shift towards promoting good health, body strength and fitness led by millennials and reinforced by public health campaigns. Attitudinal changes - especially amongst the younger generation - towards excessive alcohol consumption have forced governments across the world to take action by introducing measures to restrict the public’s consumption of alcohol. These changes are widely welcomed but what does it mean for the future of the beverage industry which needs to find new ways to promote their products?

Alcohol types are different by nature – wines are noble and traditional; beers are fun and relaxed; and spirits are exotic and social – and regardless of their proof, they share the same big opportunity: to meet the gourmand needs of the (new) consumers. Quality is winning over quantity, people are drinking less but better. So, it is no longer enough to describe them in simple terms e.g. “a” beer, “a” wine or “a” liqueur. Consumers want to know more about the raw materials, the provenance, the traditions and the peculiarities which are woven together to create the story of the drink. Each of these alcoholic beverages face specific market challenges.

Let's talk about wine

Marketing wise, wine is an anomaly: it’s an artisanal product which marries classical brand elements with its region of origin. This leaves the average consumer confused and slightly intimidated when faced with a myriad of choice on the supermarket wine aisle. France is the biggest wine producer in the world, forecast to produce 43.4 million hectolitres in 2019 but in Italy alone there are 265.000 wine producers, so with all this variety how can people choose the right wine to pair with their dinner?

The only way to understand and appreciate wine is to build your knowledge and a good way to start is by focusing on wines by their region of provenance. Select a label from a territory that you know yourself, maybe from a pleasant trip or have heard of because someone you trust has recommended it. The story of the territory - the origin - is the beginning of an amazing journey of discovery, a personal experience that helps to make a wine type and its producer stand out from the crowd.

Wine producers build a rich narrative of "how" and "where" wines are produced to market themselves but they combine this by simplifying the label, creating visual codes to aid recognition of the wine type. The Chianti Consortium have successfully done it by introducing their iconic black rooster to all their wine labels. An effective way to brand an entire region. The Amarone wine producers have chosen another way: they use consistent visual codes inspired by the territory, for example the cornucopia, which frequently appears on labels for this noble red wine. Prosecco needs to do it too in order to leverage on its success over the last few years, and moreover to protect itself from imitations.

Let's talk about beer

There is no doubt that the beer industry has been booming in recent years. The UK beer market has seen growth of 2.6% in 2018 (the biggest increase for 45 years) and Italy has doubled its beer consumption in just a few years. It is a simple product that expresses the spirit and the culture of the place where it's produced, even when it's an industrial product. From new, start-up breweries to established names innovating with limited editions, collaborations and on-trend styles and flavours - the sheer number of breweries mean that there's little chance of consumers getting bored. That said, are we at saturation point? Not at all. The age of experimentation may be coming to an end and we are finally going back to the origins. This doesn’t mean that the hundreds of micro-craft breweries will disappear, on the contrary, beer will go back to being beer again. Craft beer has helped raise quality across the industry - walk into any pub and you'll be able to find a great tasting beer from at least one of the craft beer big players (Camden, Meantime, BrewDog) as well as some interesting smaller breweries.

Through small-scale production and a DIY approach, craft beer has shaped a more utilitarian approach to beer packaging design. Simple, off-the-shelf bottles and the reinvention of the humble 'can' shed the stigma around the format. The can is the ideal way to package and transport beer; it’s a more sustainable and stable way of keeping beer in its best condition and it allows smaller breweries to package their products. There are even mobile canning operators to package and label on behalf of the micro brewers. As my London based colleague Leon de Ste Croix, Creative Director says it feels like the can has become the record sleeve of our time. Highly disruptive, creative and culturally relevant design, with a more nuanced and playful approach to branding. Many craft brands simply ignore the residual 'beer' design codes.

With alcohol consumption declining, brand experience is more important than ever
It feels like the can or bottle has become the record sleeve of our time. [They feature] highly disruptive, creative and culturally relevant design with a more nuanced and playful approach to branding. Many craft brands simply ignore the residual ‘beer’ design codes.
Leon de Ste Croix
Creative Director at FutureBrand London

So what impact might all of this have on the design of craft brewed products in the future? Leon continues: “Aesthetically speaking craft has always been an eclectic and vibrant mash up of styles and design and I see this continuing as culture evolves. We might see craft adopting a more sustainable approach to pack or delving into formats that drive differentiation.”

Moving forward, authenticity and a focus on origin is the future, and knowing how to do things properly makes it gourmet. Heineken’s 'Ichnusa', the beer produced in Sardinia, is an authentic expression of a beautiful and wild land and has become the brand of reference for unfiltered lagers. Tomorrow, breweries that know how to tell the story of the uniqueness of a region will win over consumers. Rather than focusing solely on creating complex craft beers, it's now time to rediscover real places and their stories.

Let's talk about spirits

Spirits more than any other alcoholic beverage have always been linked to aspiration: the key to a glossy world made of exclusive parties and stiletto heels. Sadly (or not) that era and the connotations associated with it are out of step with the times. Today, consumers want to know what goes into their spirits and they are willing to experiment with the exotic or unusual taste combinations. Gin is certainly having a moment, from the Amuerte coca leaf gin to the Mediterranean Mare gin and every other permutation the juniper berry can be found in. Real connoisseurs are seeking out rare varieties of vodka produced in small and remote lands and passing up a traditional dram from the Highlands for the Japanese Nikka whiskey, even splurging on exotic and fine liqueurs like the Chinese Moutai - it seems that the spirits industry is busy creating sophisticated legends. The new generation of spirits is fascinating and intriguing, and equally dedicated to meet the needs of the sophisticated bar tender, leading chef or discerning consumer. They offer premium experiences. Moments to be instagrammed and shared as proof of the consumer’s good taste.

However, as consumption of alcohol is predicted to continue declining globally, the brands that can successfully add a sense of gourmet pleasure and discovery to their products are more likely to survive. The 2019 FutureBrand Country Index underlines the importance of the "Made In" factor for the promotion and success of products from a region or country. All brands are trying to reinforce their brand experience, making it "physical" but leveraging the value of origin gives brands the opportunity to capitalise on real experiential elements. The opportunity is for brands to create a rich concentric narrative that begins with their place of origin, passes through their heritage and traditions, and finally reaches the end product – one which delights and surprises. The key to success is to keep it real and consistent.

I'll raise a glass to that.

Excerpts of this article appeared in Packaging News and the full article ran in Mark Up