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Friday Read: Can ‘healthy’ alcohol ever really measure up?

Published:  17 January, 2020

Rowena Curlewis, CEO of drinks design specialist Denomination, gives her views on the latest trend for health-inspired alcoholic drinks

We’re a couple of weeks into Dry January now, a month where millions of people abstain from alcohol, and the focus is firmly on the damaging effects of booze and the benefits of giving up. The message is hardly new. Health campaigners have been urging the public to stay off the grog for hundreds of years. Sober workers are more useful than drunk ones, after all, and the medical, social and financial effects of overindulgence are well documented.

So perhaps it’s surprising that a raft of new alcohol brands are looking to position themselves in the health and wellbeing space. Even though wellness and alcohol are unlikely bedfellows, we’re seeing everything from paleo- and keto-friendly wine to CBD-spiked seltzers, as booze brands chase health-obsessed consumers. Some brands are even advertising their beverages as perfect for a replenishing post-workout drink.

It would be easy to become cynical. But as consumption of alcohol continues to fall, it stands to reason that brands are going to look for ways to embrace modern thinking and shift units. (As many as 20% of UK adults now do not drink alcohol, according to a report from Mintel, and 47% of those who do have cut back.) But you have to think carefully about how you’re going to reach out to drinkers in this space. People aren’t daft.

The perfect brew

So how can brands tap into this sector convincingly? There has been a surge in consumer desire for interesting drinks with health-giving qualities, especially among the ‘smashed avocado’ generation. These are people who aren’t necessarily looking to cut out alcohol altogether, but when they do drink they like to think they’re doing themselves a bit of good at the same time.

Take ‘hard’ kombucha, the latest trend in the world of probiotic-rich fermented teas. It’s still a fairly new sector, especially outside the US, so when new brand Brewhaha approached us to create its brand and packaging identity, we were effectively being asked to define a new drinks category.

Our approach was to leverage the perceived benefits of kombucha while tailoring the product to compete with other refreshing alcoholic beverage choices. We moved it into craft beer territory with a brown bottle and crown enclosure, and created idiosyncratic personalities for each variant – Bearded Gymnast, Dear Leader and Mad Magician – to make a virtue of the distinctive nature of the brew.

Your good health

Other brands are taking a more traditional route. ‘Spiked’ seltzers (sparkling water with alcohol) are generally low calorie, low in sugar and with a low ABV, so the perceived health benefits are perhaps more obvious. Take the hugely successful Canadian hard seltzer brand White Claw, which has a firm grip on the health-focused zeitgeist. Its success hinges on the health-conscious social trend of using fitness activities and regimes to offset social indulgences.

MABI, which launched the brand, said: “The main draw was not ‘liquor in a can’ but instead a beverage alternative that allowed for social consumption without the previously assumed negative impact on health and wellness goals. We found that consumers ran races so they could go out with friends afterwards, or went to the gym in the morning so they could later sit on their couch and binge-watch TV. People took care of their health as part of maintaining a social lifestyle. Our understanding of the purchase journey meant that we saw that White Claw gave consumers a beverage choice that didn’t negate these previous exercise milestones.”

A mobile-first strategy allows the brand to speak to people pursuing different kinds of fitness activities. There are branded weather apps, for example, so they know whether to hit the road or the treadmill. Everything is set up to flex and adapt to suit each platform and user – but the core message remains the same: take care of yourself now and have fun with your friends later. It’s sexy and of the moment, rather than abstemious, virtuous and boring.

On the vine

The conscious drinking movement has also seen brands extol their organic and environmental credentials. Australian organic wine producer Fourth Wave created Tread Softly as a ‘next generation wine for the next generation of drinker’ in response to the increasing appetite for lighter wines that taste good, while having minimal environmental impact.

The semiotics of the labels needed to support the name, so the graphics are delicate and considered. It’s a daring, restrained approach, but the design aesthetic was developed with a softness that complements the brand premise and name. Overall, the work celebrates the wine range’s pioneering, eco-aware spirit and communicates that the wines are better for the planet and the consumer.

Be true to yourself

Crucially, brands need to have a firm grip on who they are, what they offer to this new community of drinkers, and how they convey that through brand and packaging identity.

OK, so perhaps it’s a stretch to say that alcohol will ever be legitimately healthy (recent reports in The Lancet say that no amount is safe), but it can have less sugar, fewer additives, lower abv. The trend for moderation is going nowhere, nor is the relentless quest by brands to attract Millennials and Gen Zers, who are drinking less but are still not completely sober.

Healthy drinking may sound like an oxymoron but, going into 2020 and beyond, we’re going to see brands use evermore ingenious methods to capture the hearts, minds and mouths of what is a shrinking pool of drinkers.