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Long Read: A virtual Christmas will pave the course for 2021

Published:  17 December, 2020

While big parties and large gatherings may be off the menu, premium drinks sales are still expected to grow this Christmas thanks to the rise and rise of online channels.

Callum Saunders, head of planning at brand activation marketing agency Zeal Creative, explores how blended digital experiences can lead to a ‘triple win’ for consumers, retailers and brands.

As we look back and reflect upon this ‘annus horribilis’, there’s no doubt we’ll be raising several glasses to toast family, friends and loved ones this Christmas. But unlike other years, many of those drinks will be shared digitally, as people seek to share bubbles with those outside of their bubbles.

Whilst supermarket sales have soared, it’s remained an incredibly testing year for the beers, wines and spirits business in the on-trade. But the rise in virtual social occasions and digital experiences has opened new opportunities in a time of unprecedented adversity. Not only has technology provided a lifeline to many on-trade businesses, it’s also opened up new avenues of consumer connection for forward-thinking drinks brands.

As we all prepare for a truly unique Christmas, many of the digital behaviours that consumers and shoppers have adopted will remain in play for several months to come. So, what can the drinks industry learn from this and critically, what can we take into next year?

The virtual experience economy is here to stay

There’s no doubt that drinkers are yearning for the return of the on-trade and the associated experiences it offers. But with vaccination a timely logistical challenge and the continuation of localised ‘tier’ systems, our thirst for virtual experiences will remain.

In many respects, this has opened up new opportunities to deliver experiences to more drinkers than before. The ability to engage in a few hours of online experience in the comfort of our own homes has suited many drinkers and indeed, added to their experience.

Continuing to offer this type of experience will be important for drinks brands and on-trade businesses, with many drinkers still uncertain about the safety of – or unable to visit – their local pubs and bars.

Deeper brand experiences

Wine tasting and cocktail classes are by no means new, but the context of this year has seen a truly accelerated adoption of ‘blended reality’ experiences. The shift to online has allowed drinks brands to engage consumers and shoppers in much richer and immersive experiences, providing everything from the social and historical story of a particular rum cocktail, to a potted brand history of a particular wine producer.

The fact that these experiential opportunities take place directly in people’s homes is also not to be overlooked. Brands and brand storytellers are being welcomed directly into people’s personal spaces and delivering meaningful experiences that form stronger connections between brand and consumer. A powerful brand ‘activation’ that should not be underestimated.

Building experiences in the supermarket aisles

Whilst it has largely been on-trade that has reacted quickly to the opportunities of digital experiences, this is something that brands can deliver direct to shoppers in the off-trade – particularly supermarkets.

Recession and economic challenges have seen supermarkets all accelerate an EDLP (everyday low prices) strategy, with many suppliers being forced to absorb the costs. As we enter a period of lower prices, brands will need to offer shoppers added value.

Promotional marketing strategies such as gift with purchase and prize promotions will still appeal to shoppers, but the ability for brands to offer digital branded experiences, such as taste tours or virtual experiences, is a new opportunity. Not only will this help to convert shoppers in store and drive sales, it’s also a key opportunity to build brand equity.

Retailer wine events

It’s not just bars and drinks brands that can benefit from this new digitally focused age. Grocery retailers house huge ranges of beers wines and spirits, yet category engagement often fails to extend beyond an annual ‘wine event’ or a discount for buying six or more bottles.

Exclusive digital events could not only engage a wider shopper audience, but also act as a key footfall driver. By partnering with an exclusive retailer, a drinks business could offer exclusive online experiences, driving footfall, incremental space and sales to boot.

Or what about democratising access to wine? The category has long struggled with perceptions of being challenging to explore, especially for younger shoppers that are new to the category. Again, online experiences provide the opportunity to change that, delivering education through the form of accessible entertainment, amounting to a triple win for shopper, retailer and brand.

Digital experiences are here to stay

Make no mistake, there are many behaviours that will revert back to the status quo once life itself returns to some semblance of ‘normality’. But in other areas, we’re noticing behavioural changes that are likely to stick. Blended digital experiences is definitely one of them.