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Nick Gillett: How independent brands can influence customer behaviour

Published:  17 July, 2023

Influencing consumers is something that all spirits brands try to do but it’s harder than you think.

It’s tight out there, right? Cost of living is up and affecting everyone as purse strings get tighter and businesses get smarter to protect profits. In the alcohol industry, many mainstream retailers are becoming less experimental with their ranges, stocking fewer independent brands, and sticking with the same big brand names where appealing discounts and offers can be served up to customers.

So, what’s left for challenger brands? In an environment where hurdle rates are up and timeframes to demonstrate success reduced, how do we keep competing?

    • Read More: WSTA diversifies board with four new members

We need to influence consumers. But to effectively do that, we need to understand the wider external factors that are also impacting them.

The slow, green transition

The environment is perhaps the most pressing issue in need of a change in consumer behaviour.

Imagine a world where consumers only purchase from brands that align with their values; the producers that aren’t harming the planet or exploiting communities in underdeveloped countries. That degree of behaviour change among consumers would force the companies with the worst environmental impact to change their behaviour and in turn clean up their act.

As it stands, we still live in a world where it’s cheaper for big businesses to pollute and pay a fine, as opposed to avoid polluting in the first place. And until their sales and profits are affected, that transition to a greener industry is going to keep moving along at a snail’s pace.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Conscious consumerism is on the rise and has been consistently so for around 50 years. According to a Deloitte survey carried out by The Round Up, as of this year, 78% of consumers say that sustainability is important to them and a staggering 84% of customers say that poor environmental practices would alienate them from a brand or a company (imagine they knew the full extent of the dirtiest industry players). Obviously, these statements are balanced out against cost, but with premiumisation leading people to drink less but better, there has to be an opportunity here for an education piece.

But how do challenger brands that are doing things in the right way (without greenwashing) engage with customers? What are the touchpoints? How does your customer absorb information? How nicely and concisely can you convey that message? Can you engage your quality independent stockists to relay that message for you? Answer these questions and you might just find a way to have an influence.

Is price drowning out the ‘shop local’ message?

Recent reports pulled together by Barclays (Lock Down Legacies and Leave Behinds – the Lasting Impact of the Pandemic on Consumer Behaviour) state that whilst local independent food and drink specialists enjoyed an increase of custom to the tune of 28.6% between 2019 and 2020 – that’s now being overshadowed by the cost-of-living crisis. That same report states that 68% of shoppers are now looking to reduce the cost of their weekly shop and 30% of people think the only way to do this is by shopping in the large supermarkets where ‘prices are lower’ and reductions more frequent.

That said, the ‘shop local’ message still rings loud in the ears of those that have come to appreciate their local high street, with 25% of those surveyed saying they value their local high street more since lockdown and 23% actively trying to spend locally, instead of shopping online.

So, there’s an opportunity here for the independent retailers in brick and mortar stores. Independent local specialists are where the true education piece takes place, where relationships are built and trust is placed in the hands of your local wine and spirits supplier who never fails to sell you a great bottle. It’s about engagement, educating on the wider issues that inform a ‘good choice’, be it the quality of the spirit itself, or the top-notch environmental creds exhibited by so many challenger brands.

Responsible drinking

The final factor that’s influencing how customers shop for alcohol is health.

Low and no varieties of spirits, beers, and wines are on the rise and people are drinking lower volumes of higher quality drinks. And this is all undoubtedly influenced by a rise in mindful drinking.

As an industry, none of us want to promote the reckless consumption of alcohol and we’re all happy to play our part when it comes to ‘responsible drinking’ messaging on bottles, etc. But we could probably do more in the way of taking ownership and shaping the conversation, whether that’s through promoting serves or being more forthcoming in consumer facing communications.

North of the border, we’re starting to see what happens when government deems our self-regulation a failure and takes over that mantle. Though they’re (thankfully) going back to the drawing board, the Scottish Government’s proposed bill to significantly restrict alcohol marketing in Scotland was a terrifyingly real threat, and one that may still come to fruition in some shape or form. What will this do? Well, I don’t think it will change consumer behaviour or eradicate poor drinking habits. It will simply maintain the status quo, allowing big producers to make big sales and stop quality, independent brands from entering the market – the latter of which, are more likely to invest in education pieces that stop antisocial drinking in the first place.

The world of independent spirits is, I believe, one of the most creative, ethos-driven, and diverse industries across food and drink. Producers of all shapes and sizes are doing great things and driving necessary change in the industry. If consumers knew what we know, supermarket shelves and at-home booze cupboards would look very different. And so, it’s a question of education.

We’ve seen the successes of local specialists in food and drink – the resurgence of the local butcher, cheesemonger, or grocer. I’m confident that independent spirits could ride that same wave. Yes, there’s the cost-of-living crunch, but there’s also an appetite for more information, to experiment and explore, and we need to encourage that and educate customers in a way that’s engaging and takes minimal effort.

That’s a simple enough task, right?