When hard seltzers first appeared a few years ago, they prompted a gold rush. Every brand worth their salt hopped into the category, hoping to ride its initial sales momentum. Though still performing relatively well in its native US market, things are starting to cool. Yet still, the new launches continue. Now, as one major brand, White Claw, takes its first steps outside of the category by launching a vodka, we ask is there life in the old dog yet? Or is this a sign that the party is over?
A flavourful vodka launched by a hard seltzer brand? Ooooooooh the irony. Look, we can debate the merits and flaws of a category that markets itself on being low-calorie, low-ABV, low-carb and let’s be honest, low-taste as much as we like. However, providing a much-needed solution for consumers looking for a light, sessionable, lifestyle-compatible beverage was an open goal. And for some, hard seltzers provide a satisfying option. This global market was worth US $4.4 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow to $14.5 billion by 2027 according to Grand View Research.
While in the US, they have been wildly successful, other markets such as the UK have floundered. But now, a few years in, watching the next steps of hard seltzers brands themselves seems to be a useful health check for the category and an indicator of how and where things are going. And it seems the battle lines have been drawn, as well as brand spin-offs, it’s all about flavour. And not a small amount of consumer confusion.
Lately, there’s been no shortage of activity. First up, there’s soft drink brands opting in. Remember SunnyD, the orange drink that used to turn people yellow? Fun. According to its chief marketing officer, Ilene Bergenfeld: “SunnyD is a powerful brand, the most boldly unique orange drink on the planet.” You can say that again. So, what does a powerfully orange soft drink have to bring to the seltzer category? Well, some would say flavour. According to Ilene: “Many have told us that they enjoy SunnyD as a mixer and asked for this product. So, we looked at the hard seltzer category and thought, good, but we can do better.”
Even though the hard seltzer as a category essentially takes a non-alcoholic soft drink and adds a little booze, it’s a marked step change for a soft drink brand to join in, even more so for them to market themselves on being boldy flavoured.
Bud Light Seltzer is not a beer
Flavour confusion is something that Bud Light are also having to deal with. The brand crossover itself is confusing some consumers it seems. Running with it, Bud has launched a new ad campaign promoting that it is in fact 100% hard seltzer and 0% beer. Just a cute marketing ploy? Well, not really. It follows news that that 54% of consumers believed the beverage actually contained Bud Light beer. We can see why they’d think so, but it doesn’t.
And yet, here comes perhaps the most confusing brand crossover the category has seen yet. We’re used to seeing existing brands jumping into the seltzer category (hello Smirnoff, Corona, Bud Light et al), but a hard seltzer brand opting out? White Claw’s new vodka marks its first steps into becoming a spirit brand.
White Claw launches a vodka
Its connection to its brand identity lies in utilising its wave-filled logo. Yes, its Triple Wave Filtered, don’t you know. Apparently: “The first-of-its-kind filtration process uses tremendous pressure equal to three 30-foot waves to create a vodka with distinctive taste, aroma and smoothness.” We don’t quite know what that means either.
But here comes the kicker. According to the brand, it is taking advantage of a change in US regulations that means vodka no longer needs to be "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or colour". Founder & CEO, The Mark Anthony Group of Companies, Anthony von Mandl says: "We believe that quality vodka shouldn't be defined by what it lacks, and we seized the enormous opportunity to create a distinctive spirit."
It’s available as a straight vodka and a line of flavoured variants. Cool. But confusingly, the brand has also launched a line of RTD vodka sodas in Pineapple, Peach, Wild Cherry, and Watermelon varieties, which don’t look much different, nor at 100-calories, offer much different than its original hard seltzers.
What does it all mean?
So, let’s be blunt…. It seems like the category is having somewhat of an identity crisis. Or at least, brand owners seem increasingly confused as to what to do next to keep consumers a) interested and b) within their brands. Some would say it’s an inevitable problem. When you have a surge of brands all offering liquids so similar, with branding so similar (step forward to white slim can) how do you ensure consumers keep coming back to your brand and your brand alone? Possibly, when you market yourselves on neutrality, you can’t.
Seasonal variants have been one answer to this conundrum. However, even here momentum and ideas appear to be waning. The star of Truly’s latest seasonal variety pack was a mystery, unidentified flavour, that it asked consumers to guess. Which feels ironic.
White Claw’s move however feels like an outright vote of no confidence. Though the category itself was created essentially by brewers facing dwindling sales who wanted an in on something mass appeal and sessionable, White Claw’s new venture looks and feels like it’s building itself an ‘out’.
Let’s ignore the positions of existing brands that continue to opt into the category for a second. White Claw now raises an interesting question; are the brand names and identities unique to hard seltzers now stronger than the category itself? Though Bud Light’s identity crisis campaign seems to decidedly say that no, they’re not, it sure looks like White Claw is hoping so. White Claw Premium Vodka seems to be the canary in the coal mine and a clear indicator that – to quote the incredible Whoopi Goldberg for no reason at all, other than that we wanted to - hard seltzers, you in danger girl.
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