Temperatures may be soaring, but the drinks market is currently anything but hot. Looking around, there’s a lot of launches, but nothing truly new. With innovation either lacking or so disparate, it’s unlikely to make a category changing impact, we ask, why is the drinks market currently so boring?
September babies. There’s always a tonne of them. Because for every couple having an Eastenders style show down on Christmas day, there’s ten more apparently that are getting it on before a log fire. Ideally. Maybe. You can hope. The fact remains that, whatever the circumstances, people feel so ‘creatively inspired’ to make some babies during the festivities, that September ranks consistently as the most populous month for birthdays.
So, looking backwards it was amidst the post lockdown haze, the first flurries of freedom, that many of the products now launching from some of the biggest global producers would have been conceived. It was also a period defined by spiking costs, an emerging then outright war in Europe, and general jitteriness that they were researched and developed. In that respect, is it any wonder that the market right now could be seen as being a little…disparate? Okay, boring. We can say it.
What is actually happening?
Let’s look at the evidence. What do we see launching at the moment? RTDs continue to launch apace, but there doesn’t seem to be any consistency, key trends, or genuine innovation. Hard seltzer brands are still having a push. However, many of the brands launched in the UK in the heady summer of 2021 have already been retired from the market, leaving just a few ‘category leaders’ left. We can conclusively say that in its current form, Brits just don’t get it. Yet we don’t see the next iteration that they would understand yet emerging.
We also see some bottled cocktails launching. Which feels hardly worth mentioning. Nothing new to see here. And, good God, in a move that made us check we hadn’t hallucinated the past 25 years, and it wasn’t in fact still 1998, Hooch has just launched a new flavour. Knock me down with an RTD-heydey-shaped feather if that new flavour isn’t ‘Blue’. Hmmmmmmmmm.
Moderation isn’t cool, yet
We also see more tentative steps to create a moderation movement, with half-strength ‘spirits’. A number of brands, from Hayman’s in the UK, to Cut Classics in the US, and East Pole in Australia, have attempted to build a category around mid-strength products. Giving a better-tasting option than many non-alcs (allegedly), a better sense of value, and a way for imbibers to fully participate in social occasions but in a lighter way, the concept totally makes sense. Yet, they’re still pretty obscure.
In the UK, Quarter seems to be the brand putting the most behind the category. It launched Quarter G/N in 2021, and this week has announced its second product, Quarter T/quila. At 12% ABV, the agave-based spirit is said to give “all the flavour and experience you would expect from a full-strength Tequila, without the consequences”. The brand team, including co-founder Fabian Clark, claims that the launch was developed after being begged by stockists, following the boom in tequila sales. It all makes sense, but shouldn’t we be seeing more action from other brands here? Where are the big boys?
Meanwhile, there’s actually not that much activity currently in non-alc spirits. High Point recently announced a rebrand to Wavelength to better reflect its connections to the Cornish coast – and thus rooting the brand in a place and aspirational lifestyle – and that’s about it. Apart from some RTD launches. But, we’ve already seen plenty of those.
And there’s still soooooo many gins launching. The Cambridge Distillery’s stands out for interest, but at its heart, it’s still just a seasonal edition. The product, called Vintage 2022 Spring Summer does however spark a conversation on seasonality and terroir, and if these can be conveyed in a gin through different approaches to using botanicals. In this case the makers wanted to reflect the scorching heat of Summer 2022 using a “novo-dimensional distillation matrix” where temperature, time, and pressure were all adjusted individually for each botanical.
It's summer, so there’s new ciders. But guess what? Most seem to be ‘blush’, pink, berry flavoured ciders… of which we’ve seen plenty already.
Appeasement, not recruitment
Most activity currently seems to be coming from whisky, and though there is some genuine innovation there, most of these are truly launches geared towards consumers who already love the stuff, and know a fair bit about it. They are not about recruitment. For example, English whisky brand White Peak has launched a new liquid called Alter Ego, distilled with alternate cut points to its Wire Works whiskies. These cuts are said to give more fruit and add a different nuance to its peated flavours.
Meanwhile, brands such as OakPacker (which is sold through global travel retail, as well as in the US) is looking to make some noise with the world’s first air-harvested whiskey. To unpack that for you, the American brand has infused the product with air-harvested water, or water collected from the atmosphere. It sounds cool, but we remember Hangar One’s Fog Point Vodka which gathered the fog of San Francisco to make it. And that was in 2016.
Indian spirits are perhaps one of the most interesting categories in development that we’re seeing genuine momentum behind. And perhaps, that’s because there’s a formidable amount of investment behind it. And therein lies the point.
Thinking paralysis, or a lack of courage?
Have we reached thinking paralysis? Has innovation simply got stuck? How do we get ourselves out of this rut when brands are committed to playing safe with un-progressive launches? Category building takes big bucks and the backing of big brands.
Yet what we’re seeing at the moment are safe plays from the world’s leaders, whether that’s higher quality spiced rums (which have a proven market), seasonal gins (which have a proven market), flavoured gins, rums, vodkas et al (which have a proven market), bitter aperitifs (which have a proven market) accessible but premium tequilas (which have a proven and growing market), and aging, sourcing, and distillation experimentation in whiskies or else rebranding of storied brands to make them both cool and unisex (which obviously, have a proven market). No-one seems to be being courageous, offering something new, and moving the market forward.
And that’s a problem. Big brands need to back smaller innovations to truly build new categories, because consumers are fickle, and will get bored. While brands such as Quarter are out there, testing the market with mid-strength products, for example, it would take the launch of a mid-strength version of a well-known spirits brand to truly build awareness and recruit consumers to it.
Without a massive advertising budget, its incredibly hard to break through and tell consumers about your brand, especially when the liquid is genuinely new. And genuinely new is what is needed to recruit new drinkers, boost spend, and stave off a decline that is seeing alcohol-brands increasingly out of kilter with consumer’s changing lifestyles.
Maybe some of this thinking block, or at least, the tightening of the purse strings has something to do with the weird times we’ve all gone through, and hence during which many products currently hitting the market were developed. But if ever there was a time when boldness was needed, it is now.
And so, we wait.
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