There’s been an undeniable flood of RTDs launched over the past couple of years, with brands who previously never considered the category jumping in. But, there’s still a number of prestige brands and indeed, whole categories, that have yet to touch the format. As a leading Scotch brand puts a tentative toe in the water, what’s preventing others from joining in? Does convenience still have an image problem?
Portable, eco-friendly, more affordable, suitable for a wider range of occasions, pre-mixed in its perfect serve and in short, just better suited to modern living, consumers love an RTD. Bloody love them. We couldn’t find an equivalent UK figure, but Stateside, off-trade RTD sales have surpassed US$10 billion in the past year to August 7, according to NIQ data.
You might say it’s a trend that was accelerated by the pandemic. What was once seen as a slightly trashy format became elevated under the intense need for outdoor drinking options. And lo, train tinnies were train tinnies no more. The humble can, and the lowly pre-mixed liquid, became a staple of socially-distanced walks, picnics in the park, and outdoor parties. The brands rushed in.
Those days may already seem blissfully long ago – it’s amazing what a bit of PTSD can do to your sense of time – but it’s worth remembering that up until that point, many of the biggest spirit brands on the market had not touched the RTD format. And there are still those only just putting a tentative toe in the water. Why? Because RTD’s didn’t scream quality.
Bombay Sapphire only launched its first ever RTD format in 2020. Premium gin brand Mermaid – that of the covetable scaled blue bottle that regularly sells for over £10 on eBay for a completely empty bottle – has only just, in 2023, launched theirs.
So, it struck us with intense interest recently, when Pernod Ricard-owned Scotch brand, The Glenlivet disrupted the RTD market with its new pre-mixed cocktail line. A Scotch RTD; say what?!
Yes, if you’ve not already seen them, the Glenlivet Twist & Mix range actually does not do what it says on the tin. With cans favoured for single serves, and glass bottles for multiple serves, the brand has gone with the latter for its pre-mixed bottled Old Fashioned and New Manhattan; a can was likely a step too far. The twist is that consumers have to mix them themselves. But don’t worry, it’s very easy.
On the launch, speaking to The Spirits Business, Yogesh Gandhi, global head of innovation at Chivas Brothers, explained: “The Glenlivet Twist & Mix Cocktails use first-to-market patented Vessl cap closure and mixing technology. Consumers simply twist the cap, and the cleverly designed mechanism will burst natural flavours into The Glenlivet single malt whisky.” Simples.
So, a question… does this feel premium to you? It’s not a trick question. There is no right answer. Because the question really is, does this seem premium to consumers? Premium is a concept that is in flux, after all.
Like it or not, we all judge a book by its cover. And drinks packaging is the first, and biggest contributor to a consumer’s perception of a brand and its quality. We’ve become so used to reading products in this way, that yes, we’ll say it, some formats still feel a little trashy. Not because of what is in them now, but largely because of what was in them before.
Cans are a solid case in point. It took years to persuade wine brands to put their liquids into the format, even though it made total sense for accessibility, opening-up products a wider range of occasions and consumers, for the environment, and frankly, for the liquid too.
Years of using the format for the sweetest, cheapest, and sometimes strongest, alcohol brands had built a perception that whatever was housed in a can, couldn’t be very good. The massive influx of high-end brands into the RTD market should have put paid to that, but one look at who still hasn’t joined the category tells a different tale.
Who isn’t playing
Scan the RTD fridge the next time you’re passing and note the names you don’t see in there. Bourbons and mixers, yes. High end whiskies, or Scotch? Certainly not. The launch by the Glenlivet for that reason is truly disruptive, putting convenience at the centre of a concept for a Scotch brand for arguably the first time. So, is it convenience that’s trashy? Must we work harder as consumers to enjoy a prestige brand?
How about brandies and cognacs? These status drinks have an increasingly young, hip audience when it comes to the big name brands in the category. We see your argument that higher end liquids are not meant for mixing, rather they should be sipped. But frankly, that’s not always how consumers are choosing to enjoy them. And well, that doesn’t quite work when you look at the continuing cocktail boom the Glenlivet is targeting with its launch.
Also, let’s not forget that a number of brands have launched single or double serves of their neat spirits in can formats over the past couple of years. Two Stack’s Dram in a Can, being the most notable UK example (there’s been far more activity in the US in this particular space).
How can the category elevate its image?
So what will it take for RTDs – whether in bottle or particularly in can – to be considered truly premium? Is it simply liquid quality? Well, let us ask you, have brands such as Moth and Whitebox elevated the pre-mixed cocktail category with their high-quality, credible and much lauded liquid profiles. Yes, we’d say so. But aesthetically? Maybe not. It’s not just about a sense of convenience, and the low-brow associations in our ‘handcrafted’, ‘bespoke’ obsessed world of something being ‘ready made’. Here, it’s notable that Glenlivet’s gimmick is that the drinks are freshly mixed by consumers, well, the bottle. How things look matters. And here, no-one yet seems to have cracked the code.
Yet we know that RTDs, and the formats and materials used for them, are only going to become more important. Growing eco concerns alone, tell us that. From pouch refills, to paper bottles, the industry is still grappling with how to make cheaper look more expensive. Lone ranger brands such as Absolut and its paper bottles that are currently on trial in Manchester, and Sapling, Bullards, and Boxer Gin with their refill pouches may be tapping into consumer demand for more sustainable packaging, but – currently standing out so vividly – they’re arguably facing image and quality perceptions while doing so.
So, is it just a matter of marketing then? Of more premium brands joining in and claiming convenient formats and pre-mixed liquids, for consumers to have faith in their quality? Maybe. But better, stronger branding will be key too. The visual language of the RTD category as a whole – with its jumble of fonts, preference for cartoon-like imagery, mishmash of colours, and lack of a cohesive design language – currently makes it look fun. But premium? No. High-end spirits brands, it’s over to you. The category needs some daring, bold, and truly innovative output from those at the top, to turn this particular corner.
Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?
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