Once the remit of adrenaline junkies, night-owls, students cramming for exams – or those just trying to make it through the morning-after-the-night-before – energy drinks have always marketed themselves with a hard edge. But as formulas turn more natural, and brands are having to appeal to a wider range of more ‘wholesome’ occasions, that image is beginning to change. Have we now entered the era of chilled-out energy?
Some things just stop being cool. Drinking to excess, nipping out for a cigarette, or heading to the club on a Tuesday night. We all sort of aged-out of such behaviours. But with Gen Z more image and wellness conscious than perhaps any generation that has come before them, it’s unlikely many will ever indulge too deeply in them in the first place. After all, there’s a camera phone in every pocket to now record the moment for prosperity. Say cheese.
Working beyond office hours too, has also post-pandemic become generationally passe, as numerous think pieces emerge on acting your pay grade, or ‘quietly quitting’. Never before has a healthy work-life balance been more openly advocated for. Burning the candle, and the kudos associated with pushing oneself into late night work sessions where only an energy drink will get you through, appears also to be fading. Gone too is the heyday of the vodbull (vodka and red bull to the unacquainted), replaced by that of the kombucha.
And so, sports aside, the ‘living life on the edge’, and ‘burning the candle’ mentality that has always surrounded the marketing of energy drinks has now faded from aspirational relevance.
Changing lifestyles, changing needs
As such, the energy drinks market has found itself with somewhat of an identity crisis in recent years, with evolution a necessity. Though gamers and sports enthusiasts have remained as relevant as ever for energy brands, mainstream success necessitates a broader appeal. With wellness trends a real tailwind behind much of the non-alc drinks industry in recent years, it makes sense that energy drinks have begun to align with them too.
While market leaders such as Red Bull have done this by embracing seasonal flavour trends – from apricot and strawberry for summer, to fig and apple for autumn – other newer brands have launched that champion all-natural sources of energy, that offer a slower release. From clean and functional, to health-boosting, the energy drinks market has now well and truly embraced a little chill.
Alternative energy sources
One of the most simple and direct ways new energy brands have tapped into wellness trends, is to champion wellness ingredients. From mushrooms to teas, these alternative energy sources are being championed by brands for offering an easy-drinking, all-natural, plant-based boost without the energy crash associated with other products. And depending on the ingredient chosen, brands are claiming additional functional benefits, from boosts to mental clarity, to mood boosting properties too.
Energy brand Rambler, is also taking a more sustainable approach to its ingredients list, choosing indigenous ingredients. Yaupon, which the brand describes as “north America’s native caffeine” is said to offer a slow release, long lasting source of energy, with no crash. As the brand name suggests, Rambler is lightly pitched as a source of energy for getting out there, and exploring the world.
Pitching itself as an alcohol alternative, Iko Mate Drinks intends to offer a triple whammy of functionality alongside its ‘feel good energy’, delivering “the strength of coffee, benefits of tea and the euphoria of chocolate”. Again, the brand claims that its choice of natural ingredients, which include green tea yerba mate, delivers not just energy, but mental sharpness, calmness, improved mood and focus. Yerba mate itself is said to contain a natural combination of caffeine, theorbromine (the stimulant found in chocolate) and theophylline, which helps the body absorb oxygen, therefore boosting focus and providing a feeling of calmness, alongside other vitamins and minerals.
Seasonal shifts and momentary relevance
Mushrooms too, are being looked to as a more healthful energy source. Odyssey Mushroom Elixir uses lion’s mane and cordyceps mushroom extracts alongside caffeine, with the mushrooms said to offer an “adaptogenic fungi boost to cognitive function” as well as increasing clarity and focus. The brand says it aims to offer euphoria, mental clarity, and lasting energy.
New wave energy brands, like Red Bull, are also making a play to be part of seasonal moments, again broadening the number of occasions that consumers see them as relevant for. Yerbaé’s latest launch takes the long-standing autumn favourite, pumpkin spice, as its base. The brand markets itself on using only non-GMO, plant-based ingredients, and again uses yerba mate as its source of ‘energy’.
Its new launch again is aimed at the health conscious. According to the brand: “The truth is, those popular pumpkin spice lattes they’ve been serving us for almost 20 years now, are very pumpkin spice but just not that nice. They’re kinda like drinking liquid cake actually, with all the sugar, calories, and fat. We wanted our favorite fall flavor (sic) but cleaner, refreshing, and with more energy.”
Indeed, for energy brands, winning over new consumers who have always seen such drinks as hedonistic, sugary, and out of bounds, while also increasing the number of moments which consumers feel energy drinks are relevant to is the real challenge this sector faces. While brands have tackled this from a liquid point of view, it has to be said, pack design is so far trailing behind.
The packaging conundrum
Energy drinks have thus far had a very distinctive look, and pack design. Led by the key players, their associations with music, gaming, high-octane sports, and power, have meant loud colours, bold shouty fonts, and a distinctly masculine edge. So how do these new, more relaxed brands signal their identity and belonging to the energy category, while also signalling to consumers with wellness concerns? The answer may not have yet emerged.
While some have taken on the dominant black hues of the category – but subverted them with hand-drawn illustrations and wellness messages – others have taken up the pastel hues more akin to the kombucha category. Which could be confusing to consumers.
Is there an emergence of a visual identity of their own? Green so far seems to be a leading colour choice. And for brands keen to impress their natural credentials on consumers, that choice makes sense. Images of sunrises and fruit and other ingredients themselves have also emerged as a popular choice, as brands again aim to offer an evocative visual guide as to their place in a consumer’s lifestyle.
Though pulling consumers from traditional energy drinks and other wellness brands does make sense, the task at hand is for chilled out energy brands to convey their functional attributes to an ever-wider range of consumers. Our challenge for the sector as a creative drinks design agency, is for this new wave to come up with a visual language of its own if it is to truly reach the size of audience the category has previously been able to reach. And the only way to do that, is to be bold and truly disruptive.
Will the day come where we see an energy drink in clear packaging for example? We hope so. It’s time for these clean, all-natural brands to truly put their credentials on display, and lead a packaging shift as revolutionary as their new take on what an energy brand could be, already is.
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