A sober message

With binge drinking back in the headlines last month, it’s a good time to consider the impact of design on consumer behaviour. Is it part of the problem, or could it provide the solution? asks Sarah Woods

Drinking has always been part of the British way of life. But the manner in which we knock them back has changed in recent years, landing us with the tag ‘Booze Britain’.

The Government is under increased pressure to bring in stronger regulations to promote responsible drinking, following a report this month by the House of Commons Health Select Committee condemning responses to binge drinking.

The Campaign for Smarter Drinking launched last year, operating in partnership with charity Drinkaware, which aims to support a shift in attitude to the way we drink without adopting a ‘nanny state’ approach. This is a tough balance to strike.

Designers face a similar challenge when working for the alcohol industry – how to create an attractive product, while encouraging responsible drinking? It seems the lines around this task are as blurry as the ones around us after we’ve had a few. The challenge can be met most effectively by ‘communicating with drinkers on the bottle and label itself, or the [in-store] “shelf taggers”, and through advertising’, suggests Brian Howard from Wine Intelligence, a global branding and market research consultancy for the wine trade. ‘The message has to be done at brand level and the design industry needs to resolve how to be positive about the product – and about drinking – but at the same time [must] communicate effectively how much we are drinking,’ he says. ‘Either brand-owners have to be bold and almost tell people how much to drink on the bottle, or wine producers need to align with Government and public agencies and say, “This is how we will express the message to consumers”.’

Working towards creating a ‘smarter’ drinking society has exercised the minds of designers for some time now. Wine design consultancy Barlow Doherty, winner of a Drinks Business Award for its project for low-alcohol wine brand Birds & Bees, is familiar with the challenge.

‘You can educate people about how to drink in different ways. It is mainly about what goes on the back label, but it is not just about that – it is also about how are we communicating this message,’ says Barlow Doherty director Abigail Barlow. ‘For example, we came up with a ‘double cooler’ idea, to hold a bottle of wine and a bottle of water, reminding people there is water to drink, too. Nobody wants to be “instructed” on how to drink, but we can show how they can do it in a fun way – such as enjoying it and savouring it, or drinking less and drinking better.’

Clearly, there is a need for a culture shift and to treat the cause, rather than the effect. Last October, Alcohol Awareness Week was launched with the aim of changing consumer habits over the long term. As part of the campaign, Newcastle-based creative consultancy Different was appointed by Balance, the North East Regional Alcohol Office, to promote responsible drinking, implementing a strategy of shaming drinkers into reconsidering their levels of consumption.

Explaining this strategy, Ben Quigley, the managing director of Different, says, ‘We have to put the message there for people to make their own choices. Contemporary marketing tactics are about emphasising the positives of alcohol such as sociability and pleasure, but within a responsible framework.’

Other consultancies back this approach. ‘It’s down to clarity of information,’ says Kate Waddell, managing director of consumer brands at Dragon Rouge. ‘It could also incorporate more responsible design, which avoids visual trickery. The [Alcohol Awareness Week] campaign points to the need for design not to mask the reality of alcohol strength – as happened with alcopops in the 1990s – or to over-glamourise brands.’

Design, as an industry, prides itself on being responsible, so it is well-placed to help get this sobering message across.

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