Branding to boost low-alcohol market

New research shows that the UK is downing 76 pints of low-alcohol beer a minute, in a slightly tipsy binge-drinking session unseen since the Middle Ages, when everyone from royalty to street children drank mild stout in favour of choleric water.

In a report released earlier this month, Mintel investigates what it calls the ‘lower alcoholic’ drinks – and particularly beer – market. It finds the sector busy with new product launches that are eroding Kaliber’s position as the sector’s leading brand – held since its launch in 1987.

The UK’s continued drift away from macho culture and growing concerns about health are both credited with warming consumers up to the low- and no-alcohol drinks market. Mintel foresees the sector gaining 25 per cent in value within five years, mainly through ‘premiumisation’.

‘In the past, low-alcohol beers had to behave exactly like normal beers to be credible,’ says Ben White, founder of Bloom Design, which branded Kaliber in 2003. ‘Those were the days when men were still pretending to be macho, and low-alcohol brands copied the liveries of their full-strength parent brands. But men are easier on themselves and each other now.’

White reports that brand-owner Diageo briefed Bloom to reintroduce more alcohol cues to the Kaliber can in 2003, indicating that, even then, low-alcohol drinks felt compelled to disguise themselves as regular beers. The Kaliber brand has been through several evolutions since 2003, largely executed by Creative Link. The drink relaunched earlier this month with new cluster packaging and a formulation which Diageo claims has ‘balanced out the sweet and bitter notes’.

However, Creative Link’s parent company Image Link says that there is still room for improvement in the brand’s look.

‘Kaliber’s name looks weak on the can and could be strengthened up,’ says John Lenihan, Image Link account manager, from his base on-site at Diageo’s Dublin offices. However, Lenihan also reports that the brand is showing new pride in its identity – in August, Creative Link placed the term ‘alcohol free’ on the front of the packaging.

‘The stealth mission that beer brand-owners were operating with low-alcohol drinks is becoming much more overt,’ says White. But those in charge of branding and marketing low-alcohol drinks must beware legislative restraints that apply equally to low-, mid- and full-strength drinks. Industry body the Portman Group, which produces guidelines for marketing alcohol products, warns that the sector should be particularly wary of making claims about health.

‘Branders should not suggest that these products can enhance mental or physical capabilities, or say that they should be an integral part of a healthy lifestyle or a calorie-controlled diet,’ says a Portman Group spokesman.

Imagining the future of low-alcohol branding, White believes that traditional visual cues such as depictions of maize or barley could remain, as consumers will continue to look for the taste of full-strength beer in their low-alcohol alternatives.

However, he also envisions branding for such products to become ‘cleaner, crisper and more contemporary – not a stripping out or dumbing down, but a move away from “olde worlde” and the traditional. I predict the introduction of a new, very grown-up code for alcohol.’

Lad Facts:

Following years of stagnant growth, sales of low-alcohol and no-alcohol drinks are thriving, with value and volume both up around 10% in the past two years. Market leader Kaliber, however, is losing share, down from 65% in 2004 to 38% in 2008, following a raft of new product launches in the past three years:

2006 – Guinness Mid-Strength (2.8% ABV)
2007 – Carling C2 (2% ABV); Cobra 0% relaunched as Cobra Zero (0% ABV)
2008 – Stella Artois Low Alcohol (0.5% ABV); Beck’s Green Lemon (2.5% ABV); Magner’s Mid-Strength cider (2.3% ABV); Carlsberg Mid-Strength (2.6% ABV)

Source: Mintel Lower Alcoholic Drinks report

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