The future of soft drinks – what can the industry learn from the gin renaissance?
One day, people will look back fondly on the early history of soft drinks. They will wonder at the lack of choice and the abundance of sugar, and marvel at the missed marketing opportunities and the absence of intriguing ingredients and clever, imaginative packaging. However, they won’t be thinking of the game changing soft drink revolution in the late 19th century and the invention of Coca Cola and Pepsi. They will be contemplating us, right here and now.
Where are the big ideas?
Statistics on alcohol consumption show that the amount we drink continues to fall, and young people are drinking less than their parents did at their age, with more of them teetotal than ever before. Those young people, aren’t brand loyal, either: they are happy to try new things. They are thirsty for authenticity – for an impassioned story of provenance and small-scale success.
Those who do drink have found that provenance and small-scale success in beer and in gin. Those who don’t drink are still, for the most part, parched. Fever Tree is the major exception: tasty, varied drinks, great packaging and a real sense that the founder is talking to his consumers. They are clear on what they do, how they do it (naturally, without artificial sweeteners) and how they are different from their competitors – which is more than can be said for many of those competitors. And the fever tree itself – the Peruvian native whose bark contains quinine, an anti-malarial and an essential ingredient in tonic water – makes a great legend. Tim Warrillow, co-creator of Fever Tree and a former Peru resident, is happy to post pictures of the tree, just in case anyone missed its fabulous marketability.
But where are Fever Tree’s rivals? Where are the healthy, natural soft drinks, beautifully packaged and delivered with a terrific story, that offer the non-drinking punter the kind of choice they have as soon as they switch to alcohol?
You can’t win if you’re not in the game
Everyone knows that it is expensive and risky to launch a new product from scratch. All that research, finding the right taste, design and packaging, marketing and advertising. But that shouldn’t stop people, in a market that’s as wide-open as soft drinks currently is. For this, the current trend for artisanal and authentic is a boon: you don’t even need to start big, because actually, what the market currently wants is small but perfectly, and passionately, formed.
Gin: a very clear lesson
Look at gin. Once, this much-loved drink was just vodka with a bit of juniper, and which brand you bought depended on what was on offer wherever you happened to fancy a cocktail or a G&T. No more. The flavour options have exploded, and there is a new gin on every corner – each with its own set of botanicals, creation story and often, some superb packaging to tell that story. Bars are cluttered with new and interesting brands, bartenders are having a field day creating cool gin-based cocktails, and the consumer is, in every sense, sucking it up.
The same was already true of beer. But gin is consumed in much smaller quantities – and a spirit is a different proposition, and a different expenditure, from a beer, however premium. What the gin market did was look at whisky, which has always had a small-batch, artisanal strand made with love, craft and individuality, and apply the same rules. First came a trickle, like Sipsmith and Chase. Then came the tsunami. And it’s still coming.
If gin can accomplish all this, what opportunities are out there for soft drinks, which are surely far better for us, in a world that is more and more obsessed with health? First, though, they need to solve a problem – a big one. After all, booze will make you drunk. Soft drinks will commit the ultimate crime: they will make you fat.
This is not the place to trace the long and depressing story of sugar and fat and the emphasis on the latter, from nutritionists and experts, while companies loaded our food and drinks with a white powder more addictive and dangerous than cocaine. The important thing is that this is changing. You’d have to live in a cave not to know how filled with sugar most soft drinks are, or how bad for your health that sweetness is. Britain has introduced a Sugar Tax to try to address the problem. Even diet drinks are mistrusted, thanks to our increasing desire to avoid artificial ingredients.
A few brands are taking full advantage of our desire for a more balanced lifestyle. Vitamin Water, which rode off the back of scare stories about the quality of US tap water in the 1990s, has done very well. Vitamin Water also taps into the USA’s love affair with vitamins, which dates back over 70 years and offers an alternative to soft drinks, following the stories about artificial flavours and ingredients making consumers fat in the late 1990s and early noughties.
More recently coconut water and birch water have been flying high. But it will be interesting to see which products lasts the test of time. There is even, now, a non-alcoholic spirit, Seedlip: as beautifully designed as any gin, and with the same emphasis on natural, authentic ingredients, it’s clearly aiming to be the hipster teetotaller’s tipple of choice. And the world’s largest distiller Diageo, which owns Smirnoff and Guinness, has just invested in Seedlip, perhaps heralding the dawn of a new era for grown up non-alcoholic drinks. But could Seedlip release a soft drink, as opposed to a non-alcoholic gin, with the same sort of upmarket and botanical credentials that would appeal to adults? Could there be another opportunity for the brand to explore?
Still, these are drops in the ocean. At the moment, the emphasis is almost all on fruit juices of some sort, but the world is very big and there are plenty of other options, from oats in smoothies to ginger in non-alcoholic beer to the kind of strange flavours and textures that Western countries have historically avoided. After all, if we’re prepared to down wheatgrass because it’s good for us, what might we not try? Especially if it fits with current priorities for good nutrition and sustainability – and doesn’t contain anything unnatural or half a bucket of sugar.
A parcel of opportunity
There is so much untapped possibility out there – for renewable, sustainable packaging, new flavours and textures, and an honest approach that doesn’t try to hide unpopular ingredients but boasts, justifiably, of its pure and healthy content. Where are the food-matching suggestions for non-alcoholic drinks, or for coffees or teas? Brands would do well to find genuine soft drink replacements for hot beverages, perhaps with herbal or botanical flavours with refreshing bitter notes which are squarely aimed at adults, rather than sweet drinks.
Where are the reusable cans, or the really beautifully designed containers, for the discerning teetotaller? Where are the interesting flavours that have taken their cue, but not their intoxicants, from the successes of the spirit market? Where is the authenticity that is proud to tell it straight and has the genuine ingredients to do that?
The future is bright…
Soft drinks manufacturers need to get creative and flee from fear. The conservative, also-ran content of the supermarket shelves needs to change, and drastically. Instead of cowering in the fruity, sweet, don’t do it unless someone else has done it first category, soft drinks need to get out there and embrace the future, do things differently, zig while everyone else zags. The jaded consumer, consigned to bitter lemon or fizzy pop as if avoiding alcohol were something they should be punished for, will thank them from the bottom of his or her heart, wallet – and liver. If brands have a complete rethink of the soft drink and turn away from sweet and childish flavours and instead create tastes which are complex and adult, they will reap the rewards.
Designs by Craig Harriott, Design Director in our Leeds studio.
To continue the conversation please contact Kim Van Elkan on 07900 430 870