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    ‘Sober October’ gains popularity with consumers and opens new doors for zero-ABV brands

    Mindfulness and moderation are taking center stage for younger consumers and eager brands.

    Social commentator and podcaster Joe Rogan said in an Instagram post in July that he’s once again participating in ‘Sober October,’ a challenge that, similar to ‘Dry January,’ encourages consumers to cut back on their alcohol consumption by ditching booze for a month. This time, he’s pulling in his comedy buddies Tom Segura and Bert Kreischer too.

    Rogan and company are part of a growing contingent of celebrities endorsing the ‘sober-curious’ movement more broadly. It’s a trend witnessing impressive growth. Sales of non-alcoholic beers are projected to hit $361m in wholesale sales this year – almost double that of 2019 pre-pandemic levels, when sales peaked $193m, per Beverage Marketing Corp. 

    The shift represents a broader sea change under way. Consumers are more conscious of health and wellness than ever before, and it’s shaping their purchasing decisions.

    “This isn’t about consumers suddenly becoming teetotalers. As they have done with sugar for more than a decade, consumers – especially young consumers – are more deliberate about when and how they indulge in alcohol,” explains Duane Stanford, the editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. “It doesn’t mean they are going cold turkey, and often they simply want to turn down the volume on the party.”

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    Tapping into consumer cutbacks

    These new approaches to alcohol consumption are creating new opportunities for beverage brands to, as Stanford puts it, establish “a new usage occasion that is about fun without the hangover. It’s about fitting in and socializing without having to always sacrifice health or performance.”

    That’s precisely the message at the heart of a new ad campaign from Athletic Brewing, the leader in the non-alcoholic craft beer category (and third in the non-alcoholic beer category overall, behind Heineken 0.0 and Budweiser Zero). Starring Arizona Cardinals’ defensive end JJ Watt and entrepreneur David Chang, the campaign centers on the tagline and ethos that Athletic beers are “fit for all times” – whether it be work time, show time, tee time or hang time. “It’s a beer you can have at 10 in the morning – a coffee porter if you really wanted to – and it won’t hold you back,” explains Chris Furnari, Athletic’s emerging brands manager.

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    And the messaging is, by all accounts, working – and working wonders. Athletic Brewing topped its 2021 sales numbers by midyear in 2022, and it just opened the world’s largest non-alcoholic brewery – a 150,000-square-foot facility capable of producing and storing thousands of barrels at a time. The beer maker now owns about 54% of the non-alcoholic craft beer category and is steadily encroaching on the overall beer market.

    Chief executive Bill Shufelt attributes the brand’s success to innovation and well-timed entry. “There’s this category that seemed to have zero innovation in 30 years – it was dusty bottles that were highly stigmatized to hold in your hand. They’re unexciting and we really wanted to reframe how people think about drinking,” he says. 

    It’s not just about a growing interest in health and mindful consumption, he suggests, but also that consumers are seeking new ways to integrate social moments throughout their busy lives. “Our thesis was that alcohol didn’t necessarily have as much of a place in modern life as it did historically, but we wanted to give people every way to celebrate for those social, relaxing, familiar moments.”

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    Moderation is the name of the game

    While the brand believes it can put non-alcoholic beverages at the heart of everyday experiences, it isn’t evangelizing sobriety. “We don’t expect alcohol to go anywhere,” says Shufelt. “We’re definitely not prohibitionists standing on a soapbox saying alcohol is bad. We just want to give people more options.” 

    Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicates that close to half of the population rarely drinks regularly. Shufelt says that means that many adults walk into bars and restaurants and feel excluded. And that’s the sweet spot: “There’s a ton of missed revenue … we wanted to give people a lot of options and make those moderation choices easy.”

    And moderation is indeed the objective for many Athletic customers. The brewer estimates that close to 80% of its customers drink both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. “This isn’t a situation where you’re seeing complete abstinence and customers are using these products to quit drinking entirely,” says Furnari. “The vast majority of consumers are picking nights of the week where they’re not drinking, or they’re pacing when they are choosing to consume alcohol by swapping in alcoholic drinks for non-alcoholic drinks throughout the night. That’s really kind of the trend that we see … more moderation than anything else.”

    The message of moderation is one that resonates with an increasingly large portion of the population. “We are collectively awakening to choice when it comes to alcohol,” says Annie Grace, an advocate for more mindful drinking and the author of This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness and Change Your Life. “For too long, we’ve lived in the false paradigm that there are problem drinkers – alcoholics – and then everyone else … and that if you don’t drink you are somehow weird. We’re collectively exploring these ideas and finding them false, realizing that when it comes to drinking, personal choice can guide us without rules, judgment or labels.”

    The concepts of moderation and personal choice are at the heart of Athletic’s messaging. The focus of its marketing efforts moving forward, says Shufelt, is demystifying non-alcoholic beverages and the sober-curious movement. “There’s still a lot of education and destigmatization [around the concept of] moderation to be done.”

    He hopes that the brand’s ‘Fit For All Times’ push – as well as a recent sweepstakes that helped drive web traffic up 30% month-over-month – are “going a long way towards smashing through those walls that had previously been put up around the category where, in people’s minds, non-alcoholic beer was something just for really specific populations.” For Athletic, he says, non-alcoholic brews are “for everyone, anytime, anywhere.” 

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    Benefiting both brands and consumers

    While Athletic sees its biggest sales spikes during the summer around Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day – high points for the beer category at large – it’s beginning to notice more celebrities and everyday consumers participating in ‘Sober October’ and ‘Dry January.’ The trend could provide fruitful opportunities to boost brand awareness and sales. 

    And for consumers, challenges such as ‘Sober October’ can have real health benefits. Studies on month-long drinking abstinence have documented a range of benefits, including reduced body weight, improved cholesterol levels, heightened energy, better sleep and improved liver function. Plus, one study of 857 Brits who participated in a ‘Dry January’ found that 50% of people reported reduced drinking days as well as drinks per day at a six-month follow-up. 

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    It’s worth noting, however, that abstinence challenges may often see a self-selection bias in participants. One recent review of a month-long abstinence challenge reports that, “compared to non-participating alcohol users, participants were more likely to be female, and have a higher income and level of education. They were heavier drinkers and were more concerned by the consequences of alcohol on health and by their health in general.” Even so, the results of this study also found that participants – even those who were unsuccessful in remaining abstinent for a month – saw health benefits such as sleep improvement and weight loss. 

    At the same time, these types of challenges provide opportunities for consumers to discover and try out new non-alcoholic versions of beverages they love. Increasing consumer interest in low- and zero-ABV products, says George F Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “is consistent with growing interest in cutting back or taking breaks from drinking and being more mindful of the potential health effects of alcohol.” Koob flags, however, that some products that look and taste like the real thing “could be risky for people in recovery from Alcohol Use Disorder,” and therefore may not be the right choice for everyone.

    Athletic, for its part, is gearing up for growth. With more spend going towards marketing, a staff of about 200 and its shiny, new outpost on the East Coast – in addition to a San Diego brewery outfitted with 60,000 square feet of solar panels – the brand says it’s only getting started. “We’re just getting out to a 50-state footprint now. There’s a lot of runway ahead,” says Shufelt. “It’s a really fun time.”

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