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Is the future positive or negative for big brands?
Published:  05 November, 2018
Steve Hastings isobel

As the current consumer trends are moulding around smaller, craft brands around the world, Steve Hastings, planning partner at creative agency isobel asks whether the glass is half full or half empty for big brands.

There’s no doubt the way we drink is changing – in pubs, in bars and at home. ONS figures reveal that almost a quarter of 16 to 24-year-olds claim to be teetotal, and the wider move towards premiumisation and lower consumption have been well-documented.

And as these shifts in our habits have been exposed, so entrepreneurs have raced to provide alternatives, with a resulting proliferation in craft, no and low. In some ways it feels like legacy brands have been left in the starting blocks.  

A contributing factor is the way challenger brands target their consumers. Gone are the days when spending millions on celebrities and mass marketing was a guaranteed route to success. We’re savvier now, we expect more. We want products that taste great and are good for us. We like experimenting. We like the little guy.

The deluge of new brands in the drinks sector means we no longer need to make a default big-brand choice, which has left behemoths like PepsiCo and SABMiller scrambling to keep up. Can they start their own disruptors from within their organisations? Or do they watch and wait and gobble up the next big thing? Either way, life is harder for them.

Those were a couple of the questions that we put to the challengers and legacy brands that came along to a panel event we hosted recently, called Shaking Up the Drinks Industry.

Ben Thomson, head of marketing at Seedlip, Joe Benn, co-founder of Ugly, and Oliver Dickinson, founder of Wow, were joined by Charlie Hiscocks of Curious Eye and formerly of SABMiller, and Jamie Lister, director of 21st Century Brands.

“You need to get your story right,” says Lister. “You have to have a brilliant product and you have to be hugely passionate. But you also need a great name, a beautiful bottle and a fantastic story. The brands that are succeeding are the ones that bring all that together. It’s not about projecting an image onto a product anymore; today it’s about telling the story from within.”

Hiscocks adds: “You may think that the start-ups have a head start here, but many legacy brands have similarly appealing ‘origin’ tales to tell if you dig deep enough. With a fresh, supercharged approach there’s no reason why they can’t step up and give the challengers a run for their money.”

He also said that the tactic of buying up craft brands can work for the big boys, but it has to be done right. Absorbing the latest ‘big thing’ and then sucking the life out of it with slow-moving corporate processes surely defeats the purpose.

So what can we expect to see next? Genuine sustainability, not lip service, according to Dickinson. Consumers have wised up to box-ticking, disingenuous efforts. And drinks that improve cognitive function – a key ingredient being cannabis. It relieves anxiety and stress and improves heart health and lung function. There’s even some evidence to show that it can slow the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Perhaps the manufacturer of the next cannabis concoction should take a leaf out of Dirty Lemon’s marketing strategy, suggested Benn. The healthy drinks company, which has a cult following in its native US, markets itself as the perfect remedy for a hangover. You can even text ‘dealers’ and they’ll meet you on the street corner with a stash in exchange for cash.

Thomson pointed out that, with the new ‘teetotal army’ moving into its prime spending years, the momentum for change was likely to continue unabated.

One thing’s for certain, the landscape has changed forever, for brands big and small. As consumers hunt for new experiences, challengers have an opportunity to grab attention. But it’s not all bad news for legacy brands – with a fresh approach, the glass is definitely half full for them too.

Watch the full discussion on the isobel website here