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How to pitch alcohol-free adult soft drinks to consumers - Consumer Trends

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In her latest consumer trends column, Laura Foster looks at the rise of non-alcoholic and adult soft drinks. The key to their success, she says, is in the way they are communicated to consumers. 

The Kolibri range includes Elderflower & Lime, Strawberry & Basil and Cardamom & Chilli

The Kolibri range includes Elderflower & Lime, Strawberry & Basil and Cardamom & Chilli

A quick survey of the exhibitor stands at on-premise trade show Imbibe Live is an excellent contemporaneous barometer of which categories are hot, and which are in the ascendance. It probably doesn't surprise you that gin has been the dominant force on the floor for a number of years now. But, if the number of new brands is anything to go by, one particular category appears to be rocketing up the charts: Non-alcoholic drinks and adult soft drinks.

As overall global consumption of alcohol is declining, entrepreneurs and big brands alike are trying to corner a patch of this growing market. So what are these companies doing to establish and communicate their new-found position to consumers? I spoke with three business founders to find out: Ben Branson of Diageo-backed Seedlip, the world's first non-alcoholic 'spirit'; David Begg of Real Kombucha, a fermented drink made with loose-leaf fine teas; and Kamila Sitwell of Kolibri, a newly launched adult soft drink with flavour customisation as a central tenet to the brand.

Carve out a new niche

Unsurprisingly, all the companies were careful with the way they conveyed their brands and how they're positioned.

"We've outlawed the term 'soft drink'," explains Real Kombucha founder Begg. "We're a non-alcoholic beverage rather than a soft drink. We're a deeply complex fermented drink that just so happens to be non-alcoholic." So worried is the company about this positioning that the team took the decision not to offer its products in off-premise channels, except for online.

"Our concern is, we want [the occasion you drink Real Kombucha] to be in a situation where you'd normally be drinking alcohol. It shouldn't be sitting in the soft drink aisle [of a supermarket] next to the lemonade and coke."

On the other hand, Sitwell isn't quite as hard line about Kolibri's associations. "Calling it a soft drink, it doesn't do it justice. I call it a 'super soft', because it's zero abv and it's very premium. Our drinks aren't for kids. They're very specific flavours that don't appeal to kids, but they really appeal to adults."

Theatre is key

Brands are encouraging consumers and hospitality workers to turn the non-alcoholic moment into an occasion

At polar opposites to serving soft drinks in pint or half-pint glasses with a single desultory straw, these brands are encouraging consumers and hospitality workers to turn the non-alcoholic moment into an occasion.

Kolibri's USP is the fact its flavour and sweetness can be customised to an individual's taste thanks to its removable lid of agave syrup that is squeezed into the product – something that Sitwell claims makes it the first bespoke soft drink.

"There is a lot of renovation in soft drinks right now – recipes being tweaked with different sugars and flavours, but there's no real innovation," says Sitwell, who previously worked in insights at PepsiCo and Britvic. "I realised that customisation is massive across all categories and industries, but not in soft drinks."

Like Real Kombucha, she is targeting the on-premise for her first three products. "Hospitality is where you have experiences," explains Sitwell. "This is the challenge for drinks manufacturers. How are we going to create that experience, and a healthy experience, for customers?"

Meanwhile, the team at Real Kombucha says that the ideal serve of their product is chilled in a wine glass, reinforcing their vision of their product being enjoyed alongside food. When it comes to mixed drinks, Seedlip has made huge inroads working with some of the world's leading bars to create beautiful, complex booze-free cocktails that stand proudly alongside their boozy recipes.

The latest in this activity has been its NoLo pop-up bars in top bars around the world, ranging from LA and Sydney to Guangzhou. All the venues offered beautiful non-alcoholic and low-alcohol cocktail menus for guests to get real insight into what the category can offer. ("Mocktails need to die a horrible death. The word is an insult," declares Branson.)

Education, education, education

Breaking new ground means a huge focus on educating consumers and the trade on how, when and why these products should be enjoyed.

"We do a lot of work on content," says Begg, using blogs, podcasts and videos to show Real Kombucha's place "with food, presented in a bar, or served in a wine glass. We're working with chefs and sommeliers, putting information out focused on the world in which we exist. It's really important to put forward the association with food."

Seedlip pushes its signature Seedlip and Tonic serve to consumers through sampling and masterclasses with brands that fit its own image. "We just advertised two with Anthropologie, which sold out in an hour," says Branson. "We also host masterclasses with Kew Gardens and Daylesford organic. There's nothing better than working with people who share our ethos." The company does a lot of event-based work with brands such as Belstaff, Google, Lululemon and the Emmy Awards: "The one sad area at events is if you aren't drinking. It went from being able to drink a glass of orange juice to perhaps an elderflower cordial."

The Real Kombucha team has also found an opportunity in helping on-premise businesses build their non-alcoholic drinks menus. "About a year ago we saw almost everyone trying to put together non-alcoholic drink menus," says Begg. "We are now leading that in putting these together for people. We're not pushy about it. We obviously want to be the top of the list, but we don't want to rule that space. It's about giving assistance to push this sector.

"We're getting more and more people asking us to do that. Most pubs, bars and restaurants know their alcohol very well. They just don't understand the non-alcoholic sector. We're starting to codify that as part of our activation offering."

It's early days in this alcohol-free sector, but that's what makes it so exciting.

As Branson says: "We take what we do very seriously. We've only just got started. It's all to play for and no one knows how it's going to go, which is very liberating."

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