This month, we present a four-part management briefing into the role the alcoholic drinks industry does play, doesn't play, and ought to play in encouraging responsible consumption. In the penultimate part, Ben Cooper considers what branding the message ought to carry, and how to harness social media as part of the strategy.

Given the controversy over whether a branded responsible consumption advert which seeks to convey a positive image of alcohol consumption becomes a de facto alcohol ad, it may be that the further away industry-sponsored campaigns get from brands the better. 

In that context, one of the most interesting initiatives to examine is the UK charity, Drinkaware, which while funded by industry, currently to the tune of GBP5.2m a year, boasts a governance structure designed to lend independence from its funding companies.

Crucially, while its logo and website address appear on branded advertising, Drinkaware's own responsible consumption advertising, such as its 'Why let good times go bad' campaign, has no branded element.

In that sense, its advertising owes some of its lineage to the Diageo 'Choices' campaign launched in 2008. Another key formative influence behind Drinkaware was the Portman Group which has led the way in alcohol industry self-regulation since its own foundation in 1989.

Indeed, Drinkaware was established through a Memorandum of Understanding in 2008 signed by UK ministers and the Portman Group which enabled the Portman Group’s former campaigning arm, the Drinkaware Trust, to become a new independent charity. This effectively divided the UK industry's collective corporate responsibility activities into two distinct entities, with Drinkaware functioning as an independent, consumer-facing, campaigning organisation and information portal, and the Portman Group retaining its self-regulatory functions.

However, it is clear that Drinkaware chief executive Chris Sorek (who announced that he is standing down from the post earlier this month()) is very keen for Drinkaware to be viewed as an independent charity providing information on alcohol rather than a campaigning arm of the drinks industry.

Characterising Drinkaware as an "industry initiative", Sorek insists, is not correct. "Drinkaware is not an industry initiative," he says. "It is an independent charity. We provide information as an independent charity to the consumer."

Industry provides the funding, Sorek explains, but how that funding is spent is determined by a board which has industry members, representatives from public health and three independent members. "They decide the strategies working together so it's a collaborative effort, rather than one that is led by industry. It's paid for by industry yes but it's a collaborative effort that shows a partnership between industry, the public health community and other stakeholders."

Sorek also makes plain that Drinkaware has "no policy remit" and clearly prefers not to be considered as an advocate for the drinks industry. By contrast, Henry Ashworth, CEO of the Portman Group, says he has no problem with representing the social responsibility efforts of the industry, as frequently happens when a media story around alcohol policy breaks. "I am delighted to be an advocate for responsible businesses," Ashworth says. 

This difference in outlook may itself speak to the contentious nature of industry-funded responsible consumption messaging. In setting up an independent charity, with public health involvement and a lack of overt brand affiliation, the UK industry has established a model which overcomes at least some of the challenges industry faces in this area. And Chris Sorek believes it is a model that could be applied in other countries.

"I don't know why it's not being used in other places," says Sorek. "It's a great model. I think there's a high potential for the Drinkaware model to work elsewhere in the world."

The Drinkaware governance structure may give it some independence from industry, but public health advocates still point to the fact that industry provides the funding for the organisation. While Sorek points out that the number of funding companies has risen from 42 to more than 60 since the charity was launched, would the number of funders continue to rise or begin to fall if companies found the style of the Drinkaware messages not to their liking? 

Eric Appleby, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, believes the origin of the funding to be an important factor in spite of the multi-stakeholder representation on the Drinkaware board. "Although it may have a governance model which has those balanced numbers on it, at the end of the day it's still the industry putting the money into it and that's bound to limit what they are going to do."

A key voice to hear on the independence of Drinkaware would undoubtedly be that of Dr Nick Sheron, Head of Clinical Hepatology at Southampton General Hospital, some time prominent critic of drinks industry practices and member of the Drinkaware board of trustees.

One assumes as a Drinkaware trustee, Dr Sheron supports the idea of the drinks industry funding responsibility messaging and endorses the Drinkaware mission. However, given ample opportunity to comment on Drinkaware and industry involvement, Dr Sheron failed even to respond to phone messages or emails. Even after being urged to do so by Chris Sorek who, as his earlier comments make clear, believes the involvement of Dr Sheron and the other non-industry trustees sets Drinkaware apart and guarantees its independence, Dr Sheron failed to respond.

Dr Sheron's reticence certainly demands some form of explanation. Sorek, who announced his resignation as CEO of Drinkaware last week, citing personal reasons, could not explain it, only proffering the suggestion that Dr Sheron may be very busy. So, whether his silence is down to an undoubtedly busy schedule or a reluctance to be viewed as a public advocate of an industry-funded initiatives remains unclear.

Presenting a positive image of alcohol consumption

The Drinkaware concept may have advantages over the branded responsibility advertising particularly prevalent in the US, but even where industry-sponsored responsibility messaging is free from a branded identity, public health professionals are still concerned by what they see as an overly positive and even glamorous depiction of alcohol consumption in industry responsibility ads. 

As the Alcohol Concern Wales Report posits: "There is some evidence, mainly from individual level or qualitative studies, that whilst these campaigns identify specific undesirable behaviours such as drink-driving, they serve to normalise and promote drinking in general. Those exposed to such materials do not gain a clear understanding of the nature of responsible drinking and the option of abstinence is not promoted at all. There is at least a suspicion, and some evidence, that industry sponsored campaigns promoting healthy drinking actually promotes drinking in general. This is one of the reasons for the assertion from a number of credible authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO), that the industry should not be engaged as a partner in efforts to reduce alcohol related harm."

It is certainly the case that, whether or not they are linked to a specific brand, industry-sponsored campaigns do seek to portray a positive, non-harmful image of alcohol consumption.

Both Carol Clark of A-B InBev and Diageo's Carolyn Panzer defend this idea. For example, Clark says of A-B InBev's responsibility advertising: "You could look at that as preventing excessive drinking but I always like to talk in the positive so I would say it's promoting responsible drinking."

For John Bailey, one of the Alcohol Concern Wales report research team, this speaks to one of the fundamental challenges about public health messaging and helps to explain, in his view, why industry-sponsored advertising campaigns are particularly ineffective. 

When messaging sets up two alternative ideas, in this instance responsible consumption versus irresponsible, the natural response from consumers, particularly if as is often the case what 'irresponsible' means is loosely defined, is to put themselves in the responsible group and project the problem on to others.

This helps to explain why it is not only industry-sponsored responsibility messaging that is found wanting. The Alcohol Concern Wales report acknowledges that the evidence for the effectiveness of non-industry responsible consumption messaging is also weak. "There is little evidence that health education campaigns on their own are effective in influencing the population’s drinking behaviour. Nonetheless, many experts consider that it is an essential component to an overall strategy to limit alcohol related harm," the report states.

At this point the problem appears even more intractable. An alternative to the industry's style of messaging would be something starker and foreboding, essentially focusing on the risks and consequences of alcohol misuse. Official public health messaging has been traditionally more likely to adopt such a style and with some justification industry advocates contend that this type of messaging is not particularly effective.

"We are in many cases using our brands to promote a responsible drinking message and we of course want to portray our brands in a positive light so we would use that positive approach," says Carol Clark. "On the flip side of that there's also a body of research that shows scare tactics in fact have a very short-lived if any impact on consumers."

Carolyn Panzer says research suggests "shock horror" messages "simply do not resonate" with consumers.

There is little dispute on this from the public health side, and, as previously stated, the Alcohol Wales report found the evidence of success for official public health campaigning also to be weak. 

Using social media to promote a responsible drinking message

The fact that trying to communicate the notion of responsible alcohol consumption or the dangers of alcohol misuse is fairly problematic, whether the message comes from industry or health agencies, has drawn both sides towards social media as a possible channel for conveying a responsible consumption message.

While issues around social media have represented more of a reputational minefield for the drinks industry - notwithstanding the commercial potential of these media - rather ironically such channels could yet offer a compelling corporate responsibility story for the industry.

"Several of our responsible drinking campaigns have had social media components," says A-B InBev's Carol Clark, "and we're getting requests from government regulators around the world to use social media for putting out a positive responsible drinking message and to reach consumers with that." Among the social media activities, A-B InBev partnered with the UK online parenting network, Mumsnet, to launch its Family Talk About Drinking programme in the UK.

The concomitant reputational issues related to social media of course will remain and to a degree they revolve around the lack of control that companies have over user-generated content. However, once again rather ironically, it is the user-generated element that excites CSR professionals within the industry.

If industry-generated messages are viewed as not much different from conventional alcohol ads, while official public health messaging also fails to strike a chord with consumers, could 'peer-to-peer' communication around responsible consumption be the answer? 

Carolyn Panzer believes it could be. The "power of social peer-to peer influence" remains untapped in responsibility messaging, Panzer says. "I think there's real potential in using our consumers to effect behaviour change."

Where social media may have a particularly valuable role to play is in the social norms marketing which is now being increasingly used by major alcohol companies in their responsibility messaging. Social norms marketing simply aims to reinforce the idea that responsible consumption is the social norm and capitalises on the tendency for people to wish to conform with the normal, responsible behaviour. An example would be rather than showing a photo of a crashed car with a warning about drunk driving, an advert would instead include information about statistics on the take-up of designated driver programmes 

So incorporating social media into the responsibility marketing mix has potential for spreading a message about drinking which does not hinge on defining or counselling responsibility per se. Rather, it would simply aim to reflect and project the social norm, which in general remains one of relative responsibility and moderation.

However, the briefest of searches reveals that there is a vast amount of 'peer-to-peer' communication related to alcohol on the Internet and much of it would in no way come into the category of responsible consumption.

The plethora of unhelpful user-generated content featuring alcohol is one of the reasons why social media has been such a delicate issue for the industry, even if the nature of social media means that industry has no control over most of this. Nevertheless, it is interesting to posit that such a highly debated and controversial area may yet yield some potentially positive solutions to the industry's much broader reputational risks.

The fourth and final part of this briefing can be found here. To head back to part two, click here.