Old norm: positive trends that have been challenged by the crisis
In the ‘old norm’, the world that we have just left behind, we observed encouraging signs in the way consumers engaged with alcoholic beverages that showed an increased attention to the quality of both the product and the experience itself. For example, consumers seemed to be very receptive to locally crafted beers and willing to spend a premium price for their pint. In 2019 the city of London counted alone up to 129 breweries, ten times more the number of breweries available a decade ago (source >). Taprooms all over the world are now offering sophisticated experiences including tasting sessions, exotic food pairings, and curated artistic events. Similar trends could be observed in the world of spirits. In one year in the UK we have seen a 21% growth of the number of distillery businesses (from 170 in 2017 to 205 in 2018), also thanks, in part, to the rise in popularity of artisanal gin. (source >) Bartenders have come to the spotlight and now the mixologist is a revered creative (source >). Then COVID-19 came, and with it the enforcement of lockdown measures, the anxieties related to an uncertain future, and economic restriction that some consumers face at the time of crisis. While it is hard to predict what the ‘new-norm’ is going to be like, we can assume some consumers may turn to cheaper alcohol and an increase in drinking habits that may be harder to keep under control (e.g. drinking alone).
Market trends, new rituals for consumption, threats.
In March 2020, when the doors of pubs, bars, and restaurants were literally locked and most people around the globe were not allowed to leave their houses, a growth in consumption of alcoholic beverages was observed. In the UK, alcohol sales went up by 22% (Kantar figures) and 55% (Nielsen figures) in the US. Similar trends can be observed almost everywhere else.
Many consumers decided to use the time made available by the confinement as an opportunity to develop their taste in fine wines or to learn how to craft their cocktails; at the end of the day we all switched to our private screens to share a drink with friends and family in a Zoom happy hour. Friday’s drinks with colleagues and pub quiz on Tuesday’s easily transitioned to the virtual world. In many cases, alcoholic beverages had a positive impact on our time during the lockdown confirming the role of alcohol in our lives: a social catalyst, an enriching experience, a pleasure to savour.
However, another trend must be noted. At the same time, we have seen across the globe an increase in domestic violence, often surfacing in a surge in demand for the service of domestic abuse charities. The National Domestic Abuse helpline in the UK has seen an increase of 25% in calls and online requests for help in the second week of lockdown and 49% in the third week compared to average. While domestic violence is a very complex problem that cannot be unpacked in the context of this article, it is worth noting that it is often correlated with alcohol abuse by either the offender or the victim. Similarly, Alcoholics Anonymous has reported a 300% increase in inquiries for support. It is important for alcohol companies to acknowledge the dangers of alcohol abuse and how the effect could worsen throughout a prolonged period of crisis. It is also important for companies to step in and limit the dangers, or consumers, rather than silently cashing in on the increase in sales.
Attempts of governments to control alcohol consumption over the lockdown have been varied, with countries like India and South Africa enforcing a ban on alcoholic beverages. Once again, prohibitionist strategies have shown their limits with consumers assembling in long queues to stockpile their supply before the beginning of the lockdown, or even worse fostering the black market and pushing consumers towards more harmful liquors produced in illegal refineries. On the other hand, communication campaigns to promote responsible drinking are to be praised, but they represent just one of the many strategies that can be adopted to limit the harms related to alcohol consumption.
Leading by design, rather than resigning to the default
So, what are the opportunities for alcohol companies to navigate the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to lead their customers towards healthier and more responsible behaviours? We know that crises are moments in history when new behaviours manifest themselves and take shape in the society. Some of these behaviours will fade away, but some others will remain and shape the normality that will follow the crisis. Taking an active role in the definition of the ‘new-norm’ can be a great opportunity for companies to influence behaviours and steer society towards more positive outcomes. If properly handled, the current situation could be turned into a win-win scenario for both consumers, companies, and governments that eventually have to carry the burden of resolving all the issues related to alcohol misuse.
The context of consumer experiences, and untapped opportunity
In his 2001 book, “The Tipping Point”, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the concept of “the power of context”. According to this principle, behaviours are sensitive to the conditions and the time and places in which they occur. The context for alcohol consumption that COVID-19 has opened up is completely new and in continuous evolution. The social dimension of drinking as we knew it has been challenged by the enforcement of lockdown and social distancing norms are likely to last even when bars and pubs are allowed to open to the public again. In this unprecedented scenario, new opportunities are emerging for design to improve the experience while encouraging a more responsible and safer consumption.
Focusing the attention on the larger/holistic experience rather than the product itself, allows companies to find new opportunities for innovation, and eventually revenue, without having to push for volumes.
Some of the experiential dimension that could be explored could be:
1. “Tasting experiences” It slows the experience (especially when drinks are paired with food) and allows to shift the attention on quality (higher spending per ml) rather than quantity (cheaper drinks, lower spending per ml)
2. “New social experiences” Designing experiences that shift the attention to the social opportunity enabled by the drink, rather than the drink itself (promoting binge drinking).
3. “New purchase experiences:”Experiences that leverage new channels (e.g. DTC, home delivery) that introduce positive friction to help consumers controlling their alcohol intake. This is the case of Beavertown, having quickly shifted their business online and to a direct to consumer model (source >)
4. “New product/consumption experiences” Product experiences that are designed to discourage alone/binge drinking for example through packaging.
5. “Awareness experiences” Experiences that use leverage on the attention on science facts and data grown throughout the COVID-19 crisis, to raise awareness of consumer rather than leveraging on their instincts and aspirations (e.g. old fashion advertisements that show drinking as an aspirational figure – wine and some craft beers are often doing a better job at that).
While some of the efforts of alcohol companies to have a positive impact throughout the crisis are to be praised (such as the production of hand sanitizer), working to focus on disruptive solutions that innovate their core offer and go beyond the horizon of the crisis can be an opportunity for companies to have a more effective and lasting impact.