The arrival of Heineken’s Strongbow Ultra Dark Fruit has been one of the most talked-about drinks launches of 2022.
In case you’ve missed it – which would be difficult given its blanket supermarket distribution and the ubiquitous ad campaign featuring a purple goat – the drink is a spin-off from the original Strongbow Dark Fruit, which proved a game-changer in fruit cider when it launched in 2013. Dark Fruit remains the fruit cider market leader and is the number two brand in the off -trade cider market overall (Westons Cider Report 2022).
Ultra is a lower-calorie take (28kcal per 10cl against Dark’s 41kcal) and it comes in a slimline 33cl can instead of the standard Dark Fruit 44cl. Ultra also has perhaps a unique pitch as a “light cider” with the word dark in the name. The decision to go for a goat as the promotional animal of choice was a play on the popular social media acronym GOAT, meaning greatest of all time.
All taken together and Ultra appears to be playing to the ready-to-drink cocktail audience as much as the cider one. It’s also mixing it with hard seltzers, the low-calorie US boom – and possibly bust – category, on which the jury is still out in the UK despite a plethora of market entrants.
The Ultra move isn’t into completely uncharted territory for cider. Kopparberg launched its first Light brand extensions in 25cl cans as long ago as 2017, though sales director Neil Robinson says it remains in limited distribution and only in 50cl bottles. Kopparberg has also tested the water more recently with stand-alone non-cider hard seltzers.
“We’re doing a lot of work in the background in terms of how we develop that area,” says Robinson. “We’ve still got Passionfruit Light in a number of retailers and Wetherspoon. Whether we go more towards that area… maybe, maybe not.”
Robinson thinks Strongbow’s Ultra Dark Fruit “liquid itself is good”. He adds: “Slimline 33cls are in. They were developed by Red Bull originally and came through into alcohol. They’re on-trend, so it makes sense. “It’s taking an existing market in cider, with big penetration numbers, and developing off that where there is already interest.
“It’s managed to get multipacks in, and in some retailers it’s got a single can into the ready-to-serve fixture, so they’re dual-siting it, which is a nice manoeuvre. “Whether it would be right for us I wouldn’t comment at this stage, but I do think it’s a good move for [Heineken] and I do think it will be good for the cider category and create interest in it.”
Interestingly, Heineken’s launch pitch for Ultra Dark Fruit stopped short of overtly stating that it was a direct attempt to take on hard seltzer, even if the product and packaging similarities are obvious. Cider brands that are inspired to follow its lead might do well to similarly put distance between their slimline cider spin-offs and a completely new category that remains unproven.
“The hard seltzer market is in its very early days,” says Robinson, “and a number of brands are coming in from the big brewers. It’s very hard to say whether it’s going to become a big category or just a few brands doing quite well as an offering within ready-to-drink.”
Westons publicly stated at the launch of its annual Cider Report in the spring that it had looked seriously at launching into the cider/seltzer crossover space but had backed off because it was unconvinced about the opportunity.
“My personal view is that it is probably a passing fad,” says Darryl Hinksman, Westons’ head of customer marketing. “We’ve seen seltzers fall off a cliff in the US from the hype of two years ago when they were talking about a $4 billion category, and it’s lost about 25%.
“In Australia we’ve seen the same thing, where seltzers grabbed space from cider and now it’s gone back again. But what I do think Heineken has done is bridge the gap between a seltzer and a cider, and to that extent I admire what they’ve done.”
Robinson at Kopparberg has similar, if lesser, reservations. “It’s very early for hard seltzer still,” he says. “The US took four or five years to really catch fire and we’re only into year three in the UK.
“The market’s doing OK but there’s a lot of development to come. Repeat rates on hard seltzer in general don’t look particularly good or as strong as a lot of the rest of the RTS category. That could change, depending how this summer goes.”
Given the unqualified success of Strongbow Dark Fruit since it first appeared on the market nine years ago, it’s not hard to envision Ultra snaffling away many early adopters of hard seltzers. And if other leading brands gather their forces around the slim can, low calorie banner, cider could turn out to be the ultimate winner to emerge from all the hard seltzer hype.