As low and no alcohol leaves its niche past behind, the category is getting organised – and is getting even more attention.
“The low and no sector has seen unprecedented brand growth and shows no sign of stopping, with the category in the UK expected to reach a value of €1.3 billion by 2025,” says Gareth Bath, managing director at Diageo-backed incubator fund Distill Ventures.
“In 2021 alone, worldwide searches for ‘non-alcoholic’ grew by 10% compared to 2020.”
From the establishment of low/no off -licences such as the Club Soda pop-up in London earlier this year, to the presence of the low/no zone at the 2022 London Wine Fair, the sector is making itself seen and heard like never before.
Big industry players such as Heineken and Gordon’s are established in the arena with non-alcoholic versions of their well-known products. The category has matured at a quicker rate than many expected, as the pandemic accelerated the growth of the already fast-developing sector.
“The work/life balance has blurred for many in the past couple of years with home becoming our headquarters,” says Tom Smith, marketing director at Accolade Wines.
“Many people want something lighter during the working week, which has been a strong opportunity for low and no alcohol.”
While changing consumer attitudes towards alcohol have undoubtedly contributed to the newfound success of the category, more sophisticated marketing and category management is propelling low/no into the big leagues.
A large driver for the rise in mindful drinking is the change in attitude of younger consumers as 18 to 24-year-olds choose to drink less alcohol.
According to the Society of Independent Brewers’ British Craft Beer Report, one in three young adults have cut down on their alcohol consumption.
Accolade’s Smith says that one in three adults have consumed a low/no drink at home, but these numbers are even higher among Millennials and Gen Z – the age groups that have been “leading this trend for years”.
From increased concerns over mental and physical wellbeing to the search for premium halal drinks, there are copious reasons why Brits are opting for low/no options over their alcoholic counterparts.
Laura Willoughby, co-founder of Club Soda, says that while 26% of low and no drinkers are cutting down on alcohol to lose weight, 43% [of those choosing no/low drinks] are cutting down to improve their mental health, 38% want to feel physically healthier but included on social occasions, and 26% want to lose weight.
Delving further into drinking habits, Stuart Elkington, founder of online low/no retailer The Dry Drinker, says the low/no category is no longer for non-drinkers only, as category promotion becomes increasingly less segregated from that of alcoholic beverages.
“I’ve always said we’ve just got diff erent numbers on the back of our products,” he says. “We want to attract drinkers who just want to moderate for whatever reasons.”
Distill Ventures’ Bath notes the popularity of mindful drinking among consumers: “Today, consumers are enjoying non-alc spirits as part of a wide array of drinks, with the majority of purchasers in the category identifying as moderators, rather than abstainers.
“This appears to be the driver of non-alc category growth rather than teetotalism.”
As the line between drinker and non-drinker becomes increasingly blurred, premiumisation of low and no has encouraged consumers to dip their toes into the category.
Elkington says: “There’s some really great innovation going on at the moment and there’s a lot of excitement around premium products because people love those familiar copycat tastes.
“People no longer have to give up those premium moments like that five o’clock drink in the garden in the summer. Premium is something that’s worth tasting, regardless of low/ no-alcohol content.”
When it comes to progressive marketing for retailers, Elkington suggests starting small.
“Start with a couple of beers, start with a couple of wines, and then build the confidence of your staff and train them up to make a big feature of it in your business. Promote it as you would an alcoholic product and don’t be apologetic for marketing a low/no drink.”
Elegantly Spirited chief executive and co-founder of Strykk Alex Carlton adds: “Strykk’s strategy for growth is to create non-alcoholic spirits and liqueurs within reach of everyday shoppers, allowing everyone to moderate alcohol consumption. We make not drinking accessible, rather than just a privilege for the few.”
Behind the scenes, category governance is evolving rapidly to become increasingly streamlined and organised.
Marco Salazar is chief executive of US trade body the Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association (ANBA), which has just launched a UK and European arm.
He says: “There’s been a lot of organic growth over the past three to five years, with independent start-ups really innovating within the adult non-alcoholic beverage space, and coming out with really amazing non-alcoholic products that taste exactly like their alcoholic counterparts.
“But, there wasn’t a unifying body to help the space grow, which is why we started ANBA.”
Much like the increasing integration of low/no marketing into alcohol-oriented spaces, governance of the low/no sector is joining hands with the wider drinks industry. Salazar says: “We are always working with the alcoholic beverage industry, because we want all voices at the table.”
The ANBA has introduced an industry partner membership for non-producers, which is making low/no sales resources available to retailers and increasing the number of products on shelves. This membership band is available to UK retailers through ANBA’s UK arm.
A lack of legal restrictions on the sale of no/low products is also pushing the drinks industry into uncharted sales territory. At the moment, the low/no sector remains “largely free from the licensing regulations which restrict where alcohol can be sold”, notes Distill Ventures’ Bath.
“Non-alcoholic products are now appearing in a number of speciality retailers outside of conventional drinks channels as well, such as fashion retailers, coffee bars, and even gyms.”
As low/no also becomes progressively more unified, it has in turn become more politicised, with the UK government pledging to work with the drinks industry to “significantly increase” the availability of low/no alcohol products by 2025.
There are also moves afoot to increase the maximum abv for alcohol-free drinks from 0.05% to 0.5% in line with some other countries in Europe.
Not only is the low/no category no longer niche, it is becoming highly organised. As for the future, Club Soda’s Laura Willoughby says there is still plenty of room for growth and innovation.
“We will see more beer on draught and a race to produce the best-tasting wines. The alcohol-free off-licence proved that customer curiosity is high and there is still market share capture,” she says. “As consumers get used to adding in low and no to their diet, they will become more demanding in terms of quality and range.”