Remember Binge Britain? Only a few short years ago we were really worried about young people drinking too much, falling over and showing their pants. And now, suddenly, we’re worrying they’re not drinking enough. What are they up to?

Judging by the top-line statistics, the move away from alcohol among the young has been dramatic, driving the decline in UK consumption over the past 15 years.

A study of 10,000 16 to 24-year-olds last year found that 29% of them didn’t drink at all, up from 18% in just 10 years. Burrow beneath the surface, though, and a more complex picture begins to emerge.

In June, drinks marketing agency Yes More, which works with brands such as Bacardi, Aperol, Grey Goose, Renegade Wine and Crumbs Brewing, combined with student marketing firm Hype Collective to release a report that threw up a few surprises. Discussions with six focus groups around the UK revealed students are still doing a lot of drinking, but they’re doing it differently.

As well as a shift towards drinking at home, young people no longer feel the peer pressure to consume alcohol that previous generations did. They are more aware of mental health issues and the part alcohol plays in them.

But they don’t see the point in alcohol-free beers, wines and spirits, preferring a glass of water if they choose not to drink. And when they do drink they have a complex relationship with brands, rejecting the mainstream but lacking the cash to turn to craft.

Yes More director Tom Harvey finds the messages retailers might take from the research thought-provoking and far from straightforward.

“That students are staying in is a positive for the off-trade, of course,” he says. “Living room entertainment has improved and people no longer have to go to the pub for the experience. Even students have HD TVs and films at their fingertips, and the quality is fantastic. And you can get sound system-quality from a Bluetooth speaker in the park.

“There’s a cost element, too. When students drink it’s functional, based on price and abv,” he adds. “Retailers should be jumping on this trend.

“You can reach an audience that’s talking and drinking at home by tapping into big TV shows,  such as Love Island or Game of Thrones.

“And for the more impulsive occasion, the party on the beach, you need to think about pre-mixed drinks in cans and wines. The market is catching up with that, though there’s a question over whether students see the value of pre-mixed against mixing it themselves.”

Across the week students are drinking less frequently, and when they drink they want their money’s worth, so while they might have a favourite category the price tag is more important than the label.

Within that, though, the most popular brands are associated with poor quality, and two-thirds of the students said they’d rather try something they’d never heard of, assuming it to be better, which runs directly counter to the marketing orthodoxy around “trusted names”.

Behind this, Harvey believes, is a young person who is “trying to stand out and craft an identity”. He says: “They want to be different in their formative years and will reject global brands in favour of the unknown – which can still be cheap.”

He quotes the example of Dragon Soop, an 8% abv mix of schnapps, caffeine and other stimulants in a 50cl can that retails at around £3. Virtually unheard of south of the border, “the Scots are lapping it up”.

“But for students, who they socialise with, and where, has priority over what they drink. It’s about finding a new group of friends, finding an identity. The group they choose to be with tells them who they are.”

That choice is, increasingly, a group in which drink does not play a part.

Alcohol-free events have even crept into freshers’ weeks, notorious for boozy exploits. “Social situations without a drink used to make people feel uncomfortable but students don’t care about that any more,” says Harvey. “People can be alcohol-free and proud. They’ve not grown up with the stigma. It’s not a problem.”

One of the more surprising results from the research is that 80% of the students said they wouldn’t feel self-conscious about ordering a non-alcoholic drink. It seems peer pressure around drinking, so powerful in the past, is diminishing, and part of the reason for that is a growing health consciousness – and, crucially, a new openness around mental health.

According to Harvey the link between alcohol and mental health works in two directions. Anxiety and depression might cause people to drink, and hangovers might trigger an episode.

“The younger generation are open to improving their mental health, and better communications with social circles means they can offload, talk to someone immediately without having to meet their mates at the pub.

“Social media has largely been a good influence, but it’s a shop window for ourselves,” he goes on. “You start curating a profile that projects the best of you, requiring self-awareness of what you’re taking into your body, including drink.”

This doesn’t mean the end of drink, but it throws down a challenge to the trade to better understand and empathise with the young consumers who are forming the future marketplace.

As Luke Boase, founder of low-alcohol beer Lucky Saint puts it: “Socialising used to mean going to the pub, it was focused around alcohol. Now we are moving towards a more experiential society, not characterised by sitting around a table drinking. The role a drinks industry might play in that is fascinating.”

Marketing mores

A generation that’s not only drinking less but consciously managing its alcohol consumption with a mind on mental health presents a large and interesting challenge to an industry that’s more used to marketing to carefree youth.

Yes More’s Tom Harvey believes drinks producers and retailers can relate to the modern mindset by going beyond the responsibility rules set out by the Portman Group, which from September will explicitly outlaw marketing to vulnerable people.

“I know it’s contentious,” he says. “We don’t want more rules but we want to be genuinely marketing alcohol responsibly. The industry can do more than tick boxes. Not marketing to vulnerable people is only the starting point. We need to proactively break the link between alcohol and negative behaviours such as drinking to relieve stress and anxiety that only makes poor mental health worse.

“It’s tough, though, for retailers to avoid targeting vulnerable people, unless it’s on the basis of age. The whole area needs more debate. But I find the ‘Monday blues, drink booze’ kind of message appalling.”

Amy Powell, compliance manager at promotions agency Promo Veritas, warns against deliberately targeting a younger audience, however, even with the kind of messages Harvey suggests.

“Brands are shifting and doing their best to address this new consciousness around alcohol and mental health, but they can’t market to under-25s. There’s no way around that.

“You can, though, reach your audience by putting certain values out there, whether it’s craft, organic, your support for charities or other relevant issues.

“Young people identify with the brands they consume, brands that are ethical, that stand for something, and drinks producers need to meet those standards. It’s not a bottle of White Lightning on
a park bench any more. 

“So you have to understand what they want from a brand, what it means to them to drink that brand, and think more deeply about what the brand stands for. If you can align its values with the target audience that’s a massive positive leap.”

Low and no-alcohol growth

As people become more health-conscious and the quality of alcohol-free and low-alcohol beers, wines and spirits has improved, we’re certainly seeing some strong growth in these categories – but, surprisingly perhaps, it’s not generation Z that’s driving the trend.

Students in the focus groups considered these drinks too expensive and few had ever even bought one. 

It’s something alcohol-free drinks producers have already come to realise, switching their target market to older age groups.

“Students are not really engaging with alcohol-free drinks,” says Luke Boase, founder of 0.5% abv lager Lucky Saint. “It does depend on the occasion but our feedback suggests that if people are not drinking they are more open-minded about what they will consume.

“Price point is important. Students are not affluent and soft drinks and water are cheaper. And alcohol-free does not have the functional benefit.

“So our target is not the 18-24s. The strongest resonance we’ve felt is among the 30-40 age group, people who have more responsibilities and drink low-alcohol beer for health and general well-being. That’s our sweet spot.”

Alex Carlton, founder of alcohol-free spirit Stryyk, agrees.

“When I set up the business I imagined generation Z would be a big part of our market,” he says. “After all, they’re drinking less and they’re health conscious. But the research is pretty accurate. Students don’t have deep pockets and because they haven’t grown up with alcohol they haven’t developed a taste for it. 

“As brand owners we want to spend our marketing money where the audience lies, and that’s older people. 

“We did, though, support the Red Bull Tour Bus that visits university towns, and our Not-Rum spirit flew out,” he adds. “We shifted 10 cases in York – but we were giving it away. Students like it. They just won’t spend £17 on a bottle.”