The Emperor’s New Apparel

EmperorBack in the mid ‘90s I witnessed first hand the explosion in ‘alcopops’ …. or were they ‘flavoured alcoholic beverages’ (FABs)? Or even, as they were more widely known globally, RTDs, (“ready to drink”) – an odd name given that (a) it is way to close to STD and (b) most alcoholic drink products already were / are ready to drink. In the UK, it was kick-started with Hooper’s Hooch, quickly followed by Two Dogs that had already had rip-roaring success Down Under; both of these ‘alcoholic lemonades’ and swiftly followed by a raft of products, flavours, bases (vodka, rum, schnapps). To use the current vernacular: ‘Boom!’ … in the space of a few months, young adult drinkers were snapping them up; a new category was created, suppliers struggled to keep up, retailers, who months previously couldn’t find space for new products, were now creating acres of space wherever they could find it.

And there was a hoo-ha as well. Alcohol Concern were beyond concerned; they were deeply disgruntled and very worried. Here were products with a drinking profile that could appeal to minors. This, it was argued, was a dangerous new precedent, an easier form of alcohol, deliberately designed to lure defenceless people in.

Yet, it was highly unlikely to be top alcohol executives hatching some nefarious plot to attract underage drinkers. They were too busy scoffing claret, eating black pudding topped amuse-bouches around wood clad tables in meeting rooms with portraits of their venerable forefathers. That, and counting up their bonus and share options, to have such deep concerns. And more to the point, it was nothing new.

Rather, this was just the latest manifestation of a trend that we all too often miss in brand building. It’s drummed into us as aspiring brand managers to look for new: new positioning; new target consumer; new innovations; new trends. Sometimes it’s valid. Sometimes what you are doing just isn’t working, or perhaps a competitor is giving you a solid trouncing.   But more often than not it’s jumping through unnecessary hoops. And Alcohol just happens to be a good category to illustrate the point.

And it’s happening again, flying in under the cover of “Millennial” or “Generation Y”. See, they’re different, because they grew up in a connected, internet-fuelled world, where, rather than socialise down the pub, we tell our “story” via some App. They’re not the golden generation with final salary pension schemes and houses that have leapt in value twentyfold because they happen to be near the station in Berkhamsted. No, they’re well educated but impoverished techno-geeks with no real-world friends and therefore they’ll behave totally differently to how we did.

But lo! What is this I see before me? Flavoured Cider? With elderberries and strawberries? Kiwi and raspberry? Served from a bottle with a bright, textured label and into a glass over ice. Yet…, yet, it smells like an alcopop and… it tastes like one. Could it be? Could it be that really it is one? And what of Pimms Cider Cup? Or Lambrini? Or Fosters Rocks? FABs by any other name, catering to the same need that I had when I had the time and money to socialise!

Despite what is reported, those underlying needs and their manifestation in consumer behaviour is defined more by how similar it is, rather than how different it is to times past. We’re still human after all. Maslow still seems relevant today as it was a few years ago. It’s a basic life lesson that we seem to ignore, and a basic brand lesson which we treat with equal disdain – to our peril as tomorrow’s innovation is out there today.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to long-lasting success for categories and brands.; +44 (0) 1283 295100.

© The Crow Flies, 2015