The impacts of COVID-19 have been far-reaching, even hindering our ability to head to the pub for a drink with loved ones and friends. Such a shift was sure to have an impact on our drinking habits, with long lasting implications and presenting new challenges and opportunities for industry.
To better understand how we drink, why we drink, where we drink and who we drink with led our advertising agency, The Works, to create Course Corrector – a research initiative that aggregates first-party survey data, search behaviour and social sentiment data with industry research.
It’s revealed fascinating insights that show the acceleration of three prevalent trends within the industry; conscious consumption, premiumisation and isolated drinking. Coupled with the forces of change imposed on us by the pandemic, these have resulted in shifting attitudes and behaviours that are welcoming in a new happy hour for Australians.
In order to tackle these forces of change, brands will need to consider the modern occasions in which we drink and whether the new drinking experience (or DX as we’re calling it) should be considered in their long-term strategy.
It’s well reported that consumers are starting to drink less, particularly younger generations. Interestingly, we’ve noticed that the pandemic is accelerating this decline in consumption across all generations. Over a quarter (26%) of 18-34 year-old’s have made a conscious effort to lower their alcohol intake as a result of COVID-19, with 17% of the broader population following suit.
It appears that a key reason for this drop in consumption is our growing hesitation and fear of returning to social venues like pubs and restaurants.
A huge 73% of the respondents to our survey said they will completely avoid or reduce how often they go out to socialise. And, of this same group, 23% reported feelings of anxiety and worry – a figure that jumps to over a quarter when focusing on Victorians alone, who are experiencing their second lockdown since the virus presented in Australia. Another contributing factor, and a likely indicator of why this behaviour will endure post-pandemic, is the enlightening experience of a hangover-free weekend. Over 18% of respondents reported foregoing a night out drinking as a result of enjoying the reclaimed time spent with loved ones or working on newfound interests.
Of course, drinking and socialising won’t disappear entirely anytime soon; we’re all social creatures with a fundamental need to connect. Instead, we expect consumers will start exploring new ways to entertain and enjoy a drink – all the while being that little bit more responsible. For brands this means finding new ways to engage the conscious drinker, whether through creating new drinking occasions or new forms of entertainment. This is especially important while dealing with adversity.
Alcohol brands have the opportunity to help to facilitate the new DX. Take Bombay Sapphire for example, which launched a series of online classes, workshops and cocktail-making sessions in the US in ‘a multi-platform learning experience’. The project, named Create-From-Home, made in partnership with several other online brands, is designed to inspire at-home learning as COVID-19-sparked quarantine forces people inside and limits our entertainment options.
From binge to boujee
Despite a reported drop in overall volume drunk, we’re still pouring the leftover cash into the industry. This combination of conscious consumption, and going out less, has given alcohol premiumisation a much-needed boost.
This means consumers are less likely to binge but more likely to splurge and spoil themselves. Data from CommBank, for example, indicates that on average Australians’ expenditure at bottle shops has increased by 28% YoY (April 2020). Add this to what we’ve seen in consumer behaviour over the last three months – more people buying spirits, whisky and red wine – and you get a pretty clear picture. Almost a quarter (23%) of 18-34 year-old’s have been buying more spirits versus 9% of the rest of the population.
With the trend of premiumisation further evident as a result of COVID-19, brands should consider how to elevate their product or give consumers a taste of the VIP. Premium wine delivery services Vinomofo and Mo Sisters, are both great examples of brands doing more to service the new DX of younger audiences. Both saw huge uplifts in traffic and sales during COVID-19 (Vinomofo reported sales uplifts of between 50-75% YoY).
Their services go beyond just the instagrammable delivery to create unique experiences that keep audiences engaged. Take the lucky dip from Vinomofo, which invites customers to buy a case of 11 known wines and one wildcard wine entry, which could be a $700 1995 Penfolds Grange, if you’re lucky. Random acts of kindness is another DX initiative from the brand, allowing customers to nominate a loved one, group or business to receive a surprise bottle. Even small changes like these can help deliver a surprise and delight experience for consumers, building brand favourability.
Bottom of the bottle
While premiumisation is great for those who can afford it, we can’t ignore that there is a large proportion of Australians who have been negatively affected by the pandemic: 38% have had their main source of income impacted and 69% believe they will be affected financially.
Data from the ABS shows 32% of Australians have concerns over their own, a friend or a family members’ current drinking habits.
The government has also raised concerns over this group, revealing loneliness and isolation as major factors. What we learnt is that of those who reported an increase in how much they’re drinking, 9% were more likely to be drinking alone. Worryingly, 40% of this group have had less communication with friends and family, and 28% reported feelings of worry and despair in regards to their financial situation.
Traditionally, the pub acted as a forum for friends and family to share concerns, alleviate stress and overcome struggles. These opportunities are particularly important for those who live alone or are isolated, but alcohol brands need to remain responsible in how they market their products and be mindful of at-risk groups.
The new drinking habits opportunity
I see an opportunity for brands to help bring these groups together in the new DX, finding ways to replace the connections that many have lost due to the pandemic, whether virtually or via creative uses of physical venues and partnerships.
Take Stella Artois, which has taken to the streets to replace the pub with a colourful mural, designed with socially-distanced booths for people to sit, enjoy a beer and interact. Or AB InBev’s Natural Light, which stepped in to support Gen Z’ers missing out on their graduation, providing an alternative forum for them to celebrate via a virtual college commencement ceremony on Facebook Live. The event, featuring speakers including Mark Cuban, actress Jane Lynch and Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini, sought to celebrate graduates around the world and ‘boost spirits’. Busch Beer is also supporting young people missing out on their post-work happy hour by hosting a ‘Trivia Happy Hour’ on Facebook Live.
What we’re entering is the new age of DX, one that the industry will have a big impact on. It will be interesting to see how brands react to consumers on the lookout for new experiences and new drinking habits as they continue to entertain and socialise at home. What role will they play in creating these new occasions? Will we find these new occasions in the home and will it be permanent, or will we see new creative executions entirely?
James Reeves is a senior strategist at advertising agency The Works.