Hard seltzers hit the UK market in ‘the biggest fight in booze marketing for years’

Kopparberg and Coca-Cola have both released hard seltzers this year.

Mike's Hard Seltzer: campaign urged viewers not to 'overthink' the brand
Mike's Hard Seltzer: campaign urged viewers not to 'overthink' the brand

If you aren’t especially familiar with hard seltzers, chances are you will be very shortly.

With the drink style – essentially a flavoured sparkling water with alcohol – making its way across the pond via brands such as the widely parodied US favourite White Claw, Coca-Cola’s Topo Chico and BrewDog's effort Clean & Press, the clamour to become the UK's biggest hard seltzer brand has begun.

The market in the UK is small so far, with total sales in the past year of just £4.3m, according to Nielsen. But if the US – where sales in the 12 months to June reached a whopping $2.7bn (£2.1bn) – is anything to go by, the opportunity for brands here is huge. 

“There is a dogfight to be had,” Michael Scantlebury, founder and director of creative agency Impero, told Campaign.

“It's basically going to shape itself really quickly, like a beer category. Brewdog are entering from the craft perspective, then come hero brands, craft brands, niche brands, the small players, local brands and whatnot.”

Impero become one of the first to dip its toes into the category when it was tasked with creating a campaign for Budweiser Brewing Group UK&I (BBG) brand Mike’s Hard Seltzer.

“It's the biggest fight in booze marketing for years, and it's about taking a very British view to it without being labelled as a British brand," Scantlebury continued. 

Hard seltzers' emergence into the UK market has its own unique range of teething problems, the most obvious of which is its name.

According to Martin Pasco, global food and drink analyst at Mintel, “it wouldn’t be an easy win to translate the success of US hard seltzers to the UK” because Brits may not instinctively recognise the “US colloquial terms” behind the category’s name: “hard” (containing distilled spirits) and “seltzer”(carbonated water).

“In the UK a seltzer is a stomach antacid," Scantlebury pointed out. "So we just wanted to cut through all the bullshit and explain to people that they don't have to overthink this – it's alcoholic sparkling water.”

Attempting to step away from the tone of White Claw (the popularity of which has been helped along by its meme-worthy status in popular culture), Impero opted to appeal to Britain’s youth with its campaign, “Don’t overthink it”.

The ad describes Mike’s Hard Seltzer as “alcoholic sparkling water with real fruit flavours”, contrasting its uncomplicated nature with a character called Debbie, who is pictured posing backwards on a horse.

“That was that fundamental idea of the campaign – you got to learn about Italian culture if you want a negroni, so don't overthink it and fucking have some booze,” Scantlebury said.

With the hard seltzer market preparing for a boom, May saw cider brand Kopparberg throw its hat into the ring with Kopparberg Hard Seltzer, which markets itself as a lower-calorie alternative to other drinks but with more flavour than competing brands.

Targeting Gen-Z, Rob Salvesen, head of marketing at Kopparberg, said the brand’s hard seltzer was aimed at people who are “interested in what they’re putting in their bodies”.

“UK consumers are taste-driven and are spoiled for choice,” Salvesen told Campaign

“From beers to cider to ready-to-drink premixed cans, UK consumers are constantly searching for delicious-tasting drinks and see alcoholic beverages as a treat rather than a health or lifestyle category.”  

Across the pond, Salvesen remarked that “bland, low-cal drinks” such as Coors Light and Miller Lite have gained popularity, but have “failed to capture the attention or love of the UK consumer”.

The evidence on that is inconclusive, however. BBG may have decided against launching Bud Light Seltzer in the UK, but it did reintroduce Bud Light, the low-alcohol lager, to the UK in 2017 – 16 years after it left the market following poor sales.

Three years later, the company is now ranked as the UK’s number one brewer by volume sales since the start of 2020, which UK president Paula Lindenberg has credited to the strength of brands including Bud Light.

Salvesen noted that advertising rules over communicating sugar or carb content may cause difficulties in the UK market, with the Committee of Advertising Practice declaring that alcoholic products must not make claims about health, fitness or weight control. 

“Hard seltzers definitely have an uphill battle in the UK,” he said.

Trevor Robinson, founder and executive creative director of Quiet Storm, likened hard seltzers to alcopops, which like the newer products, gained popularity in the 1990s among “kids [18- to 24-year-olds] who really didn't like the taste of alcohol”. Mike's Hard Seltzer is itself a spin-off of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, which launched in 1999 at the height of popularity for alcopops.

Robinson warned marketers to avoid the pitfalls of advertising an American product to a British audience.

“If you do American, you gotta do it well,” the Quiet Storm founder said.

“You’ve got to tap into the parts of their culture that we're not rejecting, because (as you could probably see with Brexit) the British walk a very slender line to liking and disliking what's foreign.”

He continued: “It's easy to rebrand hard seltzer because people still don't know what the hell it means.”

Looking forward, Scantlebury suggested there were two directions for hard seltzer brands to adopt within their marketing.

Firstly, “the Campari school of thought”, in which brands lean in to where they are from, as seen in the brand identity of beer brands Peroni and Corona

Or the alternative: brands can opt for the dry humour of the Brits in a bid to better resonate with their target market (as adopted by Mike’s Hard Seltzer).