It's not the 80s, so let's stop lumping drinkers into one homogenous tribe

The 'drinker' of 2015 is discerning, conservative and increasingly driven by moderation. Marketers need to cater to the complex modern consumer, because the glossy booze posters of the 1980s just don't cut it anymore, argues Nick Vale, global head of planning at Maxus.

Alcohol: the consumers of today are increasingly driven by self control and moderation
Alcohol: the consumers of today are increasingly driven by self control and moderation

The relationships that people have with alcohol today are more complex than they’ve ever been before, and not just in an increasingly health-conscious developed world. Across the globe, across age groups, we are seeing a seismic shift in attitudes to brands and drinking, brought sharply into focus by research we have just carried out on the sector, called The Drinking Code

The major finding of the study – which analysed 6,500 adults across Australia, China, Germany, India, the UK and the US – is that moderation, responsibility and self-control are the new rules of consumption for global audiences, with 78% of respondents saying it’s important to drink in moderation. 

This new, moderate world the desire for familiarity, reliability and predictability trumps the desire for new taste titillation

Let me say that again. Moderation. Responsibility. Self-control. None of those behaviours sound particularly appealing if you’re a drinks marketer, right? They’re enough to turn you to, erm, Bud Light… you might initially be forgiven for thinking.

I say ‘initially’ because, as our study found, behind this significant global trend is much marketing potential for new experiences and more immersive, personalalised alcohol communications.

For instance, we found that, as consumers moderate their drinking habits, they are tending to prioritise one or two favourite brands, showing strong loyalty.

As well as this, the quality of the entire consumption experience is far more front-of-mind than cost factors. The stats show, for instance, that 62% always stick to one or two alcohol brands, with German drinkers in particular saying they are willing to pay more for a higher quality beverage.

A retreat into conservatism?

Overall, consumers worldwide are less likely to try a new tipple with most drinking only three types of alcohol per week: just 39% of those surveyed enjoy experimenting with different drinks. Furthermore, over a third said alcohol should only be reserved for special occasions - this sentiment is strongest in China, with 42% believing this, and weakest in the UK, at 22%.

In this new, moderate world the desire for familiarity, reliability and predictability trumps the desire for new taste titillation. This may sound like bad news (or at least hard work) for drinks launches, but it’s good news for any brands that make this exclusive shortlist.

The opportunity to talk to potentially-loyal drinkers on an infinitely more personal level is also much easier today, thanks to digital and programmatic 

So, what’s driving this retreat to conversatism, away from experimentation? At Maxus we believe it’s because the Zeitgeist trend, "FOMO" (fear of missing out), is taking a strong hold here; we live in a world of so much choice, but the fear of ruining a special, prized, fizz-worthy moment by potentially making a poor drinks decision is just too much to bear for today’s more controlled consumer.

Hence, if you’re a drinks marketer today, good recommendations (either explicit or implicit) from trusted sources are your Holy Grail. As is creating an ideal environment for the experience to be deemed a success. And – more good news – due to the advent of social media, consumers are more actively seeking the opinions of other people who they perceive to be "like them". This means the opportunity to quickly graduate to preferred status is potentially much swifter than in the days of the more promiscuous drinkers. 

The opportunity to talk to potentially-loyal drinkers on an infinitely more personal level is also much easier today, thanks to digital and programmatic technology. But it means we need to understand our drinks consumers as individuals, rather than lumping them into one homogenous tribe, as has often been done by alcohol marketers historically. 

Moderate, self controlled drinking

The Drinking Code, for example, identifies seven consumer "need" states which describe the mindset that different drinkers are in, and which shape how marketers need to talk to them at that moment. These are: self-controlled, rewarding, acceptance, individuality, recommendations, special moments and inspiration.

But it’s also vital that we understand the role of individuals within a social group enjoying an alcohol occasion. By knowing the particular need states within this group dynamic, marketers can tailor communications accordingly.

We are no longer living in an 'Absolut' world, where plastering a surreal, glossy poster of a vodka bottle everywhere was enough to build your cool credentials

For instance, the Code identifies three core social roles in groups of Millennials on nights out: the leaders (has the big idea for what to do); the facilitators (make it happen, often the jokers, eccentrics or sensible ones); and the followers (usually, either shy or party animals, there for the ride).

Clearly, the way that brands need to talk to these segments will differ and the key channel to do that is, increasingly, mobile. A brand which wants to be valued on a night out, for example, needs to be asking questions like: what message does the leader / facilitator / follower need? How can my brand make this special occasion more enjoyable and memorable for each individual? What rituals can my brand encourage by incentivising the group in some way? How can this communication aid the discovery of my brand?

We are no longer living in an "Absolut" world, where plastering a surreal, glossy poster of a vodka bottle everywhere was enough to build your cool credentials. Today’s moderate, self-controlled drinking classes are much more discerning.

This is not the eighties: in 2015, when it comes to alcohol brands, there must be substance to support the style.