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Beer Branding: The Pivoting Pilsner Plan

Beer Branding: The Pivoting Pilsner Plan

Beer Branding: The Pivoting Pilsner Plan
Why the biggest beer brands are turning to new non-alcoholic lines of their brews
4 min. READ
Beer Branding: The Pivoting Pilsner Plan
Why the biggest beer brands are turning to new non-alcoholic lines of their brews

St. Patty’s Day is here! It’s high time to celebrate with a delicious alcoholic beverage, right? Maybe not... Recently, the biggest beer brands are turning to new non-alcoholic lines of their brews. But why? Let’s dive into the market for this style of beverage and see how brands are pivoting their advertising strategies accordingly.

Let me first start by saying: Here at VI, we love a good beer, especially around St. Patty’s Day. I should know… As an elected official, (VI’s “Beer Club President”) I’ve got to stay on top of the best bevs, because our crew gathers once a week to sip on cold brews and hear the week’s agency announcements. Some of our local favorites? Recently, Roughtail Brewing Co.’s “Everything Rhymes With Orange”, a deep and delicious fruity IPA, has been flying off our kitchen fridge’s shelves. Our University of Oklahoma natives have been clinging to COOP Ale Works’ “Schooner American Ale”, which isn’t my very favorite COOP product, but it’s certainly a refreshing way to get those Sooner fans excited. If you stop by our office, beware: Our Motion team has been known to attempt to brew their own homemade beer on the 4th floor. All reports from those experiences indicate the experiment to be very “stinky”…

OK, back to the important stuff: The biggest names in the beer industry are racing to create the most delicious and attractive zero alcohol options. Why has this become such a popular route? After some research and personal thought (over a cold one, of course), here’s my analysis:

Younger generations of drinkers are becoming more health-conscious and more aware of their alcohol intake’s negative effects on their body, mind and life. As a result, customers’ attitudes towards non-alcoholic beer and other zero-alcohol options have shifted. According to a survey last summer, 39% of Americans said that consuming two alcoholic drinks a day is bad for one’s health. This belief, which seems to nicely align with recent studies, has increased by 11 points since 2018, and by 18 points among those aged 18-34. That’s a huge jump. We can clearly see: consumers have begun searching for new options, and in turn have become more open to the prospect of enjoying a zero-alcohol brew.

In the past, alcohol-free beer options like Anheuser Busch-InBev’s O’Doul’s and Molson Coors’ Sharp’s just haven’t cut it. They carried a reputation of being far less enjoyable flavor-wise than their company’s alcoholic options, which received far more attention as far as recipes and brewing process goes. “0.0 beer has always been there, but it was stagnant, it was low quality, it was bad taste, and it was not growing,” Dolf van den Brink, Heineken’s CEO, said during the brewer’s Capital Markets Day event in December.

This may be a classic chicken-and-egg scenario, but right around the time that negative sentiment towards the health impacts of alcohol started to linger in the mind of the young consumer, major beverage companies started prioritizing their non-alcoholic beer recipes and brewing processes, giving them far more attention and care. Today, these new efforts and emphasis are bringing forth better zero-alcohol beers. Brands like Heineken 0.0 and Guinness 0 have proven that non-alcoholic options can be just as tasty and enjoyable as their alcoholic twins.

With tastier options to tout and a little bit of sentiment in favor of a healthier non-alcoholic option, brands have begun the task of shaping their zero-alcohol beverage’s images to further entice the audience.

Take Heineken, for example, a brand that soars in the non-alcoholic beer space with options like Heineken 0.0. Last year they put together a campaign with spokesperson Paul Rudd at the helm, promoting Heineken 0.0 as the popular Marvel superhero Ant Man.

Here’s my first thought on this Heineken ad: This is just a run of the mill, classic spokesperson/movie/product cross promotion. Nothing groundbreaking, we see this all the time. Same ol’, same ol’, right? Well, maybe that’s the point. It’s a normal, not-so-groundbreaking promotion for a drink that, dare I say, might just be normal and not-so-groundbreaking? Exactly what that drink needs to be: a normal option. The best-case scenario for zero-alcohol beer companies is the public not viewing their brew as a compromise, an unusual option, or a standout. Even the look of the product maintains Heineken’s classic green glass bottle. I know several dry drinkers who are proud of their sobriety and willing to shout it from the rooftops, but others may not want to draw attention to themselves, and options like this normalize zero-alcohol options for drinkers who don’t want the fuss that may have been previously associated with a zero-alcohol beer.

Other approaches include touting the benefits of enjoying beer while working out. Take popular non-alcoholic beer brand Athletic Brewing. Their commercials showcase the beauty of enjoying a brew will you stay fit, a perspective you certainly can’t hold with a thick alcoholic IPA in your koozie…

Another effective approach in bringing new zero-alc drinkers on board include the long roster of other benefits: no hangover, being able to drive safely after a night out with friends… heck, you can even drink at work! All very compelling arguments that are being presented beautifully through carefully crafted ads. Bravo.

Jenn Litz-Kirk, writer of a beer industry newsletter, says, “It’s not like O’Doul’s that you drink that because you can’t drink alcoholic beer, and is a bit of a compromise,” she said. “It’s like, this is actually a cool brand, and I drink it because I want to drink it.”

These approaches are working, and people are flocking to the shelves to enjoy a zero-alcohol beer. Leading up to our most recent “Sober October” (2023), non-alcoholic beverage sales were quickly rising, to the tune of a 32% increase year over year according to NIQ. Those sales are still increasing steadily. Last year, leading up to October, U.S. non-alcoholic sales mounted up to $524.3 million. While this mark is still only a fraction (2% last year) of total beer sales, it’s worth noting that alcoholic beer actually experiencing a 5% decrease in sales in 2023. Both pretty telling stats when compared to the 32% increase experienced in the non-alcoholic world.

As advertising strategies continue to evolve for these brands, we’ll be watching and learning with excitement. No matter the product, it’s always fun to see a new industry grow through the ranks to earn a national advertising market. Cheers!

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