Booze brands are snoozing and losing

Do mass alcohol brands still have the same relevance to consumers’ lives as they had in the past?

ALCOHOL MASTERSmirnoff, Absolut, Heineken, Budweiser, Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal. Big brands, with big budgets, big volumes, big visions – right? Whilst there’s no denying the size and power of these giants, this year’s Cultural Traction™ study shows that they might be under more pressure than we think, and up against some serious challenges to remain culturally relevant in the years ahead.

Between them, this collection of alcohol giants scored some of the lowest VIBEs of the study.

Perceptions of these brands as disruptive and having momentum (aka ‘Exciting’ in VIBE speak) are particularly low. Compare a lowly score of 72 for Smirnoff and Heineken with 103 for McDonald’s, BMW and Nike. Look at brands like Apple and Samsung and you’ll see scores virtually doubling the alcohol brands.


So what is going on? Why are the alcohol brands scoring so poorly overall and particularly on this key measure of momentum, innovation and progression?

The first reason is undoubtedly what’s going on in its own category.  In the last few years we’ve seen that category trends are no longer being driven by the big players, but by targeted, niche brands. Super-premium on the one hand and craft on the other have witnessed phenomenal growth.  In this context, the mass brands have increasingly come to represent a ‘safe’ but uninteresting choice.

But the Cultural Traction™ study highlights an even broader challenge – the decline of alcohol’s role and relevance in the world of consumers. Looking at the highest-ranking brands, it is technology that dominates. Whilst there may be an element of category impact going on here, we think it goes further than that. These brands are doing something for people which is meaningful and engaging, and which gives them a relevant cultural presence.

Whereas, people in the past have used mainstream alcohol brands to mark out their identity and status, technology brands are increasingly fulfilling this role. What phone you have is far more important in communicating your identity and values than the beer you choose to drink. And on top of this, technology brands are eroding the very ‘social bonding’ territory which has been the preserve of alcohol for so many years. The tech brands are trouncing alcohol in forming and facilitating interactions, experiences and relationships with and for their consumers – thus building affinity and cultural relevance.

The ‘Big Boys’ in alcohol need to recognize the shifts that are going on around them, not only in their own categories but in culture more broadly. They need to ask themselves the challenging question – do big brands in alcohol work and will they continue to work? They need to recapture the essence of what they can offer and express it in a relevant way. It’s time for a refresh.


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