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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Find the gap

Brett Goldhawk explains why drinking games don’t land the loyalty

The loyal customer is a valuable thing. Regular income. More likely to try your other products. A propensity to say positive things about you to others.

So why do beverage brands risk that nirvana by missing too many cues to attract, keep and own a loyal base?

Three key principles of winning customer attention are going missing in action.

Namely on shelf stand out where a copycat/playing it safe mentality levels the playing field to a point of blandness.

Built on by lack of messaging, context, and place for specific products in life, when some smarter alternatives are making people think and revaluate.

And an over focus on short-term claims, especially in the sustainability realm, where winning immediate shelf space has taken priority over authenticity and long-term wins, thinking the savvy consumer won’t catch on…

All of which show a ‘game playing’ approach becoming more dominant than having an actual strategy. Copying ‘them’ to steal share, back and forth in a seesaw motion. Parking the bus to avoid heavy defeat but never really aiming to win. Bamboozling rather than playing by or changing the rules.

On the packaging front, let’s take Seltzers as an example. A category that didn’t exist a few years ago, and therefore a shot in the arm for the premixed alcohol sector that helped take it from alcopops and traditional drinks in a can, to something that sounded both retro and new at the same time and ticking many consumer cues for what they are looking for in a product.

But look now at the wall of options on a supermarket shelf, or an online site, and play a game of spot the difference. Same can format? Check. A sea of white? Check. Same claims? Check. Broadly the same flavour cues? Have a guess…

Suddenly we have a category that looks ‘establishment’ rather than disruptive, brands that blur, consumer choices that will be initially random, and dwell time that is less fuelled by surprise and excitement and more by confusion. And where can brand loyalty find a place in that?

The challenge for smart brand and packaging design needs an understanding of what works for consumers. But that comes from listening to them, and not to the competition. And really listening, watching, and observing; not replacing listening with a tick box focus group exercise.

It also – for the bold and those wishing to build their own audience rather than benefit from a generic category audience – needs to look at what others are not doing. Find the gap.

Stand out matters. Originality matters. And brands that have made waves over the years are those that have broken the rules rather than followed them slavishly. These brands have also built loyal followings; Brewdog. Beavertown. Innocent. Oatly.

As these brands suggest, you don’t need to be universally adored to win, but it helps to attract a tribe by being fresh in thought, look and branding. (Several also come with important lessons of ‘jumping the shark’ and believing their own hype, but more on that later).

But as these all suggest, the branding stage needs to ask the hard questions, not the easy ones. To be challenging and ‘what if?’ rather than following a tried and tested model.

Because that route leads to the second problem of comfort zoning for the long term, based on long standing cultural understanding without reflection of changing times or what disrupters do. Relevance gets parked due to too much reverence for what a brand, product or even category stands for.

So, for Cask Ale (in decline) having a loyal base is something many brands are proud of. But loyalty funnels need topping up. And for cask, those loyal fans are getting older, staying older, and thanks to the rules of life, becoming fewer.

Meaning tradition needs to have more modernity added into the mix. It isn’t throwing out what a brand stands for, but again it’s the magic word of listening to what is going to appeal to the next gen and spending time looking ahead on that.

That might be messaging, cultural associations, use of the right storytellers, time and place, packaging, values, the people behind the brand. What it isn’t is standing still and ignoring the innovation thread and opportunity.

So, the Tea category, we are looking at you too. Have you seen what coffee has done? Provenance. Craft. Flavours and strengths. Serving rituals. Merging out-of-home and in-home occasions. And of course, the ability to charge a fortune for the humble coffee bean.

And what have you done? In everyday black tea terms, decline.

Yes, there is more focus on herbals, health and wellness, and super teas but it feels like being years late to the party. It’s the challenger new brands – Clover Botanicals, Tea Rex, Tea Pop – bringing something fresh at last, but the market leaders are missing the boat by tweaking messages, repeating classic mantras, and being super traditional in most of what they do. Rearranging deckchairs.


I’m not convinced long term reputation/familiarity and repeating what’s worked in the past is the route to long term or new sources of loyalty. The data of black tea decline suggests that too. Of course, we all love our cuppa – but coffee sales are double those of tea according to Kantar data. And Unilever has sold its classic black tea brands of PG Tips, Brooke Bond and Lipton to private equity last year, as they focus on brands that can make a difference instead.

It’s a question of timing. Don’t miss the tipping point. Don’t live in the comfort zone. Spend time exploring what is authentically interesting to customers today and tomorrow rather than yesterday. And refresh.

And speaking of authentic…

I’m not saying the loyalty game is easy. It requires effort, boldness, challenge and breaking free from the pack without throwing out everything to do so. Just throwing out some parts.

But at the heart of this is not playing games with your audience for that quick win, or for a tick box ‘of the moment’ choice without thought for what comes next.

Because loyal customers that feel cheated can quickly become vocal critics.

And especially in the emotional space of sustainability, greenwashing and marketing led approaches that shout loud and proud about overclaims.

Innocent have recently had an ad banned for ‘plastic washing’, by suggesting closer links to positive environmental contribution than the 32,000 bottles an hour they manufacture might otherwise suggest. A very public shaming.

In 2018, Starbucks released a “straw-less lid,” to support their sustainability goals, which all sounded good, but the new lid contained more plastic than the old lid and straw did. Yes, it was more recyclable plastic than before, but with global recycling levels still too low it added to the bigger problem rather than reduced it.

So nice marketing claims can lead the way with good impressions. But if it is just an impression, you are playing a loaded deck with your loyal base and/or building a temporary version of one that can backfire. Marketing sledgehammers are not the answer, when genuine journey storytelling is what people want and need to hear. No one has completed the journey, so understanding where you are on the progression curve matters much more than forcing your way to the front of the queue as the headline act.

The glue here from all these challenges for loyalty lies in understanding the audience, asking the right questions, and thinking around how packaging, context and messaging can work smoothly together to show a brand in motion, that doesn’t just follow the crowd.

Loyalty is not a given, and if you park the bold, run before you can walk, or don’t look above the broad rivals, can you really be surprised if it starts to wane?


Brett Goldhawk
Brett Goldhawk
Brett Goldhawk Managing Director, Ziggurat, Brett is a global brand and innovation specialist. He leads Ziggurat, a brand and packaging design agency which has been based in the heart of London for over 35 years. Specialising in the food and drink sectors, Ziggurat has created and launched countless category leaders. https://ziggurat.london

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