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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Twisting her sobriety

Nobody knows the low and no alcohol segment better than mindful drinking pioneer and Club Soda Founder Laura Willoughby MBE. Here’s what she learned from opening the UK’s first pop-up alcohol-free off-license

At Club Soda, we said we would never make or sell drinks. Our goal has always been to navigate the consumer to the best low and no alcohol drinks so that they can drink more mindfully and live well. Then we opened a fantastically successful pop-up alcohol-free off-licence, the UK’s first of its kind. Now our minds have changed.

Our goal hasn’t changed, but our learning from four months running a shop has shown us that retail has the power to educate the consumer and the industry in a way we never imagined.

Are people changing their drinking habits?

We founded Club Soda in 2015, which means we predate the launch of Heineken 0.0 by a couple of years. When we first started, our ‘like Weight Watchers but with booze’ model was to support individuals to change their drinking habits using the best behaviour change science. We were there to help people cut down, stop for a bit, or quit alcohol.

The number of people making a change has grown phenomenally since we started. In 2021, as many as half (49 percent) of UK adults are either not drinking any alcohol, or are planning to cut down in the near future. This is a total market of over 25 million people.

And what motivates them? Regardless of age, mental health is a growing driver for changing drinking habits (43 percent), followed by physical health (38 percent), weight loss (26 percent), and getting fitter (17 percent). The taste of low and no drinks (which is getting better all the time) was also noted by a quarter (26 percent) of our 70,000 members.

Our online courses and research show that substitution is an essential technique for successful change in drinking habits. Just like switching out a chocolate bar for something with fewer calories, alcohol-free drinks allow people to moderate their drinking without compromising on the taste, social life, and that feeling of reward we get from alcohol. Our members complained about the lack of good adult alcohol-free drinks in supermarkets and pubs. Our research a few years ago concluded that they were right – the choice was dire.

As a result, we decided that we wanted to change the situation. Initially, by highlighting the leading venues and supermarkets doing a great job, seeking out better drinks, and then by organising the first world’s first Mindful Drinking Festival for alcohol-free drinks in 2017. We have now done nine of the festivals, with the tenth coming up in Brighton in July.

A market driven by moderate drinkers

The low and no alcohol drinks market has been growing continuously. Market analyst Kantar suggests that low and no alcohol sales doubled in 2020/21 to £217 million. The significant expansion of the UK’s low and no alcohol category is also predicted to continue, with the international drinks analysts IWSR expecting an increase in sales to £558m by 2024. We featured over 100 brands in our alcohol-free pop-up off-licence and we could have featured 100 more.

The growth in the market has been driven by people still drinking alcohol, with close to three-quarters (72 percent) at least trying these products, compared to less than half (38 percent) of non-drinkers according to research by the Portman Group. One in five (20 percent) of those who have tried low and no alcohol drinks say they are more likely to drink these products now compared to a year ago, almost double the number saying this in 2021.

Six things we have learnt from our alcohol-free off-licence

What does this mean for retailers, caterers and venues?

It is important to see alcohol-free as a whole new drinks category and understand that it takes time to become established. Who would have thought, even five years ago, that there would be alcohol-free spirits on supermarket shelves? As with any new product to the market, consumer education is vital. What makes alcohol-free drinks different is the complicated and contradictory set of motivations that drive purchasing behaviour. Here is what we know:

  1. Producers and consumers use alcohol as a reference point for alcohol-free. So low and no brands naturally want to be (and should be) included in the beer, wine and spirits aisles. They are products aimed at adults that replicate the tastes and occasions of alcohol. Consumers reference alcohol during their purchase decision, as they need help knowing how a product is drunk, e.g. mixed with tonic like a gin would be.
  2. But unlike alcohol, consumers want to know that they like a non-alcoholic product before they buy it. Without the ethanol and its well-known effects, consumers primarily make decisions based on taste, followed by knowing calorie and sugar contents, and the ingredients list. It is easy for a consumer to buy a few £3 cans of craft beer to try and find out if they like them, but a purchasing decision gets a lot harder with a £30 bottle of spirits.
  3. Sampling is a fantastic retail experience that draws the consumer in – and made our shop a destination. But for alcohol-free, this has to be done right, which means moving away from tiny thimbles as a sample. Consumers want expert navigation to try a few products within an ‘occasion’ or ‘category’ to find the drink that is right for them. At the off-licence, we developed gin, wine, whisky and Italian spritz ‘journeys’ which allowed consumers to choose from a range of options. In all cases, this is based on taste, not brand. Unlike alcohol, there is currently very little brand recognition in this particular segment of the drinks world.
  4. Without alcohol in the mix, consumers’ tastes are more varied. Preferences are shaped by whether someone has drunk alcohol before, any religious restrictions, the time someone has been alcohol-free, and the occasion. For example, regular alcoholic wine drinkers are drawn more to sparkling and fermented teas in the wine occasion space, rather than de-alcoholised wines. Many Muslim customers prefer fruitier and sweeter flavours, but are looking for a level of sophistication they don’t get from fruit juices.
  5. Everyone is looking for premium products that feel like a reward, and creates an equality of experience with drinkers of alcoholic drinks. Never underestimate the value individuals place on their social life, and the sense of feeling part of the group. Alcohol-free is ‘belonging’ and ‘reward’ in a bottle. People want to pay for this.
  6. Both consumer and trade enjoy being guided, sampling and not feeling pressured to decide too quickly. Our pop-up staff were trained to be consultative: educating, explaining, sampling, and guiding the consumer. This selling style built trust in our shop, and helped develop our reputation in a short amount of time. Being brand agnostic enhances the shopping experience.

What next?

We love sampling drinks with consumers. We had a hunch we would. We had run festivals where the brands did that bit, and we saw how much people enjoyed tastings. But we had not been the main point of education before. We love it. We are good at it. We want to share this gift with others.

Our pop-up also let us run some fantastic trade masterclasses with brands, such as with specialist wholesaler Wise Bartrader, and one for small retailers with wholesale platform ShelfNow. We enjoy educating and supporting both the on-and off-trade in their product discovery. We want to do much more of this.

Looking ahead, we are looking for a permanent home. Not just to sell bottles, but to create an experience for the consumer and a trusted destination for the industry. We are still just at the beginning of the growth of this market – we feel we have a unique role to guide the consumer and make sure that there is an excellent choice for them wherever they go.

You can find out more about Club Soda on joinclubsoda.com, including their research in low and no. Laura and her team are available for talks, workshops and tasting events for teams.





Laura Willoughby MBE
Laura Willoughby MBE
Laura Willoughby MBE, Founder of Club Soda. With a background in movement building and politics, Laura co-founded mindful drinking movement Club Soda today which today, has over 70,000 individual members and nearly 100 brand members who are supported through research and collaborative projects. In 2021, Laura and her team opened the hugely successful pop-up Alcohol-Free Off-Licence in London’s West End. She is also the co-author of How to Be a Mindful Drinker.

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