How have alcohol brands adapted to life in lockdown?

In the absence of pubs and festivals, booze brands have had to seek out new ways of reaching consumers.

Not too long ago, the world was on countdown to St Patrick’s Day, a global tribute to Ireland’s patron saint and a certified piss-up for sesh-heads across the globe. 

However, not even the sesh is sacred when it comes to a pandemic – and pubs across the UK began to shut their doors just days before 17 March, prompting a heart-warming ad by Guinness that looks forward to a day when the nation's bars will open once again. 

Early figures from UK experiential industry leaders valued the amount of business that has been scrapped due to Covid-19 at £15.4m, amid a cavalcade of cancelled festivals including Glastonbury, which was to celebrate its 50th year. 

"It's ever-changing and brands are having to respond very quickly," Adrian Taylor, executive creative director at Jack Morton, tells CampaignAnd drinks brands are set to be some of the hardest hit.

While Corona was left with the unfortunate challenge of diffusing any links between the beer brand and the pandemic, Miller Lite and drinks giant Diageo were both forced to pause previously launched ads that didn’t adhere to social-distancing measures. So brands must look to other ways to promote themselves.

Taylor continues: "Drinks brands are pretty good at subtlety anyway; they are ahead of the curve with regards to social media activation and connecting with people. We're already seeing some really good stuff like the bartender and cocktail masterclasses and live tastings."

Among acclaimed experiences is Beavertown’s sponsorship of "the world's largest virtual pub", which took place at the "Covid Arms". Not only did the event actually earn a Guinness world record for the endeavour, it also raised more than £32,000 for the National Emergencies Trust along the way. 

Bud Light leaned in to the nation’s football withdrawal with an England football quiz featuring players past and present, while Bombay Sapphire raised the bar for virtual experiences, launching a series of cocktail and drawing masterclasses to entertain the public during lockdown.

During this period, Desperados has powered the "Elrow Home Sessions" – a natural successor to 2019's acclaimed "Epic House Party", delivered by We Are Pi and Jack Morton.

Caspar Mason, creative strategist at Jack Morton, adds: "Our available channels have changed dramatically and we've had to de-emphasise the one that we rely on most regularly [the live experience channel] and look at what the other channels can use to create the same effect.

"If the brand is strong enough, it should be able to come to life and express itself, whether it's Desperados doing in their live stream with Elrow or brand activations for the good of music or clubs."

Meanwhile, Carlsberg opted to give back to the people of its native Denmark with the #AdoptAKeg initiative.

Created by Grey Europe, the campaign outlines the brand’s pub-saving initiative – which asks beer drinkers to support their local bar by scanning Carlsberg cans at home to "fill" their very own virtual keg. Similar initiatives have also been launched in the UK by Heineken and Budweiser.

"Everything we've done in the past 173 years brings to our values and our personality, and that doesn't really change in lockdown," Julian Marsili, global brand director of Carlsberg, says of the work, which earned a Campaign Pick of the Week.

Marsili maintains that the entertaining yet "direct, more transactional" tone of the campaign shows the brand’s focus on pushing online sales while pubs are closed.

"In this moment of difficulty, we want to support our customers in every single shape or form we can, and adjust our investment from outdoor to mainly digital."

Carlsberg, which was set to sponsor Denmark's national team for the (now postponed) Uefa European Championship this summer, has been forced to adapt is original plans for in-store activations for a more tech-savvy approach.

Marsili explains: "We have done our hand sanitisers, we have made donations to worthy causes, but how can a brand that makes beer and wants to talk to its consumers do it in a relevant and useful way without having to come out like Mother Teresa of Calcutta? We've all suddenly become so worthy with piano music and stuff like that, but that's not what we do. 

"We sell beer and what's good for beer can be better for everyone."

Another alcohol company that has been pushed into a rethink is wine-in-a-can brand Hun, which had big plans to launch as the exclusive wine of the Mighty Hoopla, All Points East and British Summer Time festivals.

Hun: wine brand planned to launch during festival season

"We were trying to be the festival brand of the summer," Mark Woollard, co-founder of Hun, says.

"We were going to have a branded Hun van every single festival, as well as social media activations and influencer campaigns at each location, but as soon as festivals were looking likely to be cancelled we switched all of our campaigns towards social media and ecommerce."

Stepping away from its original target to sell one million cans by the end of the summer – the driving force behind the brand’s entire pre-Covid-19 marketing – with help from an out-of-home campaign by TBWA\London, Hun is taking inspiration from beer brands to target the housebound masses and encourage online sales during lockdown.

While BrewDog was one of the first brands to launch an online bar experience to encourage social interaction (as well as one of the first to repurpose its equipment to create hand sanitisers), Camden Town Brewery changed the name of its signature Camden Hells lager to Camden Heroes to raise money for healthcare workers.

"The best brands out there have managed to turn Zoom calls into kind of their next marketing," Woollard continues.

"Before Covid-19, we weren't even going to have our own ecommerce platform (you could only actually purchase Hun by going into a retailer or to a festival), but since then we've been approached by businesses like Mighty Hoopla to launch virtual house parties, and when the cans start selling in Tesco, we'll be looking to launch our own virtual events via Zoom calls."

However, more than two months into the UK’s lockdown, Taylor believes the next big downfall for alcohol brands will be the perils of "digital fatigue".

"Digital fatigue is 100% going to be a factor. We've all probably felt it already with our new lives on Zoom and we're just gonna have to take it as it comes.

"A lot of the conversation over the past months has been about pivoting to virtual, which everybody's probably tired of doing already. Changing something to purely virtual is not the way forward."

Taylor maintains that while the more luxury brands can keep consumers interested with virtual tours of distilleries, brands will need to find different ways to connect with their audiences.

"There will be a definite need to find new depths of storytelling," Taylor predicts, hailing the next era of acivations as a "hybrid" of virtual and live content.

"You can't simply try and replicate something and put it out live. Ultimately, we remain focused on being storytellers and making sure that we are telling the brand's story, and a combination of live and virtual content is the strongest way to connect with our audiences."

According to Taylor, while sponsorship of activations and content will be an integral aspect moving forward, a mixture of live and virtual content – such as live panel discussions alongside pre-recorded or animated virtual content – will ensure that content is "properly curated" for each brand’s audiences. However, "everything could be entirely different in two or three weeks".

Now is a pivotal time for brands, with one in three consumers claiming they had stopped using a brand that was not acting appropriately in response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to research by Edelman.

"It's always been possible for a brand to make a misstep and suddenly lose a lot of consumer trust – and it's even more heightened now," Mason says.

"How people are evaluating brands, what they're doing both in terms of how they're acting now and supporting the network around them, is something that people are thinking about is now in people's minds."

On this note, Mason reckons a key part of the experiential market moving forward will be the role of "hygiene theatre": the visual spectacle of staff cleaning bars, table tops and floor to give consumers peace of mind when lockdown finally comes to an end.

"When we create events after the lockdown, people will want to know they are safe in a way that they probably didn't before," he says. "The fact that you can see a surface being wiped down now probably means something very different than what it did a few months ago."

However, it goes without saying that lockdown’s eventual end rests on a series of conditonal factors, with the UK government possibly easing social-distancing measures in accordance with regionally monitored infection rates.

"We have to remember that it's not like someone's going to ring a bell and they can all rush back to life as usual," Mason continues. "Lockdown will be relieved bit by bit, piece by piece, and societies will be spliced differently.

"The world that we come back to – that's not going to be the same as the one we left. We don't yet know how it's going to be different, but we can look at how behaviours are changing. We're not going to spend every Saturday doing a pub quiz with our family on Zoom, but events by their nature will be more hybrid.

"There'll be a certain fluency in how we connect with people digitally and how we combine the physical feeling of people around you with the instantaneous connection of digital. Hybrid events are going to be part of the vernacular going forward."

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