From Peak Booze to Gen NoLo

Now Booze Britain is finally sobering up, what are the challenges for lo-alcohol beer brands?

Russell Holmes
Tom Hoare
Tom Hoare & Russell Holmes, 09.06.2021

You might not remember Kaliber, but in the 90s it was one of the only alcohol-free beers on the market. Billy Connolly used to advertise it on TV – chugging a bottle then eloquently rattling off a tongue twister before grinning to the camera and announcing “…and I’ve been drinking.” Advertising gold.

Despite such high profile campaigns, sales of non-alcoholic beer actually declined throughout the 1990s, shrinking a third by the end of the decade. Kaliber’s own commercial peak hit just as 90s ‘lad culture’ was about to go into full Born Slippy-mode. This was a societal shift that celebrated hedonism; Kaliber was dumped in favour of high-strength European lagers that were as cheap as they were fizzy. By 2004, Britain reached peak booze, consuming more beer than at any time in history. The tabloids came up with a phrase to describe this phenomenon: Booze Britain. It stuck.

Fast-forward two decades and the Brits’ sometimes uneasy relationship with booze has shifted. The global pandemic accelerated a trend that had been bubbling in the background for well over a decade; younger people turning their back on alcohol. During the first COVID lockdown, The Guardian reported that non-alcohol beer sales rose by 30%, driven largely by health conscious 25–40 year olds. With the health of the nation now front-page news, there’s a collective realisation that our own health might be the single most important thing we have.

Looking back through the bottom of a pint pot, much of yesterday’s booze culture and the messaging that surrounded it looks sexist and often plain offensive. The fact that men were the audience and their primary motivation was to drink and have fun, gave licence for the big breweries to lean heavily into chauvinistic marketing territories that have aged like milk. “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night” — cringe.

This gives the founders of today’s new NoLo beers a challenge—how do they position their product, what underpins their brands and, ultimately, what conversation they should they be having with their audience?

If beer has been traditionally targeted at a predominantly male audience with camaraderie, relaxation, even the promise of sexual attractiveness, there’s now a real opportunity to change the conversation and shift mindsets. But how should this relatively new sector respond? NoLo brands will have to address the cliches head-on — “alcohol free beers are the antithesis of fun”; “they taste terrible”; “they’re only for teetotallers”. The rise of dedicated low-alcohol brands like Athletic and Loah shows, that in the cold light of 2021, these stereotypes are pretty redundant.

Over and above this, they need to develop messaging and narratives that go above the product and tap into wider social trends. Low-alcohol beer certainly isn’t a health drink, but it is part of a broad movement towards health and mindfulness — a trend that has weathered 2020 well. How the sector embraces and augments this could be fundamental to its future success.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for these new beers will be the fact that major breweries now offer award-winning alcohol-free alternatives of their own, and that, coupled with a large marketing spend, zero-alcohol versions of their globally-recognised beers are likely to become the acceptable face of NoLo drinking.

In light of this the new NoLo brands have a unique ability to challenge not only the why, but the when we choose a lo-alc beer — does it have to be enjoyed in a pub, or on a cramped sofa watching a Champions League game (as so many adverts promise)— why not during a 1pm work Zoom call? The successful new brands will have to change this narrative — from ‘swapping out’ alcohol, to ‘swapping up’ your choices and the reasons why you’ll choose a beer.

Looking back, perhaps Kaliber’s strapline; “No alcohol, no limits” was just a little too ahead of the game.

Cheers to Tom H at ico Design for getting the barrel rolling on this article.