1. Socialising over sugar
Sugar is big news, except...when it isn’t.
The story making the headlines this summer has been the Government’s upcoming sugar levy, first announced in March 2016, which will charge 18p for drinks with more than 5g per 100ml, and 24p for more than 8g per 100ml, when it comes into force.
And yet, although some soft drinks have specifically reformulated their recipes to reduce sugar in line with the levy – such as Britvic’s R White’s cloudy lemonade, for example ‒ it may come as sweet consolation that not all adult consumers are craving super-low calorie, sugar-free drinks.
Indeed, according to Frobishers' research, the only thing more demonised than sugar is artificial sweetener, with many adults actually preferring to drink natural sugars than aspartame and other non-natural sweeteners.
Even among audiences expected to be seeking lower sugar options ‒ such as the women aged 25-45 targeted by Frobishers, or the 87% of parents looking for healthier options for their kids ‒ Frobishers’ own research suggested low calorie and no-sugar aren’t always the top priority.
“They might want the best fruit juice with nutrients during the day or for their kids,” says Frobishers sales and marketing director Steven Carter. “But when out socialising, people just want to enjoy themselves.”
Taste, value, and drink attractiveness are still key, with any sugar-free or low-calorie benefits often seen merely as an added bonus.
Indeed, although the most recent Britvic Soft Drinks report showed that low-sugar drinks were growing, research by CGA Peach suggested that just 29% of 18-34 year-olds were planning to cut their sugar drinks consumption, dropping to fewer than one in five (18%) among 34-54 year-olds.
2. Keeping it interesting
Rather than squabbling over sugar, it seems the biggest sales problem for soft drinks actually comes from bad marketing and uninspiring serves.
As Steven Carter from Frobishers puts it, softs must continually fight against the still-prevalent perception that they are solely for the “driving, pregnant, or sad”.
In today’s image-conscious, Instagramming crowd – especially the Millennial generation, which is continually shown to be drinking less alcohol than its parents did ‒ soft serves must compete with their sexier, alcoholic siblings, not only on taste, but also on perceived appearance and value.
With 60% more likely to come back to an outlet if their drink was “perfectly served” and 40% willing to pay more for a “better-served” soft drink (says the Britvic Soft Drinks Report), this is key.
“It's got to be chilled, good quality, in a nice glass with ice, and lots of colour, preferably a garnish,” says Carter. “Our research also told us that branded glassware was as important [as with alcoholic drinks].”
“Create some theatre around the serve,” suggests Jo Sykes, marketing director of alcohol and soft drinks at SHS Drinks, parent company of sparkling pressé brand Bottlegreen. “It will elevate the whole experience and is a lot more appealing.”
Themed and seasonal mocktail options are also a good idea, she adds; something as simple as a strawberry-related drink during Wimbledon will help bring the coolness of cocktails, but without the alcohol.
3. Fridge fanciers
It’s not just about a fancy glass and a sprig of mint though; making the most of soft drinks starts before the customer has even ordered.
Staff training, social media visibility, and pre- and point-of-sale marketing are crucial.
And while you can’t put up posters for every drink, many soft brands are now designing their bottles and labels to stand out even before anyone takes a sip.
A customer seeing a recognisable brand in the bar fridge or on the menu ‒ with a well-designed bottle or eye-catching, vintage-style colour ‒ is more likely to try something new than a designated driver asking for another boring orange juice because it’s all they know.
For example, R White’s vintage-style, glass bottles are so distinctive that customers even ask to take them home afterwards, says Nick Harding, owner of Gin Rickey’s gin bar and Cruise nightclub in Chester.
Serving the mocktail or cocktail with the bottle is as important for soft drinks as tonic, he says, especially after a bartender or waiter has specifically suggested it.
“Consumers don’t want to look at a drinks menu and see exactly the same soft drinks as when they’re struggling with a trolley down aisle six at their local supermarket,” says Graham Carr-Smith at cucumber drinks producer QCumber.
“By and large, consumers drinking soft drinks in restaurants are on the look-out for something a bit more interesting, a bit more unusual and a bit special.”
Indeed, the same Britvic report found one in three consumers (34%) would be more inspired to buy a soft drink if they saw positive flavour descriptions, while a massive 64% say they would buy a special soft drink if staff recommended it.
4. Global gulping
(Photo: Frobishers Classics range / Frobishers)
While OJ may always be king, soft drinks brands are waking up to the need for more interesting flavours and tastes, as consumers’ widening global tastes make their mark.
The explosion of Thai cooking, for example, has translated to new varieties such as Frobishers ginger juice with galangal and juniper.
“We were trying to approach it like wine,” Carter explains. “An original flavour, with some length to it, without being too hot. The galangal was to complement the ginger with a warmth, and the juniper enhanced the flavours.”
Bottlegreen’s coconut water & lime twist cordial was also developed with consumers’ global, and health-related, tastes in mind.
Carr-Smith of QCumber adds: “We knew what consumers wanted from a more grown-up soft drink: something with a light, refreshing flavour and not too much carbonation.”
The group has subsequently launched further variants too, including with mint, and with ginger.
5. Fruit flights
Some brands are pushing the idea of non-alcoholic options to pair with food, saying that some flavours work as as well with main dishes as a well chosen wine.
For example, R White’s pear and elderflower lemonade is said to be a popular choice for diners enjoying a fish plate or chicken dish, while Bottlegreen’s Refreshing Ginger Beer is designed to pair well with the bold flavours of Caribbean and Thai cuisine, and strong cheese.
“Bottlegreen’s sparkling pressés are cold-filtered to preserve the freshness of the natural ingredients, which are blended with sparkling spring water,” says Sykes. “This results in balanced flavours which are crisp, clean and not overly sweet.”
6. Spirits’ softer side
(Photo: R White's / Britvic)
With the premiumisation of spirits, the growth of gin and vodka, and consumers now brand-calling their G&T, a truly successful drinks offer should pay as much attention to softs and mixers as the hard stuff.
This goes beyond pure tonic – which is enjoying its own boom, see below box ‒ to juices and lemonades too.
R White’s raspberry lemonade has been added to great effect in Britvic’s suggested Raspberry Collins cocktail, which, when served in a tall glass with ice, colourful straw and mint garnish can compete on looks and taste with the best of them.
(And let’s not forget: a mocktail can easily become a cocktail with a dash of, say, vodka, satisfying those looking to combine the nutrition and smoothness of fruit juices with the punch of alcohol.)
QCumber has jumped on the tonic train too, formulating its Premium Mixer as a summery alternative.
“Whereas pretty much every tonic water on the market contains quinine,” explains Carr-Smith, “We think that the cucumber is a much more cooling and gentle flavour source, and makes our mixer perfect for summer and ideally suited to the restaurant environment.”
“It’s a great example of a product being developed in response to actual consumer behaviour.”
Top of the tonics
All aboard the tonic train, as the sector continues to make tracks.
Fever-Tree is now one of the most valuable soft drinks companies in the UK with a heady stock market valuation in excess of £1.8bn, and a tonic range comprising Indian, Naturally Light, Sicilian Lemon, Mediterranean, Elderflower and the recently launched Aromatic, made with angostura bark.
Fentimans also recently ‘reinvented’ its mixer tasting notes, in a bid to boost its botanical credentials. Created by ‘flavourist’ Geraldine Coombes and managing director Eldon Robson, the group’s “mixers are like no others and we are introducing these new tasting notes to help consumers and operators fully understand and appreciate them,” says Robson.
With seven mixers in the its range, Fentimans also offers nine soft drinks, plus a selection of pre-mixed alcoholic beverages including its Alcoholic Ginger Beer.
Unsurprisingly, the tonic market in general is getting busier, especially as new spirits boom in popularity.
Indeed, start-up Sekforde Drinks has developed mixers specifically for partnering with US and blended whiskies and dark rum.
Sekforde for Whiskey is made with orange and Istrian botanicals (best served with ice, a twist of lime peel and a sprig of mint), while Sekforde for rum is made with aromatic lime and Mistral botanicals (serve in a tumbler or bowl glass with ice and a twist of orange peel and a sprig of rosemary).
“Whiskey and golden and dark rum don’t fare as well over the summer as other spirits such as gin,” says Talula White, who founded the company with husband John.
“The traditional long drink serves with cola or ginger beer mask the flavour of the spirit. They are also packed with sugar or sweeteners, which can put people off trying them. It doesn’t do justice to the amazing whiskies and rums that are available these days.”
This BigHospitality feature was sponsored by Frobishers
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