Hard Seltzer Innovation: Is the UK running before it can walk?
Updated: Nov 7
Born in the USA, and steadily making its way to drinkers across the world, the hard seltzer trend has generated almost as many headlines as it had new launches over the past few years. New releases have been recently spotted across New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China, and even Russia. But when it comes to the category’s mission to win over UK consumers, how far is too far when it comes to new product innovation? And is the evolving approach to packaging design winning over or confusing potential devotees?
When hard seltzers burst onto the scene in the US, they promised to be not only a low-calorie, low strength beverage to session, but a lifestyle choice.
The slim white can – pictured in the clutch of bright young things as they surfed, played volleyball, and generally frolicked – favoured by first-to-market SpikedSeltzer, and category leader White Claw, quickly became the established visual language for this new drink.
NO FLASH IN THE PAN
But hard seltzers were not an overnight success. According to the White Claw brand, it had just six competitors in late 2019, three years after its launch. By mid 2021 however, there were over 200 on the US market.
Category fragmentation over the last 18 months has been rapid: from functional products with added vitamins or CBD; seasonal and holiday launches such as Bud Light’s pumpkin spice and toasted marshmallow varieties; frozen hard seltzers from Bud, Truly, and Coors; high-strength seltzers that tear up the ‘wellness’ rule book; alternative spirit bases; botanical seltzers; hard seltzer lemonades; and the latest iteration, hard smoothie seltzers, a style which sees it meld with the smoothie beer trend pushed by craft brewers.
UK ON A FAST TRACK
Across the pond however, hard seltzers have hit the ground running, with this fragmentation occurring almost immediately.
The first UK brands launched in 2019, led by Balans from Kopparberg (now just Kopparberg) and Bodega Bay. However, from spring 2020 to the present day over 40 brands have joined the fray. Total UK sales hit £12m in 2020. And with each new launch comes a new USP, accompanied by increasingly diverse pack designs as brands look to claim a new part of this new market as their own.
Recent launches have included Served; made with wonky fruit that would otherwise have gone to waste; Good One, whose seasonal limited edition flavours have included mulled wine and mince pie, with their latest of hibiscus and blackberry designed to pair with tacos; Lot 42, named for a township on Prince Edward Island, Canada, that taps into the growing sense of wanderlust from penned-in consumers; Goodrays, the UK’s first 30mg all-natural cannabis seltzer, also with vitamin D; and draught seltzer brand, Long Shot. Smoothie seltzers too, from the likes of Omnipollo, have started appearing on shelves.
But are UK consumers ready? For all of the hype surrounding the category, do consumers really get it yet? And are the rules of the category – or rather its major selling points, that it is light on calories, light on sugar, light on strength, and it has to be said, light on flavour – established enough that brands are already able to subvert them?
RAPID INNOVATION WITHOUT CONSUMER BUY IN
The first barrier for hard seltzers in the UK is the name; seltzers is not a well-known term that resonates. An alien concept when introduced, UK consumers have also needed to be taught why and when they would drink it. Have brands convincingly pulled this off?
And while US imports such as Mike’s and White Claw have kept their distinctive, predominantly white packaging – a distinctive look identity that helped consumers identify the category, and crucially differentiate it from the mass of canned cocktails now available – many new UK brands have eschewed it.
From Gerry’s (which uses stubby cans in pastel shades), to Arrowtown (who’s cans retain a hint of the white background, but hero a different animal to highlight its environmental work), and Lot 42 (where the silver, blue, and gold pack design share more with the packaging cues of an energy drink), the visual proposition of hard seltzers is confusing to a consumer group that really hasn’t had chance to resonate with it yet.
UK hard seltzer brands have entered the market with the level of innovation that took years to emerge in the US, and crucially, without the buy in from UK consumers. Even in the US, that buy in looks to be floundering, with sales now slowing dramatically. According to a recent statement by Boston Beer Co, makers of Truly, future demand is uncertain, with growth slowing considerably over summer 2021. It says total US category volumes for the 2021 full-year are shaping up to be 100 million fewer than estimated in May 2021, and even 30 million fewer than estimated in July.
Has the saviour of the beer category expanded too far and too fast? Changing lifestyles following the easing of lockdown restrictions across America, is sure to have impacted a drink that has yet to convincingly make a place for itself in the on-trade.
In the UK, the truth is that consumers are just catching up to the trend. Yet that trend risks consuming itself through too rapid innovation as brands look to stand out. This sudden rush also comes at a time when ever-more sophisticated canned cocktails and RTD version of low-no spirits are also rapidly expanding. By diversifying too far, and visually erasing what made them stand out, hard seltzers actually risk blending in.