supermarket wine alcohol aisle shelf GettyImages-1305261341

It’s a tortuous time to be a drinks marketer. Consumer habits are changing fast, the on-trade seems to be in terminal decline, and every day a new disruptor appears with an ambition to steal your share. On top of all this, a cost of media crisis has resulted in diminishing impact for what was already a declining marketing budget.

In times of uncertainty, it’s natural to seek the safety in tried-and-tested marketing techniques. But that only seems to hasten the decline. Mass-market drinks brands that continue to lean on the traditional advertising playbook are rapidly losing share to a new breed of brands more confident in embracing the marketing levers of the participation age.

To better understand this, we have just launched a new wave of our Participation Brand Index, an annual global consumer study that has spent 10 years exploring the marketing tactics driving brand success. This year, we have put a special focus on drinks brands.

Let’s start with the truth: of all the products we buy, alcohol is one of the most social. Literally, of course, in the way it’s usually consumed, but also in the way it’s chosen. Our choice of alcohol brand is highly influenced by layers of unconscious social conditioning. Whether it’s identity, belonging, social rituals, group dynamics or simply copying the bar call of the person who ordered first. What matters most in driving a choice of drink is the influence of other people.

Despite this, most mass-market alcohol advertising still leans heavily on Byron Sharp-type marketing theory that treats people primarily as individuals. It is overly focused on building memory structures in the brain space between people’s ears, without enough focus on building the brand in the cultural spaces between people.

So, we’ve conducted some new research to try and change things, and help alcohol brands embrace a more people-powered way to do marketing. Here are four findings and ideas.

Make the drink a badge of identity

Our new research suggests 58% of under-45s believe ‘my choice of drink says something about me as a person’. People’s choice of drink is deeply conditioned by their sense of identity and is used to signal the community they want to signify belonging to. More important than what a brand says to people is what a brand says about people.

More than any message, marketers should be concerned with who this drink is for. What communities can the drink be part of? How can those communities be reached? And how can they allow people in those communities to participate with the brand?

For example, we have been working with Jack Daniel’s to reignite some of the brand’s foundational ideas around ‘rebellion’ and ‘bold living’ – in a way that gives meaningful identity to a less hedonistic Gen Z drinker.

Get your market to do your marketing

Seventy-eight per cent of gen Z agree ‘my choice of drink tends to be influenced by other people around me’. They may have a set of go-to drinks in their repertoire, but the most likely influence on their choice will be the expectations and behaviours of the people around them.

This isn’t unique to gen Z, of course – but what is unique is the many layers of connections, friends, creators and communities surrounding them via social.

Provide new ideas on how to drink

Seventy per cent of all drinkers have spontaneously chosen a drink brand because it caught their eye when shopping or at the bar. Drinkers are embracing spontaneity, and their drink behaviours are becoming more unpredictable as a result. Any moment could be right for a premium cocktail, any day could be an alcohol-free day. And these decisions can be hijacked in the moment by a shiny Instagrammable spritz.

Marketing’s job then is to continually offer up prompts and stimulus for that spontaneous choice – new reasons to choose, new ideas on what to make, new ways to drink it. And it needs to do this in a way that is iconic, visual and symbolic – with rituals and behaviours that anyone can copy.

Perhaps it’s time to resuscitate the Heineken UV bottle, whose iconic design took premium bars by storm.

Never stand still

Of course, the need to embrace people power doesn’t discount the importance of mental and physical availability. To succeed, drinks brands must stay front of mind to get themselves on the tip of the tongue for anyone at the bar. But that mental availability can’t be driven by static brand assets. It comes from being constantly fresh, relevant and hot right now in people’s lives.

Sixty-one per cent of drinkers are more experimental in their choice of drink than they used to be. They’re not looking for old favourites, but new ideas. So brands need to constantly evolve to meet people’s changing needs. To do this authentically means letting go of some control, and working with communities of creators to keep reinventing the brand story in new and relevant ways.

In other words, the main job for marketing is to harness the power of people to help their brands travel further, faster. Marketers need to wean themselves off traditional marketing techniques and embrace the unique characteristics of the modern drinks category. At the heart of this is participation.

And of course, paid media has a role to play in achieving scale and getting a brand in front of people in the moments that matter. But that paid media will not work hard enough without the intensity and momentum that comes from earned and owned media.

The brands who do this will find themselves spending far less, but travelling much further.