Understanding the alcohol-free revolution

Authored by: Stefan Rhys-Williams, TMW Unlimited


At UNLIMITED, we’ve been putting a lot of thought into where the alcohol sector is going and how best to align our creative messaging with consumer tastes and trends. Our work – with the likes of Beavertown, Absolut and Guinness – means we’re familiar with the full gamut of what’s available and how to market it. But habits are changing and brands are adapting – and need to continue to do so with care.

The AF revolution has, like many, caught our attention: but the situation is more complex than a steady decline in consumption, both in frequency and quantity; there is something deeper and more culturally salient going on, something that presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

As The Telegraph explains, “it has been a general trend in the Western world for people to be drinking less, but they’re also drinking better”. So, while sales of alcohol may have been depleting in recent years, this isn’t – at least not principally – due to consumers swearing off booze entirely. Instead, there’s an increase in appetite for low or no alcohol alternatives – and premium alternatives at that – as part of a more general reconfiguration of the role alcohol plays in people’s lives.

That same piece continues: “people are taking much more interest in what they’re consuming and the quality of what they’re consuming. That plays right into the hands of drinks companies because the vast majority of the big international companies are interested in premium spirits and the same for beer.”

These mindful consumers – or the “sober curious” as they’re increasingly dubbed – are the principal drivers of the expansion of the AF category (rather than teetotallers). And that means there are opportunities for innovation and promotional activity throughout the year, rather than at specific “tent-pole” moments or occasions. As The Drum puts it, “brands will move beyond Dry January campaigns and start marketing these alternatives year-round”.



Predictably, these behavioural changes have spawned more and more innovations and spurred impressive category growth; gone are the days of the market being cornered by one or two flavourless alcohol-free versions of mass-market lager – if, indeed, any AF options were available at all.

And the large drinks companies which, have historically produced and bought up alcoholic drinks brands, are turning their attentions to this new sector anticipating further value augmentation – Heineken has been particularly successful, with The Drum reporting that its 0.0 iteration “owns 71% of category growth in off-premise sales” of AF drinks in the US.

Yet that doesn’t mean that this kind of innovation is without risk: the quality of the product, its branding and advertising – as well as identifying its likely buyers – are all crucial. And trends in AF drinks are not siloed from what’s going on in the traditional drinks sector. As artisan gins and beers proliferate, it may not be sufficient to simply skim the alcohol from your heritage hero brand and promote it merely as a booze free alternative. As tastes in alcoholic drinks evolve, so must their AF counterparts.



In our view, what’s really key in developing and launching a low alcohol or AF product is ensuring it sits in the ‘craft’ or ‘artisanal’ space. That it’s premium and still ‘special’. That it targets demographics whose drinking habits are more flexible according to health and wellness goals, context and occasion.

It’s clear there’s a demand for more interesting and varied beverages in general, as well as in the AF category specifically; the fact that somebody isn’t opting for alcohol on a particular occasion does not mean they’re blind to quality – or content to make do with soda water or a quotidian carbonated drink.

Moreover, legacy vendors and manufacturers – as advertisers – need to recognise the generational component of this shift, with younger consumers adopting a much more flexible and context-dependent approach to alcohol.

There’s a balance to be struck: the health benefits of drinking a bit less – and less frequently – are well documented. And Gen Z are already drinking less alcohol than previous generations. But what’s crucial is to retain some of the aspirational element and preserve the sense of occasion. Drinking an AF product isn’t merely about privation or the ‘healthier’ choice; it should have a similar feeling of festivity or celebration. Discerning drinkers don’t abandon their tastebuds when they’re switching things up and staying off the booze.

Experiential is a particularly useful channel here: if we’re trying to emphasise – and preserve – the occasion associated with alcohol and festivity in the AF category, then the consumer experience becomes paramount: how is the drink packaged and served? Beyond it being alcohol-free and healthier, what is its provenance and how was it created and mixed? Tasting notes and food-pairing suggestions can help elevate the product. Not to mention “drinks-tagramming”.



The work our Human Understanding Lab – comprising neuroscientists, researchers and data analysts – undertakes means we’re well placed not just to analyse these crucial trends, but to use them to inform our creative responses. Whether we’re devising a campaign or executing a launch; activating a sponsorship deal or promoting an influencer partnership, all our work is truly insight-led. And in an industry that’s experiencing such seismic disruption, that’s all the more valuable.

In order to optimise their offering in line with the changing consumer landscape, small breweries, batch distilleries and large drinks manufacturers alike will need to innovate. Premium will no longer just mean vintage Old-world wine, single malt whiskey, cask aged rum or Trappist beers and we can already see this in the success of quality mixer ranges (Fever Tree) and alternative libations like Seedlip and CleanCo.

We’re barely into the New Year and yet a flurry of activity around AF products is already evident: Corona Sunbrew, infused with Vitamin D represents another recent innovation from AB InBev; Heineken announced the launch of Desperados Virgin in January; and BrewDog have been offering unlimited alcohol-free pints in its bars throughout Dry January.

The next generation of drinkers will be more mindful – and more discerning – and context and flexibility will play a larger role in decision making. What’s the occasion? How are they feeling? Are they aiming for any health goals – either physical or mental? Who will they be with? What drinks are available? These shifts go well beyond a sober month in January (or, more recently, October) and brands that funnel their spend on “tentpole” moments like these will fail to capture a loyal customer base in the longer term.

The behavioural economics behind the AF revolution may seem complicated, even baffling – but they represent the reality in all its variation and diversity. It’s a challenge, but one we relish here at Unlimited.

We’d love to talk further about our position on alcohol and alcohol free, and how we can support brands. Please send me a line to get in touch.

Or, visit our Look Book of recent work in the drinks sector across marketing, comms and digital.

  1. The Drum: Why the ‘sober-curious’ will spur zero-alcohol sales well beyond Dry January: https://www.thedrum.com/news/2022/01/06/why-the-sober-curious-will-spur-zero-alcohol-sales-well-beyond-dry-january
  2. Lad Bible: BrewDog Offering Unlimited Alcohol-Free Pints To Customers During Dry January: https://www.ladbible.com/news/brewdog-offering-unlimited-free-pints-to-customers-during-dry-january-20220111
  3. The Telegraph: Drinks giants say farewell to alcohol and hello to profits: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2020/01/12/drinks-giants-say-farewell-alcohol-hello-profits/