Alcohol-free or low-alcohol beer: not quite the same as soda after all?

Alcohol-free or low-alcohol beer: not quite the same as soda after all?

Dry January or Drier January-December? 

Alcohol-free beer is becoming increasingly popular in both the Netherlands and the UK. In the UK, some 8.5 million people are taking part in Dry January this month according to a poll published by Alcohol Change UK and reported in The Times, up from 3.9 million in 2020. Meanwhile, 62% of Dutch people who drink alcohol are apparently open to a one-month alcohol break, such as Dry January according to Trimbos Instituut. Consumers are becoming ever more aware of the health risks that can be associated with alcohol, yet a cold beer on the patio with friends or after a day’s work is still, for many, the ideal way to unwind.  

Fortunately for those looking to cut out or even just cut down on their units, the market for low- and no-alcohol products, including alcohol-free alternatives to standard alcoholic drinks, has been growing in popularity and is no longer considered a niche category. We’re no longer seeing just a token Dry January effort; in June 2023, UK supermarket Tesco said that sales of no or low-alcohol beer were 25% higher in June than in January, so clearly this is a phenomenon which is set to stay and indeed increase. The same trend is also visible in the Netherlands according to the Dutch Brewer Organization. While beer sales as a whole declined in the first half of 2023, sales of non-alcoholic beer actually continued to grow by 6.1%. Alcohol-free specialty beer in particular gained in popularity, its consumption increasing by 32.1% in the last six months of 2023.  
 

Go on, make us smile! 

As might be expected from breweries, advertising campaigns are reassuringly creative and humorous in the absence of alcohol.  For example, the UK's number one dedicated alcohol-free beer brand Lucky Saint won “Best Marketing Campaign” and “Best Innovator Campaign” at the Kindred Spirits Awards and the Marketing Society’s “Brand of the Year” in 2023, all thanks to an inspired tongue in cheek campaign around consumers “not being led in to temptation” by their signature nun.   

Another example is the advertisement for Heineken's non-alcoholic beer “Cheers with No Alcohol. Now You Can.” In this commercial Heineken celebrates the fact that it is now easier than ever for everyone to share social moments regardless of whether they are drinking alcohol or not. Max Verstappen, the F1 World Champion, stars in another popular Heineken 0.0 beer commercial; Verstappen is shown socialising with friends and being chosen to take on the role as designated driver, as he is the champion. He notes that such a decision should be based only on who hasn’t had a drink…unless the drink is a Heineken 0.0 beer. 
 

But is it a beer or a soft drink? 

Things aren’t quite so straightforward for the producers of these drinks as you might think when it comes to the promotion of their products, however. Since a beer without alcohol might be seen as a low sugar alternative to a soft drink like cola or juice, one might think that advertisements for alcohol-free beer would have to comply with far fewer rules than the alcoholic variety. However, this is not quite the case and both Dutch and UK authorities consider it important to ensure these products are marketed responsibly, as there is still a significant overlap with alcohol marketing. 
 

Dutch Advertising Code for Alcohol-Free and Low-alcohol Beer (RvAAB) 

The advertising rules for alcohol-free and low-alcohol beer in the Netherlands are described in the special advertising code RvAAB which was created within the framework of the Prevention Agreement on Problematic Alcohol Use. 

The code applies to all advertising specifically aimed at the Dutch market and concerns exclusively alcohol-free beer (max 0.1% alcohol) and low-alcohol beer (max 0.5% alcohol). If the alcoholic level is also included in the advertising message, the Advertising Code for Alcoholic Beverages applies.  
 

When and to whom products can be advertised  

Unlike advertising for alcoholic beverages where daytime restrictions apply, this form of advertising may be broadcast between 06:00 and 21:00. However, adverts still cannot be directed at young people under 18 or at pregnant women, or be displayed in a scenario relating to active participation in driving. The idea behind this is that the step from alcohol free to a "normal" beer is (still) deemed small and people should therefore not be encouraged to consume a drink (at least originally) associated with alcohol. 

Refraining from targeting pregnant women and active road users with alcohol advertising is relatively straightforward. A designated driver is, essentially, not to be seen consuming a Heineken 0.0 beer, while a pregnant woman won’t be spotted in the commercial celebrating with a Corona 0.0 beer in her hand. Getting around young people under 18, however, can be a lot trickier. 
 

How to deal with teenagers 

The explanation of this rule provides some guidance on how to exclude young people from seeing adverts for these products. This includes not using teen idols or music specifically aimed at teens, avoiding "youth language" and steering clear of designs that are popular among minors at that particular point in time.  

Furthermore, advertisements for non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beer should not show individuals who are, or appear to be, under the age of 18. If models or actors are used in the advertisement, these persons must be at least 25 years of age. If influencers are used, the advertiser must be certain that the influencer is at least 18 years old. If the age cannot be determined, then publication of the advertisement is not permitted.  

In addition, the advertisement’s audience must have a reach of only 25% of teenagers at most. Therefore, consideration must be given to the time of broadcast of the commercial; for example, it should not appear immediately prior to a radio/TV programme that is primarily watched by teenagers. 
 

Alcohol alternatives in the United Kingdom  

In the UK, the Advertising Code includes rules that prohibit condoning or encouraging immoderate, irresponsible or anti-social drinking. The increasing popularity of alcohol alternatives has led the CAP (the Committee of Advertising Practice) and the BCAP (Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice) to helping marketeers of such products get to grips with new rules and guidance to clarify how these products can be marketed responsibly.  The new rules as discussed below will be enforced from 14 May 2024, so producers will no doubt have been carefully considering their latest marketing strategies over the last few months. 

The advertisement rules for alcohol alternatives in the UK are similar to those in the Netherlands, but there are some notable differences.  

Alcohol alternatives here are defined as non-alcoholic drinks with an alcohol percentage by volume of 0.5% or lower and intended to replace alcoholic drinks in contexts where they would typically be consumed, such as non-alcoholic beer. All advertisements for alcohol alternatives must include a prominent statement of the volume of alcohol in their products.  
 

To whom products can be advertised  

Differently from the rules in the Netherlands, adverts in the UK for alcohol alternatives may depict the product in situations where the consumption of alcoholic drinks would be inappropriate or unsafe, such as before driving or engaging in physical activities, as long as it is clear that the product is an alcohol alternative. Even the resemblance to an alcoholic drink is acceptable as long as the advert makes explicitly clear that the product featured is no more than an alternative. After all, it is arguably a healthier alternative. This rule also applies to depicting pregnancy. However, the latter is permitted only for beverages that contain no alcohol whatsoever (0.0% ABV).  
 

How the UK deals with advertisements in relation to teens 

UK rules on the advertising of alcohol alternatives to teens are quite similar to those in the Netherlands. Again, advertising for alcohol alternatives is not supposed to be directed at under 18s, hence youth culture or characters, whether real or fictitious, who are likely to appeal to youngsters in a way that might encourage them to drink alcohol or alcohol alternatives, should not be used.  

Furthermore, the selection of media and context should avoid targeting individuals under 18. If an advertising medium has an audience of more than 25% of under 18s, it should not be used to advertise alcohol alternatives.  For this reason, podcasts or YouTube commercials before a show of a popular influencer would not be permitted.  

Advertisements for alcohol alternatives should also not feature or depict anyone drinking who appears to be under 25. Teens and children should only be featured in the context of responsible family socializing where they have a minor role and where anyone who appears to be under 25 is obviously not consuming alcohol or alcohol alternatives.  
 

Conclusion 

Consumers are more and more aware of the risks of alcohol consumption and are increasingly opting for low- or no-alcohol alternatives of their favourite drinks. The last few years have presented a real step-change as these products move in to the total mainstream. The producers have responded well, resulting in a huge increase in the number and range of alcohol-free beverages available, not to mention a greatly improved taste.  

New products call for new advertising campaigns, but also for new rules on advertising these products. As a marketeer, it is important to get comfortable with the new regulations surrounding alcohol variations early on, noting the sometimes significant variations by country – and remember, we all just want to have fun so please keep these great campaigns coming! 

If you have any questions or would like to join the conversation, please contact Rowena Tolley or your usual Kilburn & Strode advisor.  

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