Honey, I shrunk the drinks


If I say ready-to-drink (RTD) alcohol, what comes to mind? The gals seeing off a few cans of ‘gin in a tin’ on the train before hitting the town? Fistfuls of VKs at the Student Union?

Not anymore. Sales of alcoholic RTDs are on the up. The category is growing faster than beer, wine, cider and spirits, and this growth is expected to continue for the next 6-7 years. This is, in part, driven by a change in our nation’s drinking habits. As we’re making a move towards drinking less, we’re likely looking for smaller serves, vs. committing to a whole bottle (just me?).


If we look to parallels in other categories that are undergoing a ‘moderation revolution’, aka confectionary, we see that consumers are happy to spend more, on something that feels more special, and more premium.


And indeed, we are seeing a premiumisation in the category. VKs, WKDs and Smirnoff Ices are becoming less relevant, and have been overtaken by offerings from Gordon’s, Pimms and Jack Daniels.


However, this premiumisation is rarely reflected in what we see on shelf. Generally, the design brief seems to be “how can we translate our brand assets into a ‘sophisticated’ slimline can, and deliver a little more fun”. Cue a relatively undifferentiated market, with very established category codes likes embellishments, crests etc.


Some are challenging these established category rules and learning from the craft beer category, injecting more innovation, and brand personality into their drinks. This is generally driven by challenger brands who suffer less ‘brand restriction’. But it’s not just challenger brands – it’s great to see Captain Morgan’s latest RTD pack (which we worked on!) breaking free of these traditional codes, utilising the full 360 degrees of the can to tell different sides of the brand story.

Progress, but they’re still all in cans. If our 25+ years of design research has taught us anything, it’s the power that structural design has to differentiate a brand and tell a uniquely engaging story to consumers. And this is no more evident than in the ‘full size’ alcohol category! So surely little bro/sis can take a leaf out of their bigger sibling’s book and truly translate the brand’s VBL to their structure, utilising the full design toolkit…


Bespoke structural design comes at a cost, of course, but we’re starting to see both challengers and established brands start to break the mould: glass RTDs are on the rise and being delivered in unique, exciting silhouettes.


These packs immediately deliver a more sophisticated feel, aligning with more refined, more special consumption occasions, successfully detaching associations of the Northern Line at 10pm on a Friday night.

While this seems like a great strategy to retain premiumisation, there is a contextual, System 1 challenge for consumers to overcome. As spotted in our local Waitrose, Tanqueray and Tanqueray Sevilla have translated the iconic bottle shape to a charming little RTD G&T. However, in autopilot, these could easily be mistaken for 40% ABV miniatures. While the category framing of other RTD products will help, cans will semiotically cue RTD on an implicit level far quicker than a small bottle.


So maybe there’s a balancing act to be achieved: brand equity and differentiation, while ensuring sufficient visual codes to reassure they are actually meant to be drank straight from the bottle.