‘Rise of wellness’: How sober culture is taking over media and marketing

In July, freelance creative director and founder of Dream Nation Love Yulia Laricheva hosted a networking event at Reception Bar on the Lower East Side. Fifteen attendees gathered, shared what they aspire to and swapped contacts to help them achieve their goals over drinks — only this time, those drinks were fancy yet alcohol-free elixirs rather than the booze that traditionally flows at networking events.

“I want to put together events that get people comfortable with being sober,” says Laricheva. “Holding a drink makes it more comfortable and easier to open up, but I want to create a space where people don’t feel the pressure to drink, where they can come together and create a strong network, which is what people are missing in the end.”

Taking the most common and readily available social lubricant — alcohol — out of events like Laricheva’s isn’t a new concept. But exploring sobriety, like by doing a month free of alcohol aka Dry January and creating spaces to socialize while sober may be more popular than it has ever been as millennials and Gen-Z are reportedly drinking less than the generations before them. In 2018, Berenberg Research found that Gen-Z reportedly drinks 20% less than millennials and 64% of Gen-Z respondents apparently believe they will continue to drink less than their older counterparts. While it’s hard to quantify exactly what drinking less looks like, as an article in The Atlantic detailed this past spring, exploring sober culture has become popular enough to create sober influencers. And, over the last year and a half, sober bars like Getaway, Ambrosia Elixirs and pop-ups like Listen Bar have cropped up in New York City.

“It’s a direct correlation to the rise of wellness,” says Quynh Mai, founder at Moving Image & Content, of the current fascination with sober culture. “People are choosing $25 boutique fitness classes over $25 cocktails. Holistic wellness is the new luxury; purchasing and participating in wellness brands have almost usurped the bragging rights of having a great cocktail. It’s better for your Instagram.”

Drunkenness has given way to mindfulness. The paragon of a life well lived is more about achieving balance and piling up experiences over wild nights. After all, a raging hangover is hard to square with dawn meditation. It’s no coincidence that sober culture is rising at a time when boutique fitness studios are popping up in every possible variation. Even the biggest substance abuse epidemic in America — opioids — traces its roots to people seeking relief from pain.

“Wellness is such an exploding trend as we are a lot more curious and concerned with our health, the environment, our well-being,” says Radha Agrawal, co-founder and CEO of the early-morning dance party craze Daybreaker. “We wanted to create an environment that wasn’t a preachy sober environment but was one that they could practice being sober, being present with themselves, meeting other people and falling in love on the dance floor without being hopped up on substances.”

Five and a half years ago, Agrawal co-founded Daybreaker, after a trip to Burning Man where Agrawal had an incendiary experience while dancing sober one early morning. Unsure if it would become popular, Agrawal created the community on the assumption that people wanted a community like Daybreaker. She was right. Now, Daybreaker has roughly 500,000 subscribers to its email alerts for its parties, and Agrawal estimates that between 70% and 80% of those subscribers have attended a Daybreaker event.

“At the end of the day, being drunk has to do with connection and belonging or lack thereof,” says Agrawal. “I drink because I want to belong to the experience more freely. When I’m sober I feel like I don’t belong, and I need to hop myself up on something. Belonging is the root cause of our abuse of drugs and alcohol and also the best friend to sobriety.”

Alcohol-free brands, like PepsiCo’s tea brand Pure Leaf and its seltzer brand Bubly, are starting to recognize the popularity of sober culture. In August, Pure Leaf hosted what it called a Modern Day Tea Social inspired by children’s book “Eloise,” which featured alcohol-free mixed drinks. At the same time, Bubly has teamed up with mixologist Julia Momose to create “spirit-free” cocktails to appeal to this cultural shift.

Cultural consultancy Sparks & Honey believes that we’re likely only seeing the beginning of this trend, with bars, restaurants and beverage companies see the demand now and will start to offer a range of products and experiences to answer to it.

Still, the popularity of sober exploration comes at a time when what it means to be sober may be shifting. For those in recovery, sobriety has meant being free of anything mind or mood altering that affects you from the neck down. But that may not always be the case for those exploring sober culture now. “The definition of sobriety has somewhat changed, due to what’s available,” says Rebecca Rosoff, co-founder of LA-based The Kimba Group.

Substances like CBD are more readily available now than they ever were. For one creative who has been sober for over 10 years, using CBD has helped them cope with anxiety. “It helps my mental health and helps me be my sober self,” the creative says, adding that the use of microdosing psychedelics like mushrooms has also become popular. “People who consider themselves sober may use substances like that, like a one-degree shift. The new definition may honestly be more about self-searching and be more in touch with, ‘What is sobriety to me?’”


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