‘We can’t pretend like we didn’t just go through a global pandemic’: Alcohol brands cautiously optimistic about new messaging

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With vaccine rollout and relaxed Covid-19 guidelines making for a potential return to the bar scene before the end of the year, alcohol brands are positioning themselves to welcome consumers back.

Recently, beer brands like Dos Equis and Bud Light have rolled out campaigns with brand messaging pointing at a cautious return to normalcy. For example, the “Bud Light Summer Stimmy” campaign includes tickets to live sporting events. And Dos Equislatest campaign —  “A Dos of XX” — includes spots showing people prepping for a night out with friends at the bar in ads across national television, social media, digital activations, retail and out-of-home.

These campaigns are just two ways alcohol brands are shifting advertising messaging from being part of consumers’ at-home habits to their nights out. Another beer brand, Hawaii-founded Kona Brewing Co., doesn’t have plans yet to change its messaging. However, the brand is shifting its marketing approach and hosted an in-person event in Denver last weekend as the world opens back up. Analysts say spots and messaging looking at life after the pandemic are a step in the right direction to engage consumers.

“Right now, I think it’s a gradual move back to the energy and sociability we felt from beer and alcohol pre-pandemic. We’re seeing more sociability in advertising video and photography,” Brian O’Connell, Fortnight Collective agency’s strategy director, said in an email.

O’Connell pointed to newly relaxed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noting that “these moves coming from our leadership institutions suggest we can start to re-assimilate to our social and leisure lives.”

Per Kantar data, beer brands spent an estimated $1 billion on advertising in 2020, down nearly $3 million from 2019’s ad spend (those figures exclude social media spending as Kantar doesn’t track social spending).

While the spots show people together, the new Dos Equis’ campaign isn’t necessarily a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Jonnie Cahill, chief marketing officer at brand owner Heineken USA. Instead, it’s a move to be top of mind for beer drinkers as the world opens back up, moving away from messaging that promotes making drinks at home.

“We wanted to celebrate the inevitable comeback as opposed to pointing to when and where that should happen,” he said. “We think it’s appropriate to celebrate and bring a smile to those inevitable human moments but with respect to the safety that has to happen.”

Meanwhile, Kona Brewing Co.’s first in-person activation last weekend (held at a pop-up market) was the first since the pandemic set in early 2020. The event, geared toward the city’s essential workers, drew approximately 9,000 attendees. Of course, Covid-19 precautions were taken, including decals noting a 6-foot distance between visitors, branded masks and limits to same-party groups upon entry, according to Cindy Wang, senior director of brand marketing.

Kona does have plans for other in-person events in the fall, including a music festival, Wang said. However, the beer brand isn’t changing its messaging in light of the pandemic, given its “One Life, Right?” marketing encourages living in the moment.

“Throughout the pandemic, our tagline and message are just more relevant than ever. People had a lot of time to stay at home and figure out what’s important to them,” she said. “We’re basically reminding consumers that we’re there and making sure that our messaging and our tagline is consistently everywhere that we are.” 

Ads that dwell on negative aspects of the pandemic tend to rank low with viewers, per a recent study from Kantar insights. That includes ads that showed social distancing or canceled travel plans, said Kerry Benson, head of content analytics practice in North America for Kantar’s insights division.

“As we come out of the pandemic, and restrictions are lifted, past history shows us that people will want to see forward-looking, optimistic scenarios [versus] signs of the difficult year we’ve been through,” Benson said in an email.

Still, brands are in wait-and-see mode, given the shift in spirit brands’ communication needs to be a gradual one, said Karen Flanagan, Berlin Cameron creative agency managing director. 

“We feel a sense of responsibility to our drinkers’ safety and as we evolve our messaging to acknowledge we’re no longer locked in our houses with our ‘pod’ and with a positive outlook on the future, we can’t pretend like we didn’t just go through a global pandemic,” Flanagan said in an email.

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