How have alcohol and drinks brands adapted to the highs and lows of Covid-19? We spoke to Tom Harvey, co-founder of “grain to glass” marketing agency YesMore, about direct-to-consumer sales, adapting marketing strategies, and how to be more human on social media.
For alcohol and drinks brands, the Covid-19 pandemic brought a distinctly mixed set of fortunes.
On the one hand, many of their normal sales venues like bars, pubs and restaurants had closed their doors and were doing little to no business. On the other, demand for alcoholic drinks from consumers was as high as, if not higher than, ever – and many brands began to see alternative sales channels like direct to consumer (DTC) take off for the first time.
Drinks brands and the creative agencies working with them had to think on their feet and be innovative and flexible in order to meet consumers where they were and strike the right tone with their marketing messages.
I spoke to Tom Harvey, co-founder of YesMore, a drinks marketing agency working with a variety of drinks brands, distilleries, wineries and trade groups across the beverage industry, about how they and their clients have been dealing with the challenges presented by Covid-19: from shifting points of sale and changing consumer behaviours to a need to market responsibly in the midst of a crisis.
Driving sales during the coronavirus lockdown
“There’s certainly been change, and there’s certainly been trepidation,” Harvey said of the drinks industry during the coronavirus lockdown. “The biggest change has been in the point of purchase – when typically, a consumer might purchase a brand in the on-trade, such as a bar, a restaurant, or a hotel, there has been a shift to two areas. One is direct to consumer, with brands selling through their own ecommerce sites or their own Amazon listings, and the other is off-trade, selling via retailers and supermarkets, newsagents, off-licenses, et cetera.
“For a long time, there’s been a lot of conversation about trying to get direct to consumer channels right in the drinks industry. But there are certain challenges – for example, consumers weren’t used to buying their drinks direct from the brand. It wasn’t a thought process that went into the decision-making cycle – until the lockdown happened, and then they had no choice. I don’t think a lot of consumers realised that they could buy direct from the brand.”
Many drinks brands also didn’t have direct-to-consumer sales channels set up prior to the lockdown – “I think, in all honesty, there was a bit of apathy about it,” Harvey admitted. While there had been repeated discussions within the industry about how to make direct-to-consumer channels work, a lot of brands had placed it on the backburner.
“What the coronavirus lockdown did was give these brands a much bigger incentive – because they had to find a new route to market, and that was the way to do it. A lot of brands have now done that, and are being rewarded for it.”
Other drinks brands looked for ways to support their on-trade partners and invest in that relationship with a view to driving sales once pubs, bars and restaurants opened back up. In Australia, for example, the Campari Group launched an initiative called ‘Shaken Not Broken’ through which consumers could be connected with bars and pubs selling bottled cocktails for pickup or delivery; the brand committed AUD $500,000 worth of support to the initiative, which included a contactless bottled cocktail delivery and collection service, product donations, packaging materials, marketing toolkits and media exposure.
Ramsbury, a brewery and distillery based in Wiltshire, also created a virtual tip jar that allowed consumers to buy drinks vouchers for certain local bars and pubs that could be spent upon re-opening; the brand also matched each purchase with a donation of the same amount to the business.
Even with the lockdown now easing and pubs and restaurants opening back up, Harvey doesn’t believe that drinks brands should completely revert to the way things were before the lockdown. “The smarter brands will keep up those additional revenue streams, such as direct to consumer.”
Adapting the message
Sales channels weren’t the only area in which drinks brands needed to be flexible during the lockdown. The coronavirus crisis brought with it a new need to be sensitive about the marketing and communications that brands put out, from their imagery to their taglines. I asked Harvey whether drinks brands were in a position to invest in marketing at all, particularly towards the beginning of the crisis when marketing budgets were being slashed in a bid to save money.
“Some brands were conservative, and paused or froze their budget temporarily; some recognised that actually, like with the routes to market and points of purchase, they needed to shift their marketing,” Harvey replied. “It didn’t make sense to continue investing in things like experiential, or out-of-home – a lot of budget got frozen in those areas. Whereas new channels such as TV, radio, and social media, saw massively increased consumption from audiences.
“We were somewhat fortunate from a business point of view, with our niche being in drinks and social media – we benefited somewhat from the rejigging of budget from some of our clients,” he added. “After the very initial freezing of some budgets, there was a recognition that people still wanted to purchase drinks, and they still wanted to use social media, so that was a good avenue to reach the consumer.”
However, it needed to be done in the right way. While drinks brands weren’t under any obligation to market to consumers in a particular way, Harvey explained that YesMore urged its clients to be conscious of the reasons that consumers might be drinking during the lockdown – and avoid messaging around drinking alone, or drinking out of boredom.
This carried over into the visual imagery of drinks ads. “All social channels shifted away from showing groups of people; we could still show, for example, two hands cheers-ing, but we didn’t want to show one hand, because that implies drinking alone. But you can still have two hands, because you can still live with a partner or family member.”
Some marketing campaigns that had been planned for the lockdown period had to be pulled; one YesMore client, a German wine brand, was on the verge of launching a campaign in March with the tagline, ‘Living is easy’, which had to be scrapped and quickly rethought; another had to pull a campaign with the tagline ‘Life is for celebrating’.
Despite this upheaval, Harvey doesn’t regard the need to re-plan marketing messaging as the biggest challenge faced by drinks brands during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Messaging can change quite quickly for various reasons; with a good agency supporting, this doesn’t have to be a huge problem,” he said. “The challenge posed by shifting points of purchase has definitely been much bigger for drinks brands.”
Influencers as content producers
In fact, having to rethink their approach to marketing due to Covid-19 has presented YesMore with the opportunity to develop their business in new directions. Being unable to bring together large groups of people to produce marketing content forced the agency to get creative and explore alternatives. “We’ve just launched an additional arm to the business, born out of the thinking that you don’t need to be in a studio with a big group of people – there’s a whole world of talented content creators out there that self-shoot, direct and create their own marketing campaigns. You don’t have to use influencers for their influence – you can use them for their content creation ability.”
Based on this idea, YesMore has launched YesMore Content, an additional arm of the business based in California, which is designed to help brands tap into a global network of content creators who can shoot and produce content to order in isolation and in a “Covid-safe” manner. “You simply share your brief; we can give it out to the right people and get it shot, so it’s quick-turnaround and high-quality.”
I asked Harvey if he believes that this type of content creation is going to become a more permanent fixture in the marketing industry in the wake of Covid-19. “I think it’s a way of creating content that should be valued at the same level as full studio production,” said Harvey. “Those things still have a place, and they still have a need – there’s only so much you can do with one solo shooter hiking up a mountain with a bottle of scotch to take some nice shots.
“There’s still room for, and value in, full-scale production, but Covid-19 will now need to be part of every producer’s risk assessment.”
Bringing socialisation back to social media
Working closely with clients on social media, Harvey has had plenty of opportunities to observe shifts in behaviour taking place as a result of Covid-19. One of the more lasting trends he has noted is a return to a more ‘human’ style of interaction between consumers and brands – reminiscent of the interactions that took place in the early days of social media marketing.
“Back when social media first became a marketing channel, around 2007, 2008 when Facebook and Twitter were just becoming popular, there was a feeling that this was ‘the age of conversation’ – and wow, brands are talking back to me! It’s not just a TV advert, or a radio advert or a billboard – this brand is actually replying to me. That two-way conversation was really exciting,” Harvey recalled.
“Fast forward to now, and social networks have mastered the art of monetising their platforms with paid media, and brands have weighted their budget towards paid media instead of community management, conversation, interacting and engaging with their consumers. And they gradually became more like brands again – marketing and selling you things. What I think that coronavirus has done is shifted us back towards a more conversational, more human and genuinely authentic tone.”
The coronavirus pandemic has allowed brands to be more open with their audiences, Harvey argued, and talk about the hardships that they and everyone else were facing. This was also fuelled by an awareness that any brand messaging that seemed too ‘polished’ would be very jarring in the midst of the crisis.
“I have the belief that social media needs to be sociable by nature,” said Harvey. “The whole reason these platforms were created in the first place was to connect people. But all too often, brands can come into a channel and stomp all over it with selling. They need to remember that this is a sociable environment that people are using to look at pictures of their extended families’ weddings and babies and engagements.
“Brands need to understand the context of where they’re marketing. And I think there is an increased amount of awareness now that if something is too polished, it becomes too much like a glossy ad. And actually, the marketing that’s a little bit rough around the edges fits in with the context of the wider feed.”
Harvey also believes that brands should get into the habit of asking for feedback from their audience. “I think brands need to be open about asking their audience what they want – or revealing stuff before it’s ready. Particularly if they’re a bar, or a restaurant – they should say what they’re doing, but also ask, ‘Is this enough? What do you think?’
“There’s no harm in asking, and it’s valuable research. That’s another way of using a social media platform that’s not selling.”
Navigating the ‘new normal’ for the drinks industry
As for the longer-term impact of Covid-19 on the drinks industry and the hospitality sector, Harvey predicts a number of potential lasting changes: from ready-to-drink beverages taking precedence over mixed drinks due to hygiene concerns, to fewer covers sold in restaurants, pubs and bars as a result of social distancing, which may lead to an increase in pricing. Drinks brands, and the on-trade venues that they sell to, are still unsure what the ‘new normal’ will look like for their industry.
“I get the sense that there is a feeling of trepidation about investing too much money and effort into announcing that pubs are open again – because they could easily close,” he said.
One of the things that he believes will help brands navigate the ‘new normal’ is to sustain a loyal and engaged digital audience. “Even if you’re a bar or a restaurant and you survive on people coming into your establishment, you can offer delivery online – but you also need to drive bookings. If you’re a bar or a restaurant that only ever did walk-ins, you can’t have that now; government guidance dictates that you need to have a booking system, because they need to be able to track and trace customers.
“It will be vitally important for brands to keep and grow an online audience in the form of social media fans and followers, in the form of email lists, et cetera – because you can reach them and activate them, and ultimately get revenue from them, digitally.”