As lockdown fades away, consumers are hungry for hospitality – but they'll be thirsty, too. John Porter explains how to ensure your soft drinks range makes a splash.
As statistics go, the knowledge that the hospitality sector lost the equivalent of 325 Olympic-sized swimming pools in soft drinks volumes across the year of lockdowns and restrictions is definitely one to include in quizzes and throw confidently into bar-room debates.
The figure comes from Britvic, compiled for its annual Soft Drinks Review, which covers the foodservice and licensed sectors. In less graphic terms, year-on-year soft drinks volumes were down 810 million litres, with value sales down by over 60% in the licensed sector and by more than 37% in foodservice.
While all operators face the challenges of re-engaging consumers and rebuilding soft drinks sales, in terms of the approach at the outset of reopening, "there are two real extremes", believes Adam Russell, Britvic's director of foodservice and licensed.
"We're in a recession, and a lot of operators are value-led and want a core range of the soft drinks that people know and love. They don't want to be left with a lot of wastage, and they haven't got great cash flow," he explains. In these venues, the focus is on proven sellers such as Pepsi, J20, and R Whites. "Certainly when we came out of lockdown last summer, that was what people wanted to buy."
Conversely, "some of the more premium operators are definitely trying to differentiate from what consumers can make at home, and that's where NPD [new product development] fits in." Russell cites innovations such as the Fresh Serve draught dispenser for the London Essence mixer range (pictured right), and the addition of the first flavoured tonic water to the Britvic mixer range, an on-trend elderflower variant. "You can't buy that in the supermarket, and sales of the Britvic brand are 99% in the on-trade."
The more premium operators are definitely trying to differentiate from what consumers can make at home
Additionally, Britvic's core brands are widely sold on dispense or in glass single-serve bottles out-of-home: "So while the brands and flavours are available in the off-trade, the pack isn't. The serve is important; it still feels like value for money because of the ice and garnish, which you wouldn't necessarily do at home."
Support for the sector
Britvic has expanded its Sensational Drinks business-building online tool from the licensed trade into the broader foodservice sector, with the launch of a soft drinks menu-maker tool targeting businesses such as independent cafés and workplace canteens. "[The tools] give them the same levels of support as restaurants, pubs and clubs. It's about the right range for the right type of outlet," explains Russell.
Also emphasising added-value support for the sector is Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP). Building on a lockdown support package worth more than £20m, which included equipment support and product supply, CCEP is launching a ‘Scan and Score' promotion tied into this summer's Euros football tournament, which allows customers to scan their Coca-Cola in outlets for instant win prizes including TVs, national team shirts and branded merchandise.
Paul Robertson, head of on-premise at CCEP, says, "Coca-Cola has a long-standing partnership with the Premier League, Euros and the Olympics and has become synonymous with football. These events can be a great way to boost sales – on average, customers watching sport spend an extra £10 when visiting a pub compared to those not watching sport.
"As well as having the right products behind the bar, visibility is key to helping drive sales, and to communicating the quality of the experience that's on offer. We'll be helping operators to execute the perfect serve, using glassware and garnishes to give people something special that they can't recreate at home."
CCEP's Schweppes range has also been given a packaging revamp. "Traditional tonics and mixers, like the Schweppes Classics range, play an important role in any operator's line-up, as spirits like gin continue to grow in popularity," says Robertson, while adding that sparkling soft drinks such as Appletiser can "offer a sophisticated, soft alternative to beer, wine and cocktails".
Kenton Burchell, trading director at Bestway Wholesale, advises operators to make the most of the support packages, such as a CCEP video guide to restarting post-mix equipment. "The focus of attention right now is on how to help hospitality customers reopen and thrive this summer. We are working closely with our suppliers, including CCEP, to help build and provide support tools for those customers, and to ensure that the highest quality soft drinks are available as soon as hospitality venues reopen.
"Some large suppliers are offering customers some soft drinks free of charge to help support them. This also helps ensure the customer is not tempted by a lesser quality offering, where they are under pressure to drive sales and profits."
The right range for your pub or restaurant
Vimto Out of Home offers Coca-Cola and Pepsi on post-mix dispense, along with its own V Cola and brands such as Irn Bru, Vimto and Ocean Spray, and also supplies slush machines. James Nichols, field sales controller, says: "There will be high expectations when reopening with added pressure on venues to deliver great service and quality drinks choices. Increased demand puts pressure on equipment, systems, and procedures.
"Getting your ranging right and installing the brands that your customers want is key for maximising sales and spend per-head, which will be crucial with limited-capacity venues. There's a clear opportunity to increase sales through offering a strong soft drinks range. Last summer, when the Eat Out to Help Out scheme ran across food-led sites, soft drinks were the key category winner.
"With consumer demands constantly evolving, identifying what your customers really want from their drink choice is key. We know that brand favourites, such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, are popular with customers, but it's also vital to stock what best suits your outlet and changing consumer demands."
Gabriel David, founder and owner of premium organic soft drinks Luscombe Drinks, believes that: "If and when they are to venture out, consumers want something different in terms of the experience and quality.
"This may be more difficult to source from the usual supply chains, but we have to dig deeper and make a tantalising offer to get footfall back into cafés, restaurants and pubs. Consumers will come back and stay if they get something ‘special'," he explains.
Emphasising the importance of product innovation, Mike Buckland, consumer marketing controller at Highland Spring Group, advises that operators "utilise the soft drinks category to drive consumers back into premises, by stocking new products that haven't been seen in the on-trade before."
The brand has launched a three-flavour range of canned sparkling drinks, each "inspired by Scotland", in pear and elderflower; blackberry, plum and hibiscus; and rhubarb and ginger variants. Buckland says such NPD will "intrigue consumers" looking for new mixer and mocktail options. "The three new flavours are perfect for these occasions and will definitely help to increase consumer curiosity."
Highland Spring has also launched a redesigned glass bottle for its 330ml and 750ml bottles, in lightweight glass to improve sustainability, while the modern, premium design, is "table-worthy for any occasion or event".
The Rio sparking tropical juice brand believes an appeal to consumers' post-lockdown longing for broader horizons can help drive sales. Adrian Hipkiss, marketing director at Rio drinks, says: "Tropical is very topical right now, being the fastest-growing flavour in the drinks category. Even if we can't travel, Rio's flavours conjure up thoughts of tropical locations.
"The premiumisation trend is spreading across all drink categories, as consumers value quality over quantity. With many now selecting mocktails and premium soft drinks, it's essential for brands to stay ahead of the curve with authentic and original offerings. Consumers are now prioritising high-quality ingredients within their soft drinks and are seeking real fruit within their beverages, such as Rio featuring oranges from Brazil."
Tea and kombucha
Innovation also continues to drive sales, with Triton Market Research forecasting that UK sales of fermented tea kombucha will grow at 20% a year until at least 2028. Tea brand Teapigs is launching a three-flavour range – in original, ginger and lemongrass, and peach and mango varieties – which is made with its own teas and fruit infusions rather than syrups, juices or flavourings.
Teapigs co-founder Louise Cheadle says: "Kombucha is massively popular with those looking for healthier soft drinks or beverages that can be drunk as a grown-up, alcohol-free alternative – there's only so much squash you can drink. Kombucha really ticks all the boxes for those drinks occasions throughout the day."
The Good Earth brand has reformulated its kombucha range this year, and has also added 250ml cans to the existing 275ml bottles, available in natural, ginger and lemon, and pomegranate and blueberry flavours. The brand has also launched a range of natural energy drinks, Good Earth Good Energy.
Liliana Jauregui, brand manager for Good Earth, believes that lockdown has driven permanent changes in consumer lifestyles, which "will support growth of soft drinks sales out of home".
The Tata-owned brand blends organic black and sencha green teas with natural juices, resulting in "a refreshing adult soft drink, big on taste and clean on the palette," says Jauregui. "With increasing focus on healthy living and many wanting to reduce alcohol intake and find an alternative to the usual soft drink options, the offer of a healthier alternative, which delivers a more indulgent, premium drink experience overall, is highly attractive."
Indulgence is also an important factor in soft drinks sales. Karen Green, marketing manager for Aimia Foods, which supplies the Shmoo thickshake range, designed to be mixed with semi-skimmed milk, insists "whatever the outlet, no drinks menu is complete without an Instagrammable and flavourful milkshake or two.
"More and more caterers are choosing to serve a selection of flavoured milkshakes on menus, to offer a premium drink experience that customers can't get at home," she explains. "Milkshakes are easy to customise to suit all customers' preferences."
Soft drinks for takeaway and delivery
Takeaway and delivery, added as a revenue stream by many operators during lockdown, is expected to remain part of the trading mix. Britvic acknowledges that this presents a challenge for the best-selling soft drinks brands. Consumers with bottles and cans bought at retail prices already in their fridge have proven reluctant to pay a premium to have the same products delivered as part of an eat-at-home order.
Russell at Britvic sets out the challenge: "In a food pub or quick-service restaurant, a soft drink is sold with a meal on 80%-plus of occasions, while in delivery it's about 25%. Unless it's included in a meal deal, consumers are doing the comparison, and they make do with what's in the fridge. You can try to add value in a different way; for example, we've done some test and learns with Just Eat and Deliveroo around entering customers into a prize draw when they order a soft drink with their meal.
"If delivery is here to stay, and we all think it is, do we need a delivery-only range of soft drinks? Are there specific formats that make it more attractive? It could be the type of vessel, or similar."
Do we need a delivery-only range of soft drinks? Are there specific formats that make it more attractive?
Reflecting the view that less familiar drinks may be better suited for takeaway and delivery, a recent market entrant is soft drinks producer Kyon, which supplies the Ppinger, a lime, apple, ginger and elderflower sparkling drink. Supplied in both 750ml and 250ml pack, the drink is formulated to be versatile enough be drunk straight, as a mixer, blended into a smoothie, a mocktail or added to gin or rum.
Founder Daniel Suppey reports: "We had great success in some takeaway-focused restaurants during the lockdown. For example, a restaurant in Croydon had success listing it alongside their drinks menu on Just Eat."
Pack formats that double up for takeaway offer advantages in terms of range flexibility, provided they also meet customer expectations for interesting and less-familiar serves. Bryan Martins, marketing and category director for the Whole Earth range of organic sparkling drinks, says: "We're looking to support operators to serve a natural and organic option to health-conscious customers. People will socialise outdoors again and convenient, single-can servings help to maximise opportunities with this growing audience of alfresco diners."
With the IGD forecasting that sales of "food to go" will significantly outperform the overall market going into 2022, Britvic's Soft Drinks Review concludes that "winning ‘drinks with food occasions' will be a key driver of total outlet and soft drinks' growth."
New soft drinks and products
Schweppes new mixers
For summer drinks menus, Coca-Cola European Partners has expanded the Schweppes range with Schweppes Russchian Pink Soda, to deliver a twist on a wine spritzer, and Schweppes Slimline Elderflower tonic, to be served with white spirits and a cucumber garnish.
Good Earth kombucha
Kombucha brand Good Earth has reformulated its full range to improve flavour and reduce sugar content, with all 275ml bottles now 30 calories or less.
Fentimans 200ml mixers and tonics
Fentimans new 200ml mixers help operators tap into the growing popularity of long mixed drinks and bigger serves. Alongside classics such as tonic water and ginger ale, the 12-strong range includes more unusual choices like Valencian orange and yuzu tonics.
Vimto Out of Homewww.vimto.uk
Whole Earth www.wholeearthfoods.com
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