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Why living in an ‘observed society' is changing the way Gen Y and Gen Z drink

Drayton’s Food & Drink specialist Byron Beatty heads to his local gym and discovers the youth of today aren’t like they used to be – especially when it comes to how they exercise and drink

The most used bit of kit in my local gym is the full length mirror in the male changing room. Not the weights, not the running machine, but the mirror. And – since my local gym isn't based in Venice Beach, California – but in Newcastle’s city centre this, I think, tells me a lot about the all-pervasive power of today’s social media.

Facebook was only founded in 2004. Instagram in 2010. And yet, in little more than a decade, those platforms, particularly Instagram – or, to be more precise, the collective social pressure they exert – have managed to reach out and shape the torsos of previously down-to-earth Geordies. And – as part of that same cultural phenomenon – the ‘observed society’ they all live in has also dramatically changed the way they drink.

Take the rise of low-cal full-strength beer businesses like Skinny Brands. Their MD, Tom Bell, launched his business in 2015. Still in his twenties, I have to believe he understands those selfie-obsessed lads better than I do. Maybe that’s how he noticed a huge gap in the market for a brand that specialises in low-calorie alcoholic drinks which really deliver on taste. Along with a business partner, Gary Conway, he launched 4% ABV Skinny Lager at the end of 2016. It has depth and subtly of flavour and comes in at 89 calories per 330ml bottle. So, the target market gets to enjoy a proper pint without undoing all that hard work in the gym.

The same types of social-media-generated trends are, I think, helping to drive the sales of non-alcoholic beers, too. As a recent Minutehack article on drink marketing claimed, “Generation Z are reaching adulthood with very little interest in drinking, full stop…a recent Demos research report showed that one person out of five among the newest generation of legal drinkers say they don’t want to drink at all.”

Teenagers and twenty-year-olds not drinking at all? Maybe that’s because when I was their age you could get drunk, make a fool of yourself, and it would soon be forgotten. These days that picture of you wearing a traffic cone for a hat, whilst being wheeled through the town centre in a shopping trolley is going to stay on both your – and all your mates’ – profile pages forever. A pressure my generation didn’t have to put up with.

Savvy beer brands like BrewDog’s Nanny State and Budweiser’s Prohibition have fully understood this profound social change and are already exploiting it. The Daily Telegraph reported last year that “Sales of one low-alcohol beer - Nanny State - rose by more than 50 per cent…In total, £2m was spent on the BrewDog product in the 12 months ending last July, a rise from £1.3m the year before.”

And, only this January, the charity Alcohol Change UK reintroduced its dry-Jan app which allows users to record both the money they have saved by not drinking and the calories they don't consume because of that. Helping to create an even bigger market opportunity for low or non-alcoholic beers brands and the considerably higher profit-margins they can often command.

Given the direction younger consumers are moving in, with drink trends now clearly aligned to the influence of Instagram, it seems to me the door is now open for traditional fashion brands to move into our hyper-competitive sector. A Versace mocktail anyone? To that question those lads at my gym would all say ‘yes.’

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