The Portman Group has issued its fifth annual research report into UK public attitudes to low and no alcohol alternatives.  The study shows that just under two thirds of adults in the UK have tried a low or no alcohol product, with the key reasons being so that they can drive home from an event, avoid excessive drinking at a social event and generally be more health-conscious. 

The Portman Group says that since it started publishing the reports, the market has grown by over 130% from sales at £108 million in 2018/19 to one today worth £255 million.  However, after five years of significant and rapid growth, its polling may indicate that consumer uptake of alcohol alternatives could be plateauing.

85% of UK low and no drinkers first drank a no or low alcohol drink through a brand-shared product, compared to 15% who tried low and no through a product without alcohol branding. Examples include Heineken 0.0, Guinness 0.0, Peroniv 0.0, Thatchers Zero, Doom Bar Zero and Budweiser Zero.

The Portman Group says that these results may reflect the current state of the low and no market in the UK, where the biggest brands have been ploughing in significant investment and innovation to produce new alcohol-free versions and to showcase them through high-profile sponsorships – examples in the football world include the UEFA Europa League's tie up with Heineken 0.0 and the English Premier League's relationship with Budweiser Zero – with a view to encouraging consumers to try low and no products.

Whilst concerns have been raised surrounding the promotion of low and no alternatives which share branding with an alcoholic product above 1.2% ABV, the report polling highlights the significant importance of these products as a key entry point to the category and the fact people do drink them as alternatives to mainstream alcohol.

As such, the Portman Group believes attempts to restrict the promotion of brand-shared products (as called for by Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, which says so-called “alibi marketing” – the practice of a brand using core elements of their branding such as straplines, colours, fonts and shapes, without actually advertising alcohol – is a problem) could be counterproductive to moderation and harm-reduction efforts.

This isn’t a new debate, as similar concerns have been raised in relation to HFSS advertising, where advertisers well known for HFSS products aim to increase brand awareness by brand or non-HFSS advertising. The report points out that the products are marketed at adults and there are voluntary measures in place to prevent sales to under 18s in retail and hospitality settings.

The Portman Group calls for the UK government to launch the long-awaited consultation on low alcohol descriptors this year. The consultation would seek views on updating the terminology around the various ways in which products below 1.2%ABV are marketed – a key source of confusion for UK consumers. The consultation is also a chance for the UK to be brought in line with other Western European countries and deem products 0.5% ABV and below as ‘alcohol-free’. This would also be in line with the UK Licensing Act, which deems products 0.5% ABV and below to be non-alcoholic.

With anticipated changes to the laws on gambling in Great Britain and to alcohol advertising in Scotland (see my note on this here), sporting and other bodies may find their sources of sponsorship further restricted, and as such continuing to allow no and low alcohol providers to sponsor events and clubs would be a welcome (albeit gin-less) tonic for the sports world.  The ASA is also looking at the advertising of no and low alcohol alternatives in certain contexts, such as showing pregnant women drinking them as well as the pros and cons of shared branding between full strength alcoholic drinks and alcohol alternatives.