When Soda Meets Spirit: The Risks and Rewards of Soft Drinks in the RTD Cocktail Mix

A look at the ever-evolving landscape of ready-to-drink cocktails, exploring the risks and rewards of adding soft drinks into the mix.

A look at the ever-evolving landscape of ready-to-drink cocktails, exploring the risks and rewards of adding soft drinks into the mix.

Mid-pandemic, I had the opportunity to host a webinar that delved deep into the evolving landscape of ready-to-drink cocktails. Back then, there weren't many rules or category norms, but things have shaken up even more so since. Key factors such as convenience, portability, and the ability to explore diverse spirits and flavors without the commitment of purchasing heavy glass bottles became pivotal elements contributing to the success of numerous brands in this space.

The current landscape of ready-to-drink cocktails reveals four prominent sub-categories that are experiencing rapid growth and innovation:

1/ Established Spirit Brands Venturing into Ready-to-Drink

Many established spirit brands have strategically expanded into the ready-to-drink cocktail sphere, viewing it as a natural extension of their product offerings. Crown Royal's flavor variants and Malfy Gin's premixed tonic beverages mirror consumer habits, aligning with how people mix and enjoy spirits both at home and in social settings. We love this expansion and long may it continue - especially when the format is as elevated and chic as the Malfy gin bottles - who needs a Copa glass?

2/ Emergence of Niche Brands in the Boozy Cocktail Market

Despite the growing competition, fresh faces are staking their claim in the ready-to-drink cocktail scene. Who will rise to stardom and become the icons of tomorrow remains a mystery. However, our gut feel is that Kylie Jenner's latest venture, Sprinter, might not be sprinting for long. Even with that Kardashian sparkle and Kylie's business partner wielding a PhD in molecular biology, it offers little benefit in an already crowded space of bland, flavored vodka sodas.

Kylie Jenner's flavored vodka soda

But RTD is an exciting space to play. The landscape is ever-evolving, showcasing the adventurous spirit of consumers today. From hard smoothies to boozy coconut water there's no shortage of experimentation happening in this space.

3/ Rise of Non-Alcoholic Brands in the Ready-to-Drink Space

Many consumers are choosing non-alcoholic cocktails as a healthier alternative to traditional alcoholic drinks. They cater to a broader audience and provide a socializing option that doesn't exclude non-drinkers from social settings. And both established and newcomer brands are responding to this insight with no and low options.

We have a hunch that the most successful brands in this space will be those with ‘similar but different’ flavor profiles - such as Parch Spiced Pinarita which is as delicious as a margarita but trying to replicate one, a la Recess Margarita. Another interesting tactic we love, adopted by AVEC, is to position your brand to be enjoyed as a standalone option OR as a great tasting way to elevate your spirit of choice.

4/ Soft Drinks Going Hard

The fourth strategy is the most recent - and the most controversial - trend, of soft drink brands venturing into the ready-to-drink segment. There are a few strategies emerging, some of which we think are great, genius and culturally relevant. Others are a bit murky and have faced criticism for potentially compromising brand loyalty or promoting unsafe drinking behaviors. So here goes, some potential strategies for soft drinks entering this space, and some scenarios that should make you think twice about it.

How to successfully extend your soft drink brand into the cocktail occasion:

Strategy 01: Adjust your formulation or design to steal share of the alcohol occasion

Certain brands are associated with the bar scene - J2O, Coke, Schweppes are all bar fridge mainstays. So it is a natural shift in consumer’s minds to see them break into a more adult space. It’s a natural extension of their equity and through a simple formulation change to add complexity to flavors, a slim can to feel more elegant, and some ‘cocktail inspired’ illustrations or detailing, hey presto you have a mocktail ready to go. 

Strategy 02: Employ a smart partnership with like-minded spirits brands 

Jack Daniels & Coke, Vodka and Cranberry juice - like strawberries and cream, they were meant to be together. And soft drinks are jumping on this mirroring of consumer behavior with brand partnerships. However here it’s absolutely key to ensure that the packaging FEELS adult, and doesn’t solely rely on your younger consumers recognising the collaborator as being a spirit brands (here’s looking at you, Absolut & Sprite)

Strategy 03: Extend your adult-friendly brand by leveraging alcohol cues

Many ready-to-drink brands nail this, exuding adult vibes with metallics, bold typography, and confident designs. Fresca and Topo-Chico fit right into a cocktail bar, maintaining their personality and vibe. Even newer soft drinks brands such as Something & Nothing easily transitioned into the space with their ‘SPRITZ’ extension - as they had an escapist, exotic and grown up look and feel to begin with.

And Sapsucker - despite its minimal design - easily transitioned by adopting a beer can format, being very upfront about the VODKA component through bold typography, and switching the colorway to lead with white - a palette that naturally gives off vodka vibes.

Strategy 04: Position your brand as a perfect non-alc companion to spirits

You could follow in the footsteps of Coca Cola Signature mixers, or Fentimans shift from everyday soft drinks and into elevated mixers for perfectly crafted cocktails by just adding the booze. 

Newer brands such as Neon Zebra show that you don’t necessarily have to dial up premium spirits cues in this space, so it could be an easier transition for more characterful, playful soft drinks brands. It could also form a stepping stone into launching alcohol cocktails, by allowing consumers to start associating your brand with more adult occasions and shaking off a bit of that youthful edge which could lead to murky ground. 

When to absolutely NOT extend your soft drink brand into the cocktail occasion:

Scenario 01: When you're a brand for kids

The nostalgia trend shows no sign of waning, and it's an obvious inspiration for the launch of Sunny D vodka seltzer. But no matter how large the font is that screams ‘vodka seltzer’ the truth remains that it's a brand associated with being a teenager, and just feels WRONG.

Scenario 02:  When you're a ‘Better For You’ brand 

Along with the nostalgia craze, there is also a desire among people to live more healthily. But that means they are cutting back on alcohol and calories and eating healthier diets, not looking to their family juice brand to start adding booze to their OJ. The difference between this packaging and their fruit juices is minimal, and they thereby run a risk of polluting opinions on their core through misleading consumers.

Scenario 03: When it’s a proven BAD combination

Caffeine and alcohol are not a great mix. I won’t bore you with the science, but combining a stimulant and a depressant is a surefire recipe for prolonged intoxication and dehydration. Nope, they should not be present in the same drink, ever. Shame on you, Dunkin.

Scenario 04: When adding or removing alcohol removes your brand differentiator

If White Claw non alc seltzer was launched on April 1st I’d have laughed and carried on with my day.

I mean who actually said "White Claw tastes so good I wish it was non alcoholic" But no, it’s REAL.

How White Claw 0% is different from LaCroix or any other flavored seltzer I have no idea, but I’m intrigued to see how it fares. Does White Claw have so much brand equity that people will pay a premium for this over other brands with more interesting flavor profiles or plain old simple flavored seltzer? Only time will tell.

In Conclusion

In this ever-evolving world of RTDs and soft drinks in alcohol land, clear design shifts and ethical choices are key. Partnerships, redesigned cues, and trust preservation are crucial in this blurred zone. As soft drinks flirt with spirits, the challenge lies in innovating without losing brand integrity and trust. Or as a good friend recently said ‘just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you SHOULD’

Sister Mary makes brands famous by helping them build meaningful connections with their audiences. If you’d like to learn how your brand can inspire devotion, reach out to halo@sistermary.nyc