This year’s Dry January might be an easier transition than in years past. Across the board, wellness beverages are on the rise. Boisson, the nonalcoholic beverage retailer with locations in NYC, LA, and SF, reported that the holiday season is now their busiest time of year. While winding down after a long day at work or bringing a festive libation to a social gathering might have been occasions for alcohol purchases in the past, they’re increasingly seen as a time for nonalcoholic options like elixirs, kombuchas, and nonalcoholic substitutes for wine, beer, and sprits.
It seems that a younger generation is the one ushering in the change, generally less interested in alcohol consumption, though their older millennial counterparts are quick to follow suit. Research has found that Gen Z tends to be more health-conscious than older generations and as a result, these younger consumers are looking for alternatives to traditional alcohol options.
With consumer purchasing between alcoholic and nonalcoholic becoming less distinguishable, what are the major factors that influence consumer purchasing of nonalcoholic alternatives? According to a 2022 report conducted by the Food Institute, improving health was the main motivator for reducing alcoholic intake at 47%. This points to an overall focus on wellness over sobriety for consumers of nonalcoholic beverages. Elsewhere sober consumers have noted nonalcoholic beverages that approximate the experience of drinking alcohol can put their sobriety at risk.
In line with these findings, YCCI research examining the move to healthier beverage alternatives across spirits, soda, and beer/wine shows that factors like additives and functional ingredients are sticking points for consumers when making healthier choices for beverages. Furthermore, packaging and taste play an important role in how people are making determinations about the healthiness and drinkability of beverage alternatives.
Sugar content outweighs calorie concerns
YCCI research on non-traditional carbonated soft drinks found that sugar was a more important metric than calories for consumers making healthier purchase decisions. For most consumers we interviewed, there is a specific sweet spot at which point sugar content adds (perceived) tastiness but doesn’t detract from perceived healthiness.
In an A/B test on soft drinks, purchase intent increased as sugar per bottle increased from 0 grams to 2 grams. Consumers believe that, while there is little to no difference in health score between a soda with 0 grams or 2 grams, there is a big improvement in taste. Meanwhile, purchase intent decreases with significantly more sugar, as the taste benefit of too much sugar hits diminishing returns, and is not enough to offset the negative health effects.
We can expect this to fluctuate across different types of beverages but the takeaway is: consumers are paying more attention to sugar when buying healthier beverages, but zero sugar may not be perceived to be optimal, even for those who are health conscious.
Functional benefits matter
When considering healthier sodas as a replacement to alcohol and traditional sodas, YCCI interviews with 20 consumers aged 18-54 found that there was a belief that added digestive health benefits would benefit their lifestyles. This accords with the massive growth of prebiotic supplements and sodas in recent years.
The nonalcoholic beverage brand Kin Europhics focuses on the functional ingredients, including adaptogens, nootropics, and botanics, which promote socialization and relaxation. The popular Curious Elixirs also incorporates organic, functional ingredients like herbs, spices, roots, barks, and botanicals in their beverages which they claim increase serotonin and dopamine precursors, and have been used historically to increase circulation, and act as an aphrodisiac. These added benefits double-down on the move towards a healthier alternative, and simultaneously enhance the feeling of the beverage as a special treat.
In terms of functional benefits beyond just ingredients, YCCI’s research found that framing seltzer’s likeness to water in terms of hydration increased purchase intent. It doesn’t hurt that nonalcoholic beverages are hydrating too.
Attitudes on the look and feel of healthy beverages
The aesthetics of product packaging can also help to drive wellness-driven purchasing decisions. In YCCI qualitative surveys among 24 men and women aged 21-30, consumers stated the maxim, “Skinny can, skinny me” as skinny cans served as a mental cue for low-calorie contents. It is interesting to note, though, that men and women’s willingness to buy was impacted differently by can shape. In a quantitative study, men stated a higher likelihood to purchase hard seltzer alternatives that came in shorter, wider cans versus the opposite in women.
As for what’s inside, YCCI researchers investigating hard seltzer habits expected to show that consumers would prefer a clear hard seltzer water, given the positive aspects of associating hard seltzers to water in general. However, the results of an A/B study showed that a higher percentage of respondents stated likelihood to purchase the colored seltzer over the clear. Along these lines, it was surprising as well that when asked about the calorie perception contained in the drink, there was no significant difference between clear and colored seltzer. This indicates that there may be positive benefits to colored seltzer that may not be offset by negative health perceptions.
With wellness as a key motivator turning people toward nonalcoholic alternatives, understanding the decision making between products — what is indicative of a healthy alternative, and what isn’t — is central to competing in this space. Nonalcoholic options are no longer perceived by consumers to be a drink for the sober, but also for those whose beverage goals include prioritizing their mental and physical wellbeing.