Say cheers: How homegrown alcohol brands are keeping up with consumers

Campaign India speaks with homegrown alcohol brands to understand how they dealt with the lockdown, what’s new in terms of category innovations and how they keep up with the Indian consumer’s evolving taste for alcohol

13 Feb 2021 | By WhatPackaging? Team

For the alcohol drinkers among us, there perhaps is nothing more relaxing than sipping on a favourite beverage after a long day or week. Whether it’s at a pub or a house party, a drink can help bond friends and family.   The Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown kept alcohol stores and bars shut for a few months last year. Consumers who hadn’t stocked up craved for a drink – looking for a respite in the enforced work from home and social distancing norms – from the confines of their homes.  

The lockdown also affected the liquor industry, with sales and revenue going to almost zero, overnight. However, the economy opening up in June 2020 also allowed brands to breathe, with sales going through the roof. While each brand in the category faced its own challenges, Campaign India spoke to new-age, homegrown alcohol brands to understand how they dealt with the lockdown months, what’s new in terms of category innovations and most of all, how they keep up with the Indian consumer’s evolving taste for alcohol.  

Pandemic pros and cons  
Abhinav Rajput, COO, Nao Spirits – the company manufacturing local gin brands Greater Than and Hapusa – says the business of gin is seasonal. “We see a majority of our sales in Q3 and Q4 (October to March). We were expecting a slower path in the lockdown months, but the sudden onset of Covid resulted in zero revenue.” Nao Spirits tided over the months till the economy started showing signs of a revival. The ensuing sales, however, helped the company scale a significant part of its succeeding 18-month target sooner than anticipated. There were drawbacks, though: the brand currently operates in six states across India, and would have liked to expand further much sooner if not for Covid.  

Meanwhile, brands identified a new consumer segment that actively consumed alcohol during the lockdown – the home drinkers. Once consumers could purchase alcohol again, they began actively drinking at home, experimenting with cocktail recipes, having intimate house parties, and the like. Consequently, the strategy for brands targeting this segment changed – they focused on bettering their drinking experience at home and tried ensuring that their brands were reachable to them whenever it was time to stock up. This spurred the category onto newer innovations.  

For instance, “Consumer experiences and touchpoints were leveraged ‘phygitally’ – the product delivery was physical whereas the product experience was digital,” says Asa Abraham, PR and communications in-charge at John Distilleries (makers of premium homegrown single malt whisky Paul John). The lockdown saw the digitisation of alcohol delivery, with independent apps and restaurant owners leveraging technology to ensure timely deliveries to consumers. This is especially important, since home delivery of alcohol usually meant calling up a local shop and placing orders over the phone.  

Priyanka Patel, founder at ciders, mead and craft product brand Wildcraft Beverage, spells out the biggest advantage for her business. “Apart from the rise of alcohol delivery applications, another important innovation that the state excise has spurred is the packaging of alcohol in other formats. Most notably in the craft beer segment, breweries are able to pour their product into glass and tin growlers,” she says. This makes for easy pick-ups and deliveries while increasing the size and quantity of each sale.  

An un-event-ful experience
With marketing activities for liquor brands in India subject to surrogate advertising norms, the guidelines make it even tougher for smaller, local brands. These labels don't have the large budgets set aside for marketing activities like their international counterparts do.  

Compounding this are myths and stereotypes that people have towards alcohol in general, making marketing for the category an overall tricky business. How do homegrown brands make themselves seen?  

On-ground events, for one. Patel speaks of taking her brands to events where the possibility of one-on-one chats with the consumer is higher. Then there’s also getting them to sample the alcohol and hopefully convert them to loyal consumers.  

Varna Bhat, CEO at Blisswater Industries speaks about the importance of taking the brand story to consumers. The company, that manufactures craft vodka Rahasya, hosts curated experiences for consumers to sample the vodka. “People love the story we have to tell with the experience of the product. We show people how the product can be adapted to suit their taste, whilst retaining the essence of the brand. We have been receiving a great response so far,” Bhatt says.  

At the moment, bars and restaurants have opened up throughout India for a few months now with increased safety and hygiene protocols in place. Consumers, too, have been stepping out to enjoy a meal or a drink as they slowly try returning to a life of normalcy. However, full-scale events still remain locked down, for the most part, a challenge for the liquor industry that’s already dealing with surrogate ad norms.   

For Greater Than and Hapusa, Rajput also speaks of smaller, more intimate events and music festivals as a way to reach the consumer. The brand also curates playlists in partnership with Spotify, and hosts smaller online events to help consumers experience Hapusa gin in addition to leveraging social media for recall. Abraham says “visibility, liquid-on-lips programs, digital and PR” are some of the ways Paul John reaches consumers.  

Social media has been helpful for brands in these times. “We have been driving virtual distillery tours, only one in India to offer such, and we have also been providing tastings and unique whisky experiences for our consumers in the comfort of their homes. We have also started with all safety protocols our in-person activations as well with limited numbers,” Abraham says.  

Packaging pays  
A distinct feature that binds most new-age alcohol brands in India is its careful attention to packaging. While brands like Greater Than, Paul John and Rahasya have gone minimal, others like Wildcraft leverage their packaging to show allyship to the LGBTQIA+ community. Patel says the brand was inspired by the historic Section 377 verdict and wanted to “let the community know we were a safe space for them and that we respected them and their choices.”  

Abraham says that it’s the packaging that is the start of Paul John’s whiskey experience. “Consumers seek premiumness and Indianness in our packaging which is an integral part of our product offering,” she says.  

Bhatt, too, can’t stress the importance of packaging enough. “Packaging depicts the identity of your brand; it tells your story. It should be able to attract any consumer to buy your product. And it should also be something that is sustainable,” she cautions. Elaborating on Rahasya vodka’s bottle and label, she adds, “The bottle was designed to ensure ease of use by mixologists. Bars and restaurants get crowded, so this element is key to help the mixologist community. Our label is designed to stand out from the rest of the brands on the shelf and have easy grip quality to avoiding slipping while pouring.”  

As the country and the world slowly gets back its bearings in the face of the pandemic, let the drinkers among us raise a toast to 2021 that fares better than last year did. Cheers to that!  

Source: Campaign India