Modern Marketing Alcohol Beer

Truly and Bud Light heat up the hard lemonade seltzer wars

By Elaine Underwood | The Drum

March 1, 2021 | 7 min read

A far cry from the local lemonade stand, one of America’s favorite refreshments is getting the backing of the entire marketing arsenal. Truly, Bud Light and other beverage brands are all-in on hard lemonade seltzers. Here’s what they are mixing up and why.

Bud Light

Bud Light looks lemonade to reverse sales declines.

As warmer weather nears, the hard lemonade seltzer wars are already heating up. Hard seltzers have put life into the alcoholic-beverage category in the last couple of years, but now their sweeter siblings are honing in on their share of stomach.

A shot over the bow was Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade’s humorous Super Bowl spot from Wieden+Kennedy. It turned 2020’s lemons into the promise of better times with 2021’s spiked lemonade. New advertising is set to roll out in early spring as AB InBev has prioritized this growing segment amid falling sales of the original Bud Light brand.

In perhaps the most meta extension of all time, last month, Mike’s Hard Lemonade debuted Mike’s Hard Lemonade Seltzer, “the only hard lemonade made by the experts.” It also named a new agency, WorkInProgress, last week and a spring ad launch is in the making.

Hard cider maker Bold Rock, a unit of the craft-brewing specialist Artisanal Brewing Ventures, introduced its Bold Rock Hard Lemonade Seltzer last week. Other smaller competitors are likely to follow.

Yet, it’s Boston Beer Company’s Truly hard seltzer which deserves much of the credit for leading the lemonade charge with last year’s successful launch, says Dave Williams, vice president of analytics and insights at BUMP Williams Consulting, which specializes in beer, wine and spirits. “Lemonade is inherently refreshing and it’s not something new to beverage alcohol—mixed drinks use lemonade, there are shandies and radlers and flavored malt beverages like Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Truly saw that opportunity, ran with it and they nailed it.”

Truly’s second generation of lemony innovation for later this year. New Truly brand advertising is also in the works by agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

The hard seltzer sales phenomenon shows no signs of slowing

With many bars closed due to Covid-19, consumers instead toted 12-packs of spiked seltzers home from grocery stores and sales boomed through 2020, reaching $4.1 billion and representing 161% gain, according to Nielsen data.

“Last year, when Covid hit, all of a sudden all those young adults, college-age kids were spending more time at home and Truly really benefited from younger drinkers introducing their parents to this drink,” said Don Lane, Truly vice-president.

Spiked lemonade seltzers captured approximately $314 million of hard seltzer category sales for the year ending December 26th, according to a Nielsen report. This is a fragment of the larger pie, but one that was growing at a faster pace than other flavors, promising a robust 2021.

The hard seltzer category is dominated by two big players. White Claw, part of Mark Anthony Brands, also parent to Mike’s Hard Lemonade, owned 51% of the category at the close of 2020 with Boston Beer’s Truly trailing at 24%. However, Truly is making gains thanks in part to its lemonade line extension. By early 2021, it captured a 27% share compared to White Claw’s 47%; White Claw did not return calls for comment about its upcoming plans.

Lemon lightning in a bottle

Truly Lemonade’s January 2020 launch came about as Boston Beer’s researchers found consumers were looking for more flavor. “The thing about lemonade is that it connotes refreshment, automatically, lemonade felt like it would resonate with our drinker and allow us to inject a little more sweetness and flavor,” says Lane. “I would say it was lightning in a bottle.”

Switching from the white cans of its berry hard seltzers to a black can for Truly Lemonade was another firestarter. “Packaging lemonade last year with black cans was a game changer because when you are holding a can in your hand, it is a badge, and that attracted a broader audience, in particular men, and that helped boost our business,” notes Lane.

Bud Light Seltzer is also switching from white cans to black for its lemonade line. “The Bud Light Seltzer franchise has always thrived on flavor innovation,” says Conor Mason, senior director at Bud Light Seltzer. “We’re constantly evolving to bring quality and great taste to our consumers in ways that meet their changing preferences. After months of consumer testing and recipe trial, we knew we needed to deliver a bold hard seltzer packed with lemonade taste.”

Mike’s Hard Lemonade Seltzer boasts that it packs more lemonade flavor in its cans because the company uses three lemon varieties and cold-presses its star ingredient. “Other companies do other things, Mike’s makes lemonade,” said John Shea, chief marketing officer at Mike's Hard Lemonade Co, in a statement, referencing the brand’s heritage.

More often, hard seltzers derive their alcohol from sugar. Despite that, marketers tout attributes such as low calorie, low sugar, and gluten-free. Tart, bold lemon pushes a flavorful punch. “Arguably the most important thing we learned last year was the fact that consumers want variety and demand high quality and great taste,” says Bud Light Seltzer’s Mason.

As spiked lemonades promise to crowd shelves this spring and summer, spiked ice teas are also gaining steam. Truly launched its hard tea seltzers in January, choosing gold as the signature can color. Industry analyst Williams, “There is a lot to be said about being first at the party, like Truly with lemonade, and now starting with the world of tea.”

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