US drinks brands' ad performance: time to avoid the cliches in alcohol advertising

People’s favorite drinks and alcohol brands take a long time to shift. Generating brand awareness and long-term growth is essential. So why does advertising let so many brands down with poor execution and tired cliches?

When it comes to their ads, drinks brands come off like a bunch of old bores propping up the bar and reliving past glories. ‘Is this the same beer you drank with your dad?’ ‘Enjoy with friends’ ‘On the (insert location)’ and ‘Whiskey done right’ are all just a few of the classic cliches currently on screen in the USA promoting alcohol brands.

So it is no surprise that the brands actually driving potential long term growth are brands that avoid the common cliches and are trying to position their advertising differently to most of their competitors.

Guinness, the industry standard for alcohol advertising, still stands at the top scoring on average three stars (good potential long-term brand growth) in the System1 Ad Ratings scale, with Corona, Josh Cellars and Heineken all producing ads with a two-star or higher average score (generating modest potential long-term growth for the brand).

Ad Ratings measures the emotions an ad generates in the consumer and the intensity of that emotional resonance. This score is then weighted for business effect and a rating of one to five stars is produced. Potential long-term brand growth is then predicted based on the star rating: one star equals 0% brand growth; two stars is 0.5%; three stars is 1%; four stars is 2%; and five stars is 3%-plus.

So, what can brands do better to start driving up further engagement and generate long-term growth for their brands?

Better creative

Well, simply it starts with better creative – what Guinness, Heineken and Corona do so well in their advertising is not simply focusing on the drink and but delivering a greater brand story. Guinness works as a brand because it explores the wider relationship its consumers have with the brand rather than just the product. Guinness explores its 200-plus history with consumers and how it has evolved over time, and the reasons for continued success.

Whether Bud Light’s new catchphrase ‘Dilly Dilly’ entertains or irritates you, the ads outperform 70% of their rivals, with an average score of 1.9. This approach demonstrates a brand trying to be different and carve out an unique tone of voice, in a hugely competitive market.

Interestingly, Corona, Heineken and Guinness are all non-American brands, where alcohol advertising is not specifically about the product but has a history of being slightly more abstract. Think Boddington’s with Mel Sykes, Guinness’ Snail Race or Heineken’s The Entrance or Corona Paradise. European alcohol advertising is less brash, in your face and demanding. It lets the viewers make up their own mind and build brand affinity through storytelling rather than a voiceover artist telling us when and where the best place to 'drink this brand' is.

It’s telling that the highest-scoring single alcohol ad among US consumers in 2017 was an online April Fool's Day spoof made for Jameson’s Irish Whisky. “The Long Lost Barrel” directly mocked the solemn pretensions of the heritage-soaked booze ad. American viewers gave it five stars – which would have put it in the top one percent of ads on TV. If a brand is daring enough to drop the corny category tropes, it can stand out dramatically.

So ultimately, if you are an American brand trying to generate greater cut through with consumers, ditch the cliches and take a page out of the European book – start building greater brand affinity through less fact based “this beer uses the best 16 hops in the world” claims. Concentrate on generating affinity, through wider storytelling, better creative and ads that make people smile.

We are all adults, we can make up our own mind on when we want another beer and who we want to drink it with. Until this change is reflected in the creative, most American alcohol advertising will continue struggling to generate long term brand growth.

John Kearon, founder and chief executive, at System1 Group

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