Many adults don't drink alcohol at all, and a sizeable majority prefer not to at lunchtime. That can only mean a huge opportunity for any business prepared to invest some time and energy putting together an exciting list of soft drinks. Ian Boughton reports
The credible adult soft drink, a brand marketing manager once remarked, is the Holy Grail of the leisure industry. It is the drink that can be ordered without embarrassment in any setting, even a boozer, and be genuinely enjoyed. In business terms, it is not simply an alternative to alcohol, but the right drink offer at the right time.
Some suppliers are just the same - too many soft drink brands still harp on with marketing-speak about "traditional drinks like great-grandma used to make" and soft drinks "redolent of long, lazy summer afternoons and the click of willow on leather", but very few seem to have actually researched the subject of what caterers need, and what consumers want to buy.
Caterers run out of steam before they get to the soft drinks, says Claire Martinsen, founder of the Breckland Orchard range and the category she calls "posh pop". These were indeed based on granny's recipes, but adapted by her experience as a corporate marketer - typically, her recent launch of cream soda with a dash of rhubarb.
"The majority of pubs and hotels spend so much time preparing perfect ranges of ales, spirits and wines that they run out of energy for their soft drinks and default to the wholesaler. As a result, you get main brands, and consumers are prepared to be underwhelmed by the soft drinks in a pub.
"Of course you need Coke - but also a minimum range of a decent ginger beer and elderflower. Only two or three pubs out of a hundred are doing this… they want to power the non-drinkers into submission.
"And restaurant menus are a big battle, because a sommelier doesn't want to sell a soft drink - he wants to sell a big bottle of sparkling water."
Don't underestimate the Holy Grail idea, agrees Amanda Grabham, head of brand marketing for Shloer. The figures tell an interesting story.
On the face of it, a fifth of the adult population do not drink alcohol, and three-quarters of consumers prefer soft drinks at lunchtimes. However, only 34% of soft-drink consumers say they are satisfied with what is on offer in hotels and restaurants.
It gets more interesting, Grabham says: "Only 7% of restaurants stock premium soft drinks, and yet the restaurant sector accounts for a quarter of all premium on-trade sales. The situation is identical in hotels." The conclusion is that, where caterers have seen the potential of good soft drinks, it has worked - and notably well.
Shloer has recently launched single-serve glass bottles for the on-trade, and has created a "best served shared" promotion aimed at putting the product on food menus, citing examples of five-fold increases for operators who have done so.
Grabham's figures are endorsed by Simon Speers, managing director of Bottlegreen. "Premium soft drinks are proving to be the driving force in the sector. Sales of premium soft drinks in the on-trade grew by 20% last year, with value up by 40% - there aren't many drinks sectors delivering those levels," he says.
"This begs the question of why soft drinks are still the poor relation when it comes to the planning of menus. Consumers are sending a clear message, so we are encouraging restaurateurs and hoteliers to see soft drinks in a different light - not just a default option for children and drivers, but a positive consumer choice."
Like Shloer, Bottlegreen is promoting a campaign to match soft drinks with food, a common strategy in other drink sectors - generic guidelines are to serve elderflower with fish, chicken, sandwiches and light lunches, or ginger and lemon grass with Asian dishes, and pomegranate and elderflower with red meat. There is also a service for suggesting drinks to suit a venue's own menu.
Is pairing the way ahead? Are adventurous flavours the future? (Ocado has recently launched Qcumber, which blends cucumber with gently sparkling spring water; the James White company was the pioneer of beetroot juice, which was taken up by the English and Welsh rugby teams).
"I'm not a fan of pairing, unless it's for fun," says Martinsen at Breckland Orchard. "I like the idea of a fish-finger sandwich with dandelion and burdock, or cream soda, as 'the childhood lunch'. I do believe every pub should do a Friday retro menu, with cheese and pickle sandwiches and posh pop!
"In flavours, consumers are certainly willing to take a punt. I try not to go too weird - not guavas and papayas, or things they haven't heard of, but I try to produce something with which I think they can picture how it tastes."
SOFT DRINKS - THE NUMBERS
There is no shortage of statistics for the soft drinks on-trade market, and most of the brands are agreed on the general â¨trends.
Coca-Cola Enterprises says that soft drinks are worth £3.9b â¨to the on-trade, and, not surprisingly, adds that colas are the largest contributor to this. â¨In general, soft drinks are worth £450m to the restaurant trade, and growing.
However, the brand says that 83% of customers would appreciate a more interesting choice and 18% are likely to trade up following a suggestion by staff. Nine per cent of consumers would like to see soft drink recommendations on food menus; in trials this put sales up by an average of 7%.
At Acquire Services, procurement manager Joanne Sexton says that energy drinks, although they have had some recent adverse publicity about their contents, are the star performers and are about to overtake colas. In the early days of this product, athletes were the target, but now it is aimed at all teenagers and young adults - 34% of the 18-24 age category say â¨they are regular energy-drink users.
The mocktail has become more than a novelty for those who take it seriously. Typically, Jen Aries, founder of the Crooked Well restaurant in Camberwell, believes in the principle of a distinct â¨non-alcoholic option.
"The majority of people won't now even consider drink-driving, so non-alcoholic beverages have become acceptable. A strong mocktail list is crucial because it shows the non-alcoholic drink isn't a second-class option. Our most popular is the Apple Mojito, which is delicious and looks just like the real thing.
"Diners who don't drink alcohol often just decide to have water with dinner - if we make them aware of the options, we always find that they opt for something more exciting."
At Frobishers, marketing director Steve Carter observes that all statistics and experience point to two major sellers always being orange juice and apple juice, but there are now many examples of innovative operators turning these into something new - Lee Collier of the Remedy Oak golf club in Woodlands, Dorset, has done well with his after-round "Grapefruit Gunner", which is Frobishers' grapefruit juice with lime, soda and Angostura bitters. It sells well at £2.80.
This, says Frobishers, makes a point that suppliers to the on-trade often miss - certainly, soft drinks have to taste great, but they have to fit the situation and be operationally friendly.
Predictably, with so many other manufacturers using the "better than fizzy drinks" argument, Coca-Cola has begun to fight back. It has created global campaigns which are intended to directly address the question of obesity and the importance of energy balance, with clear information about its calorie content of its drinks, and to raise awareness of no-calorie and low-calorie options, and the importance of regular physical exercise.
Elsewhere, the Vimto brand has embarked on a novel promotion - the Levi Roots range (based on the musician and chef who rose to fame on a television entrepreneurial programme through his Caribbean sauces) was launched to capitalise on the growing popularity of Caribbean food in the UK, and grew by 41% last year. The new product is Caribbean Crush, a fizzy which has won a family beverages award for taste. Awareness of the chef and his range is currently high, Vimto points out.
THE CASE FOR COCONUTS
Flavours go in cycles, and coconut is said by some suppliers to be the fastest-growing category in soft drinks (it does not appear in some statistics, maybe because it does not count as a "fruit" juice). "The liquid inside is not coconut 'milk' - that's made from the white," says Jonathan Newman, founder of CHI.
"This is coconut water, and you can mix it, make smoothies with it, and a whole list of other drinks." His product claims the lowest natural sugar content, a quarter of certain other products.
At last year's Lunch show, Vita Coco won a new product prize. The company's head of impulse, Chris Wallace, says the value of coconut is in hydration, for which it is more effective than bananas or sports drinks. (Its award winner was Coco Café, which is coconut with espresso.)
Coco Libre has created an optimum protein version, which adds whey and milk protein, but also cocoa, vanilla, and coffee.
Coca Colawww.coca-cola.co.uk/comingtogetherCoco Librewww.cocolibreorganic.comFrobisherswww.frobishers.com
Breckland Orchardwww.brecklandorchard.co.ukShloerwww.shloer.comBottlegreenwww.bottlegreendrinks.comQcumberwww.q-cumber.co.ukVimtowww.vimto.co.ukVita Cocowww.vitacoco.com**