The Ethical Consumer and Alcohol

Written by Davina O'Donoghue

The near constantly publicised horror created by decades of mindless consumption and reckless waste is penetrating deeply into the consciousness of consumers. It is slowly but surely changing the way we think about our choices, our requirements and even our own mortality.

As the impact of manufacturing practices and food ethics rise to the forefront of consumer thinking, no industry will be spared interrogation. Not least the alcohol sector.

That is not to say that consumers don’t feel personally responsible for their own behaviour and choices. A latent and pervasive crisis of conscience accompanies every purchase decision. What resources have been used to create this and what waste will be left when I am finished with it? That is a huge weight of responsibility to contend with and consumers currently do their best to meet their needs whilst trying to minimise this anxiety.

It is a lonely station too. Government and big business are siloed into a villainous category seen as wanting to preserve the status quo and protect the ‘shareholder’ dollar.

This all points to a sustained emotional crisis directing behaviour across all aspects of life. Coping strategies are essential and three clear approaches emerged from our research. These are not typologies, but tactical responses that co-exist within individuals and emerge in response to different circumstance.

Take Action: I will equip myself physically and mentally to make sure my best self is preserved and ready for action. Living in an age where unchecked consumption has truly jeopardised the existence of our species, there is plenty of proof that toxic behaviour, ultimately, kills.

Retreat: Disengage from the crisis and aim to make choices that preserve some normality and sense of pleasure. A pendulum swing towards cosseting the self against a dark age. Occasional, highly permissive behaviour that seeks to alleviate stress and fear.

Cope: I will do as much as I can to deal with the threat but within frameworks and a society that are familiar and easily accessed. Executed through moderate and kind behaviours that take account of the changing landscape and the obligation to be more mindful. This allows the consumer to feel at peace with their choices and stems from a want to continue to feel part of society in-spite of the constant changes around them.

Meeting Needs in the Alcohol Sector
What could all of this mean for the alcohol sector? A sector once assumed to be bullet-proof. A sector where now there is tension between health concerns and our innate desire for pleasure.

These different mindsets can, and do, lead to different consumer requirements. How can we reach people operating in these different spaces? What are the territories that allow them to access a sense of emotional well-being whilst consuming?

To meet the needs within each of the above coping responses, three emotional hooks pave a path to innovation for the future. Restraint, Cherish and Connect.


Under this heading is a space for self-determining dosing. Historically the consumer has only really been allowed to dose via how much they consume and to what extent they ‘mix’ their spirit. Is user driven control over the ABV ever possible? Can they control what botanicals are dialled up or down in their spirit? Can they order a single spirit dose to mix with different soft drinks over the course of an evening?

What role is the for technology and apps to enable the control and restraint sought? Can apps assess liver health or metabolic rate? Could it give bespoke directions on the most suitable beverage based on the activities, past and present of the consumer?

Obviously 0% and low ABV are well underway but could these drinks become the vehicles for additional nutrition or supplementation. Are there more natural, less liver toxic highs deliverable through liquid? What of the humble mocktail?

More than all of these is the need for total transparency and authenticity in the process. The mindset behind restraint is not one of compromise or grey areas. Brands which evidence their purpose as true through the entire process will most likely thrive in this new world order and especially with upcoming Gen Z. Gen Z take no prisoners about the ethics of the consumer world and are unlikely to buy into the consequence free hedonism enjoyed by their predecessors.


In a moment of cherish the requirement is a super-heightened sense of experience. Luxurious hedonism and joyful modernity populate this space. It is the act of feeding of one’s sense of joy but not at the cost of one’s sense of taste nor one’s ability to function. This is the playground of product alchemy. The mixing of the unexpected and the theatre of the production and consumption. No longer will conventional brand and heritage cues be sufficient to drive a sense of occasion. The unexpected is desired. Links with other experiences, other brands and other trends can create the permission needed to ‘let go’ for a while. Could hot liquids become a more significant part of the alcohol landscape rather than an occasional?

In-home may represent an opportunity for this more hedonistic, less restrained requirement. The opportunity to ‘create your own’ brand and experience will sit well with this need. Ingredients, presentation, packaging and theming all adding to the sense of occasion.

A subscription model providing a host with an entirely themed night at home chimes with the idea of something special and joyful.


For consumers, a sense of connection comes from vivid and clear identifiers that a product or brand is in service to its community and not the other way around. Products and brands that are conceived, grown and produced coherently and with a fitting aim ‘to better society’ are sought.

‘Local’ is obviously a pure expression of this and micro-brewing and distilling, the most tangible example. However, these are becoming ubiquitous and product differentiation a greater challenge. Small producers risk rapidly losing credibility with consumers when they succumb to investment or buy-out from larger entities. However, if social purpose and benefit to those in the community are preserved, in spite of money changing hands, the brand is more likely to remain in favour.

Social purpose, inclusion and raising people up are the desires from brands that are connected. Evidencing doing what is right for the community ahead of what is right for the business will enable alcohol brands to better avoid their increasingly ‘bad boy’ image.

This need-state can equally be met by large brands. The recent Bacardi Dancefloor ad delivers connectedness at a very societal level. Unifying through a global dancefloor is a believable and delightful platform for a Rum from Cuba and taps into the desire to feel connected.

In Review

The speed at which consumers are changing their view of the world is staggering and probably unprecedented in our history. We know too much now and that can lead us to question everything or at times retreat from change or at other moments try to exercise control. Fear and accountability have fundamentally changed our basic consumption behaviours. Brands and products therefore need to review their purpose and roles. They need to ensure that they behave in ways that either allow control, allow the temporary respite from a strange new world or step up to forge connections and community that give us all hope.