In association with Lucozade Ribena Suntory

How is the on-trade innovating with soft drinks?

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Hard pressed: leading operators see a world of soft drink innovations
Hard pressed: leading operators see a world of soft drink innovations
Many are spurning the opportunity to go to the pub and, when they do go, they may not want alcohol. Are there any viable soft drink alternatives? Leading pub operators found out

Who would have thought that, one day, a group of highflying pub group leaders would be able to muster a significant amount of enthusiasm for soft drinks?

Well, that day arrived when last month a gang of pubco operators gathered in Shoreditch, London, to discover the latest trends in soft drinks, with the hope of learning how to spice up their growing non-alcoholic offering.

The event was powered by Lucozade Ribena Suntory (LRS) and organised by The Morning Advertiser, featuring a mix of new and interesting soft serves in some of the area’s renowned bars. As well as soft drinks, the study tour delved into the future of mixers, also known as flavour enhancers, for alcohol occasions.

“There are pockets of brilliance in the on-trade when it comes to exceptional soft drink serves today, however, these are few and far between,” said LRS head of channel marketing John Rumble.

“In the past decade, we’ve seen other drinks categories transformed: the rise of gin, craft beers, quality and range of wine and cocktails. Outside of premium mixers, soft drinks have seen very little macro change to engage today’s changing consumer. Only 14% of business leaders perceive their soft drinks range as market leading.”

Rumble argued that making a soft drinks range stand out in the on-trade is now “what it’s all about” as consumer needs and demands have changed, while pressures within the on-trade have also increased.

“Today, consumers are more health conscious, with 45% of them actively drinking less,” he continued. “There is more competition in terms of where they choose to spend their money – my barber now offers me a beer and my local coffee shop serves wine in the evening. The lines are more blurred than ever.”

To explore the present and future potential of alcohol-free serves in pubs, the study tour was split over four venues, each chosen to help with the exploration of a theme. These were: Enhancing the Soft Drinks Experience; Incredible Alcohol Alternatives; All Day Flexible Offer; and Spirit Enhancers (see boxout).


Attractive presentation

Enhancing the experience is vital to increasing sales, according to Rumble, who said many soft drink consumers would be more likely to order a non-alcoholic drink if it was presented attractively, in sophisticated glassware and served with a garnish. The proof of this can be seen in the success within alcoholic cocktails and even in beer, where branded glassware is also used.

“We have an engagement challenge from both consumers and bar staff when it comes to soft drinks,” said Rumble. “This is the litmus test. Ask any bartender in a good outlet about their craft beers, whisky or wine, and they will wax lyrical about the process, flavour and style. Ask them about what soft drinks they have and they will generally shrug and say, ‘the usual’.

“It’s not their fault. If we want bartenders and consumers to engage, we need to give them something to talk about in order to enhance that all important experience. So what can we learn from categories that do it really well.”

As with alcoholic drinks, soft drinks experiences can come from a product’s story, the serve or through a sharing serve. Each of the drinks served at the Curtain fit into one of those three categories. Ribena Winter Spiced, for instance, was served from a heated glass teapot with cinnamon sticks and orange wedges, to be shared by a group.

Elevation of serves

Now, soft drinks already lend themselves to morning and midday drinking occasions, but ensuring those serves are elevated is vital, said Rumble at Blues Kitchen when discussing the All Day Flexible Offer. Between 2010 and 2017, almost 1.3m consumers were no longer going to pubs and bars regularly, contributing to a 17.5% decline in visits.

Research also found that more than 3.6m adults were going to coffee shops in 2017 – an increase of 49.2% compared to 2010. To ensure softs remain relevant at all times of the day, and to combat increased pressure from coffee shops, pubs need to align drinks with different day parts, be it with food, as breathers between alcoholic drinks or as tasty and healthy alternatives.

On the healthy alternatives line, three in 10 consumers claim to drink premium soft drinks in place of alcohol, said Naomi Grant, LRS research and development director, in Hawksmoor where the topic of Incredible Alcohol Alternatives was explored.

“Premium soft drinks taking cues from alcoholic drinks should help brands drive interest among the users who drink premium soft drinks as an alternative to alcohol,” she said. “New launches in this area are well placed to capitalise on the decline in alcohol consumption in the UK.”

Grant added that 63% of consumers are actively trying to lead a healthier lifestyle, with 65% of soft drink drinkers demanding a healthier range of soft drinks. In response to increased interest, low-calorie soft drinks increased volume share by 6.7 percentage points in the past two years.


Spiky alternative prospect

One product shown at Hawksmoor that tied into consumer demand for healthier and tasty alcohol alternatives was LRS’s True Nopal Cactus Water. The beverage has fewer calories than coconut water, which is currently in vogue, while offering great taste and serve opportunities.

There is also an interesting story surrounding cactus water; it comes from the Sonoran Desert, which covers a large part of south-west US. The people who farm the Prickly Pear cactus, the berries of which are used in the water, swear by it and consume its berries in various ways, said Grant.

Finally, the tour ended in Iron Stag, a new cocktail bar in the heart of Shoreditch, to showcase how soft drinks should be used to enhance the flavour of alcohol, rather than as a simple carrier for a spirit.

Merchants Heart national account manager Aldric Charles De Geuser, explained in great detail the necessity of getting the mixer offering tight. For example, premium mixers have increased in distribution by 320% over the past three years, De Geuser said.

The category within Britain’s on-trade has grown by more than 25% to a value of £462m, with 60% of spirits drinkers now saying that the quality of tonic water is just as important as the quality of the spirit.

“The number of people drinking gin with flavoured tonic will soon overtake the number choosing classic tonic,” he said. “With premium mixers, the guest experience is vital because you’ve got so many high-quality spirits and customers now need more information about the drinks on offer before they choose something.

The mixer is a big part of that conversation – where it comes from, why it’s so good and how it elevates the spirit.”

A tour of soft drink champions

Enhancing the soft drinks experience

Where:​ The Curtain

What:​ Current soft drinks ranges are often deemed too narrow and boring, with consumer defaulting back to the ‘same old choices’. But the experience can be enhanced to something more exciting, through upskilling and education.


Royal Flush Kombucha

- Kombucha is fermented tea. It is a combined yeast and bacterial fermentation

- Premium soft drinks have taken inspiration from alcoholic drinks in terms of flavours, brewing, packaging

- Royal Flush is brewed from First Flush Darjeeling, known in India as the Queen of Teas

- This kombucha brews with rich notes of rhubarb and gooseberry on the nose

- Ideal as a celebration drink in place of a Champagne

Nitro cold brew coffee

-          Coffee charged with nitrogen to give it a rich, creamy head similar to draft beer/ Guinness

-          When you add nitrogen to cold brew, it removes most of the dissolved oxygen in the brew and it breaks apart into tiny bubbles

-          These tiny little bubbles are what gives you that creamy, silky mouthfeel

Ribena Winter Spiced

-          Sharing serve, offering sophisticated glassware and garnish

All Day Flexible Offer

Where:​ Blues Kitchen

What:​ The all-day flexible format outlet is the format considered by business leaders to continue to thrive in an ever-changing on-trade environment. So, what role do non-alcoholic drinks play in the all-day flexible format?


Strange Brew Sparkling Coffee

-          Just 6% of UK adults have drunk chilled ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee at home in the month to June 2018

-          This also means that many people do not know what to expect from the drinks

-          The most common associations of the drinks are positive – convenient, refreshing, and tasty

Incredible Alcohol Alternatives

Where:​ Hawksmoor

What:​ 65% of GB consumers are actively trying to lead a healthier lifestyle, with a high proportion wanting to see a healthier range of soft drinks on offer. In this session, we explore what the future of health looks like to consumers beyond just low-calorie and low-sugar soft drinks.


Seedlip and tonic

- Premium soft taking cues from alcohol

- On-trade, positioning itself with alternatives to alcohol

- New launches in this area, well placed to capitalise on the decline in alcohol consumption

Suntory All Free Beer

-          The product now has an aroma just like beer and higher carbonation and features natural water

-          It is free from alcohol, calories, sugar andpurine

True Nopal Cactus Water

-          Functional benefits in water present a tangible way to add value to bottled water among the younger generation

-          More consumers are looking for natural options and don’t compromise on health while out of home

-          More interesting than just water but without the added sugar of flavoured water

Spirit Enhancers

Where:​ Iron Stag

What:​ The spirits category is the fastest growing on-trade drinks category, with consumers choosing to pay more for better. Off the back of spirits growth, premium mixers now have a 568% volume share of the mixer category, here’s how it could progress further.


Whisky and tonic

-          Makers Mark Whiskey, Merchants Heart Tonic Water, Angostura bitters

Vodka and tonic

-          Chase pink grapefruit vodka, Merchants Heart Pink Peppercorn Tonic Water

Gin and tonic

-          Martin Millers Gin, Merchant’s HeartHibiscus Tonic

About Merchants Heart: Merchant’s Heart makes spirit enhancers. Every flavour in its collection is designed to perfectly complement premium spirits, and elevate drink-making and drinking to a whole new level of enjoyment. Spirit Enhancers are the next evolution in premium mixers

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