Nostalgia may seem nice – but alcohol brands should use with care

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Does this image feature nostalgic cues - or bright colours that appeal to children?
Does this image feature nostalgic cues - or bright colours that appeal to children?

Related tags: Regulation, Alcohol, Uk, Portman group

An increasing number of brands are drawing on nostalgia as a marketing tool: but alcohol brands that try to appeal to an adult’s inner child must take care that they do not also inadvertently appeal to children today, warns the Portman Group.

Last year a number of drinks fell foul of alcohol marketing rules because of nostalgic references to the sweets, clothes and cartoons of yesteryear, says the UK organisation for responsible alcohol standards.

Nostalgic cues and retro designs are being used increasingly across food and beverages – holding a strong emotional draw - but can create an issue in alcoholic beverages if they appear to close to childhood or youth culture.  

Emotional connections​ 

In 2017 three of the five cases that came in front of the Portman Group’s Independent Complaints Panel drew on nostalgia: and in each of these cases the complainants believed the labels would hold particular appeal to under 18s. In two cases, the complaints were upheld.

“Use of nostalgia-based elements on packaging and in promotional materials has been a popular trend in marketing for a number of years and it connects with consumers on a powerful emotional level,” ​said Jenny Watson, chair of the Portman Group’s Independent Complaints Panel.

“References to the sweets, clothes, and cartoons that we enjoyed in childhood have a strong appeal to us as adults, but marketers selling alcohol need to be extremely careful they don’t inadvertently also appeal to today’s children.

“We understand that adults today are enjoying youth culture for longer, and we’re not trying to take the fun and creativity out of marketing, but I’d like to remind marketers that if they draw on children’s culture, no matter how retro, they need to do it with great care.

“If they don’t then the consequences could, unfortunately, involve a costly re-brand.”

Teddy bears, sweet shops and Austin Powers

tiny rebel
Tiny Rebel's old cans - the bear has since been removed from the design

A key illustration comes from the case of Welsh brewery Tiny Rebel Brewing Company, which amended the designs of its Cwtch Welsh Red Ale cans after a ruling from the Portman Group deemed the cans could appeal to children​.

The 330ml can used graffiti style graphics, bold colors and a picture of a bear. The brewery said the can’s imagery – psychedelic patterns inspired by 1960s cliché and Austin Powers – would appeal to adults by inspiring a nostalgic feel from their teenage years.

But the Portman Group said the presence of graffiti and a bear wearing a hoodie would still be used to market to teenagers today.

And it warned producers that - given the association of cans with soda - brands using this packaging format need to be particularly careful to ensure a distinction is made from soft drinks. 

Working alongside advice from the Portman Group, Tiny Rebel agreed to make some minor changes to its cans. It questioned, however, whether such rulings could hamper creativity, and suggested regulations should evolve in the same way that branding is changing.

Curious Emporium Wine – a brand using flavour names such as ‘rhubarb and custard’, ‘pear drop’ and ‘strawberry bon-bon’ – also fell foul of the regulator in 2017.

While the Panel agreed that the flavour names in themselves were not particularly appealing to under 18s, the combination of sweet shop cues and a failure to clearly display the ABV content of the product meant the product breached the rules.

Code of practice

'A drink, its packaging and any promotional material should not in any direct or indirect way have a particular appeal to under-18'

The Portman Group - Code of Practice on the naming, packaging and promotion of alcoholic drinks; paragraph 3.2(h).

The company agreed to changes to its packaging in consultation with the Portman Group’s Advisory Service.

The Curious Emporium Wine case also highlights another key issue the Portman Group raises: ensuring the drink is clearly communicated as being alcoholic.

“The second issue [following nostalgia] that’s been of particular focus from complainants is the perceived lack of clarity from some products when communicating their alcoholic nature," ​said Watson.

“Great care must be taken to ensure a drink is clearly labelled as alcoholic because sometimes, labels that appeal to children are also not clearly identifiable as alcoholic.”

Creativity vs responsibility

In marketing many elements are subjective and open to interpretation – something Tiny Rebel highlighted in their case.

The Portman Group acknowledges it is important to find the right balance between responsibility and creativity.

“The primary purpose of the Portman Group is to ensure that producers do not overstep the line as they seek to differentiate their brands from the array of competition that exists in the market,” ​says John Timothy, chief executive, the Portman Group.  

“Yet, at the same time, we also need to be mindful of the need not to discourage creativity, stifle competition or impinge too heavily on the design freedoms that have enabled UK businesses to create much-loved, and in some cases iconic, brands and products.

“For our regulation to be effective, it must also be kept up-to-date to ensure it reflects inevitable shifts in public opinion. The Code of Practice which sets the parameters for socially-responsible alcohol marketing must remain a live document – open to challenge and debate and regularly reviewed to ensure it remains relevant.”

How is a judgement on responsible marketing made?

  • Anyone can make a complaint against an alcoholic beverage that they believe is in breach of the Code.
  • A Panel then conducts a formal investigation, drawing on a dossier of information which includes the complaint and a submission from the producer.
  • If the complaint is not upheld, the decision is final and no action is required.
  • If the complaint is provisionally upheld, the company has a chance to appeal with additional representations. If the Panel is not persuaded by the new evidence, then a final decision is published.
  • In certain cases, the Code Secretariat may issue a Retailer Alert Bulletin which advises licensed retailers not to replenish stocks of products or point of sale material after a specified date (usually 3 months), and not until the producer has changed the problematic packaging, product or point of sale material.

The Portman Group is a not-for-profit organisation funded by ten member companies who together account for more than half the UK alcohol market.

During the period covered by the report the members were AB InBev UK; Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands UK; Carlsberg UK; Diageo GB; Heineken UK; Mast-Jägermeister; Molson Coors Brewing Company UK; Pernod Ricard UK; SHS Drinks; Treasury Wine Estates (the latter two resigned from the group in 2017).

Picture credits: Getty/kateromanianov.

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