Hard seltzer trends: ’Complex flavor development in response to customer curiosity is one of the most exciting aspects of the category'
Walberg developed the first PRESS flavor, Pomegranate Ginger, in her own kitchen in 2015: today it is one of the leading independent brands in the category. In January 2020 PRESS attracted the attention of Constellation Brands, which acquired a minority stake in the company.
From future flavors to her plans for her own business, Walberg analyses what the hard seltzer category looks like today, what consumers expect - and demand - from brands, and her top tips for how the sector will evolve over the next 12 months.
Predicting hard seltzer's trajectory
While the hard seltzer category has been all about meteoric growth over the last few years, Walberg agrees with industry research that suggests that growth will continue at a more moderate rate in 2022.
“Even the fastest rocket is going to slow down eventually, and the hard seltzer category has been a spectacular rocket ship!" she said. "I see category growth continuing in 2022, but at a more moderate pace."
The question, of course, is whether more moderate growth will signal a downturn and reveal hard seltzers as a fad.
“I’ve heard naysayers claim that seltzers are a passing trend, dismissing them as a seasonal fad or a niche beverage for women, but I disagree,” said Walberg. “A huge customer base has embraced hard seltzer as a part of their lifestyle.”
Working on the basis, therefore, that shelves will becoming increasingly crowded: how will hard seltzer brands be able to stand out from the competition?
“In the alcoholic beverage market, the hard seltzer category already stands out as the innovator compared to beer, wine, and hard liquor,” said Walberg, whose career before she founded PRESS includes 20 years in marketing.
“Hard seltzer accomplished that by responding to unmet customer needs that were not being satisfied by the traditional options.
“Within the hard seltzer category, standing out is all about how well you understand the mindset of your customer. Hard seltzer customers have a different approach to cocktails; they are open to options and willing to embrace change. They want a lower ABV and a lower calorie beverage, but they don’t want to compromise on flavor or quality. They care about carefully sourced ingredients and sustainable packaging. They aren’t looking for an escape; they are looking for a premium experience that can be gracefully incorporated into their lives.
“It’s true that hard seltzer brands have proliferated—but just because there are more brands available doesn’t mean the individual brands are “more innovative.” It’s the category that’s innovative, not a particular brand. The secret to hard seltzer success hasn’t changed; if you put your customer first and don’t compromise on your values or the quality of your product, you are going to stand out.”
One way to stand out, of course, is a focus on new and exciting flavours.
“I think complex flavor development in response to customer curiosity is one of the most exciting aspects of the hard seltzer category," says Walberg.
"People love a premium taste experience. There have been attempts to market seltzers as the cocktail with health benefits, but I don’t see that trend continuing.
“Of course lower calories and lower ABV are a healthier choice, but my cocktail is not part of my health regime; it’s a celebration of life’s memorable moments. I think that’s how hard seltzer customers see their choice: as a premium beverage they integrate into their lives in a responsible, values-based way.
“I predict we’ll see seltzers pushing the flavor envelope with exuberance in 2022. Look for adventurous smoky profiles, new flavor combinations, and fresh spins on traditional flavors.”
Walberg points to the sophisticated flavours her own brand has been experimenting with since the start.
“Our Blood Orange Chili is a favorite of mine, and a perfect example of the inventive profiles we’ll be seeing more of in 2022. We just introduced a luscious Lingonberry Elderflower, and we’ve got more new combinations in store, sparked by our customers’ enthusiasm for making their beverage part of a total culinary experience.
"I also encourage our customers to personalize their PRESS experience by combining our existing flavors to create something new. It’s something I do myself—my personal favorite combination is Blackberry Hibiscus and Lingonberry Elderflower. But the possibilities are endless.”
Premiumizing the category
As the category evolves, more and more hard seltzers are seeking to carve out a premium image. Flavors are one way to do this; while the choice of packaging format is another.
While some hard seltzer brands have turned to glass bottles as a premium point of difference, the category to date has been almost entirely dominated by cans.
PRESS is packaged in cans, which Walberg remains committed to, highlighting consumers’ interest in sustainability as parallel with their interest in premium products.
“Sustainability is the definition of “premium” today, and that means aluminum cans are here to stay. The energy savings of recycling aluminum are far greater than they are for glass—and aluminum cans are recycled at a significantly higher rate compared to glass bottles. Our customers care about responsible, eco-friendly business practices. We are aligned with their values—and so is our definition of “premium.”
"Elevating the premium perspective is about delivering an incredible product experience while walking our talk and living our values. Customers have already crowned us the best tasting seltzer—I want to maintain that crown while evolving our production to make it even more sustainable. Imagine how earth-friendly it would be to deliver the PRESS experience in a tiny tablet that customers dissolve in their own water or seltzer.
"Uncompromising eco-friendly innovation is the new premium. We’ve always prioritized recyclable packaging that delivers a luxury experience. But there’s more we can do to bring sustainable luxury to our everyday consumable product—without taking short-cuts with quality."
Constellation Brands took a minority investment in PRESS in January 2020 via its Focus on Female Founders program. In doing so, it highlighted its interest in a premium brand using natural ingredients, saying the seltzer fitted in with its overall high-end strategy.
Over the last two years, Constellation Brands has delivered a critical influx of capital and industry expertise, empowering the brand to grow apace with our competition, said Walberg.
“Their investment in PRESS would have been invaluable for any young company and is particularly noteworthy when you consider that less than 2% of female founders in the beverage category receive funding. PRESS was a beneficiary of Constellation Brands Ventures’ Focus on Female Founders program. This value-based program was designed to support women doing disruptive and innovative work in the beverage alcohol category. They provide guidance when we need it, resources to grow our market share, and enhanced credibility with the distributors we want to attract.”
Given how crowded the market is now, is this kind of investment now crucial if a small brand for a small brand to be able to grow and stand out from the rest?
“Absolutely,” responds Walberg. “I don’t necessarily share the perception of a crowded market; competitors come and go—especially the competitors more motivated by market growth than by a brand vision and mission. But Constellation’s expertise and investment provided marketing awareness and funded distribution growth that gave us a significant boost in the national market.”
Her top tip for small hard seltzer start-ups is simple: Be true to your customer.
“Bringing a product to market is a constant challenge. There’s always pressure to compromise quality for cost savings, to take shortcuts, to concede to distributor demands. You have to remember the vision that inspired you to start. Keep that passion, maintain your drive, and fight for the quality experience your customers deserve."
PRESS' plans for 2022
Now with seven years of experience in the hard seltzer market, Walberg has a clear idea of where she wants PRESS to go in 2022.
“We have a multi-spoked plan—and as always, our customer is at the center of our strategy,” she said.
“We want to increase our distributor network, because that’s how we grow and reach more customers.
“Sustainable luxury packaging has always been a PRESS cornerstone, and we are planning to unveil gorgeous new packaging innovations to delight our customers in 2022. PRESS built its reputation on the ground-breaking global flavor profiles that earned us national recognition as the best-tasting seltzer, and we are just getting started.
“We are inspired by customer interest in integrated culinary experiences, and we’ve got a fresh array of flavor pairings up our sleeves for 2022.
“Finally, the most brilliant product can’t succeed if it’s not supported by a solid business structure. We anchor our seltzer dreams in a committed business culture that has carried us through the storms and challenges of the last few years, and we look forward to expanding that firm foundation going forward.
“We wish our wonderful fans abundant reasons to raise a sparkling sipper in 2022, and we plan to give them more delicious PRESS flavors than ever to choose from when they do!”