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Summer of Hard Seltzer

Summer of Hard Seltzer

If you’re uber cool and super-culturally connected, like me, you’re probably thinking the summer of hard seltzer was last year, right? Nope, this has been the summer of seltzer. No other drinks category is as fast moving, growing, or offering such a wide variety, as hard seltzer. Consider this: there’s already a “traditional hard seltzer” category to differentiate against cider seltzers, wine seltzers, spirit-specific seltzers, and more.

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Consumers are attracted to the low calorie (often) malt beverages that come in a variety of flavors. To meet this growing demand, it feels like there’s a new hard seltzer brand on the shelves every week. I looked at 23 hard seltzer brands on social media using Talkwalker social listening tools to learn everything there is to know about consumer preferences in the hard or spiked seltzer CPG category.

Sales explode

Source: Nielsen Chart: Axios Visuals

Hard seltzer is everywhere these days. By the end of last summer, it was popping up on bar menus, and was a mainstay of store shelves. It felt like you could debate the merits of several brands’ flavors and taste profiles endlessly with strangers who were also holding a can.

Then a pandemic hit and now everyone sits at home all day, but the cans of hard seltzer have only increased in popularity.

Nielsen reports that in April of 2020 one million US households purchased a spiked seltzer product for the first time.

With that increasing demand comes room to experiment, and nip market share from the giants. From 10 brands on the market in 2018 to over 65 today, the hard seltzer category is following in the footsteps of, and stealing market share from, beer.

Since there are fewer rules to play by than for beer brewers, new flavors, new mixtures, high alcohol volume varieties, and more, are all hitting the shelves. Brands are trying to differentiate themselves in consumers' minds to win their loyalty.

One claw to rule them all

The fact is though, they’re all playing catch-up, with one brand in particular: White Claw. Nielsen reports sales of White Claw and Truly make up 75% of the hard seltzer category. Talkwalker data shows us that this summer at least, 83% of social conversations around the spiked seltzer category have mentioned the White Claw brand.

share of voice for hard seltzer brands is shown and White Claw has the most mentions at 83%.

White Claw captures 83% of spiked seltzer mentions on social media.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that White Claw invented the hard seltzer category. The brand has been around since 2015, and it’s felt like the brand’s been ubiquitous ever since then. The category has actually existed at least since 2012’s release of Spiked Seltzer (now often called Bon & Viv) in the Northeast. So how did White Claw climb the mountaintop? And how can its competitors do the same?

Most hard seltzers clock in at around 100 calories per can, and the cases are most often sold in variety packs, allowing drinkers a chance to taste a variety of flavors. White Claw does all this too.

But, White Claw is a meme-maker’s best friend.

The internet loves to riff on White Claw. Whether it’s the commonly shouted phrase in support of an anarcho-seltzer utopia “no laws when you’re drinking claws”, to rhyming pet names like White Paw. The brand has been imbued as the de rigueur beverage of millennial culture which has catapulted new sales of the beverage across the nation.

New drinkers have seen the memes. When they get to store shelves and have to make a decision, it’s left just the one brand as the truly undisputed king. (Sorry, had to).

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Now industry-backed giants like Bud Light are recognizing what powers at least some of White Claw’s popularity, and are trying to get in on the act themselves.

A job description for Bud Light Seltzer

This job/contest from Bud Light is an easy way to build up that meme stash with UGC.

Check out the new....microseltzery?

The last couple of years have also seen a new crop of local and regionally focused hard seltzer brands bubble up around the nation. Some are, and some aren’t backed by beer producers. The advantages of a craft brewery putting out a seltzer line are inherent in working a canning line and knowledge of production methods.

Emoji cloud of regional seltzer brands shows that Nauti Seltzer uses nautical themed emoji to secure their branding

The Talkwalker emoji cloud shows Nauti Seltzers have secured their branding around the (nautical) anchor and wave emojis.

In all, I looked at 12 so-called regional seltzer brands. Most of these brands are not yet focused on social media, as I pulled only 1,700 mentions of these regional seltzer brands this summer. Many are focused on perfecting the product or securing shelf, canning, or distribution deals, instead of winning brand awareness and loyalty in the local market.

They also all tend to lean heavily into the health aspect enjoyed by seltzer drinkers, focusing on calorie count per can, or experimenting with exotic flavors that are perceived to have health benefits, like antioxidants in pomegranate or the restorative powers of ginger.

That’s a great trend to lean into for a new brand, but it may only be a short-term survival play.

In a constantly crowding market like hard seltzer, winning fans during the summer months is crucial for a beverage perceived as a warm-weather drink. Hard seltzer sales have proven resilient in cold winter months, but that advantage largely will go to the category behemoths, if regional brands can’t make their presence known nearby.

a map of the US shows that on the coasts and in Texas people mention hard seltzer on social media

This map shows mentions of regional seltzer brands by volume per state.

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In the Pacific Northwest, San Juan Seltzers is the local top dog, while in California & Arizona, Fick’s Hard Seltzers reign supreme. Meanwhile in Texas, it’s very much anyone’s game.

The image shows the mentions of hard seltzer from Texas

Might Swell Seltzer from Austin, Texas is fending off a variety of other competitors in their backyard from around the country, in addition of course to the White Claws & Trulys of the industry. They can take solace knowing that they’re the most popular regional seltzer in Florida, driven in part by their recent partnership with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In the Southeast, Sercy is a local favorite hard seltzer brand, though across the Eastern seaboard one regional brand is playing the game better than the rest and that’s Nauti. From Westminster, MA Nauti Seltzers are gaining mentions around the country. They alone in the regional seltzers I looked at, have studied the White Claw playbook. The name is fun and riffable, and the results prove it’s working. Nauti Seltzers had the fifth most mentions of any hard seltzer we looked at this summer, beating out industry giants like Natural Light or Henry’s.

In any case, in a few years it may not sound so crazy to head over to your local microseltzery for your handcrafted, artisanal, hard, bubbly water. Aficionados from the worlds of beer, coffee, and wine: take note.

What consumers want

One of the best ways to truly understand a subject using social listening is to use custom filters to only pull in mentions of the exact thing you’re looking for. That’s what I’ve done with 21 different hard seltzer flavors:

The image shows 21 different hard seltzer flavors that were used as filters for the purpose of this blog

In that process we’ve learned some interesting things about the flavors that hard seltzer drinkers are after.

taste attributes are shared as a theme cloud for hard seltzer

These are some of the themes people discuss when they mention hard seltzer and the fizz or bubbliness that they enjoy.

Now if Talkwalker were going to start its own seltzer brand, I might start by looking at flavors. Using custom filters, I could go so much deeper to try to understand a multitude of attributes, like the level of bubbliness that is ideal for drinkers, taste attributes or aftertastes, and so much more. That’s what I’d do if I were a professional seltzer maker. Alas, Yeti Mischief already exists as a seltzer flavor. For the purpose of this blog I only looked at flavors.

The wheel describes which of the hard seltzer flavors are the most mentioned on the internet, mango is number one with 17% of mentions.

The first thing I learned is that mango and lemon are the most mentioned flavors by volume, across all the brands. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are favorites, as those two flavors are often included in variety packs, and doesn’t indicate that consumers are necessarily choosing those flavors. On the other hand, back in the old world of virgin seltzer, lemon is as common a flavor as the bubbles themselves.

the chart shows that on social media Cranberry actually has the highest positive sentiment of all the flavors looked at

By looking at sentiment around mentions of flavor we can start to understand consumer favorites.

Sentiment analysis shows us that rich berry flavors have the highest net sentiment, with cranberry being the proverbial favorite, followed by blueberry acai and blackberry. Herbal flavors like basil and mint also performed well. These trends offer important validation to product managers looking for their next flavor that combines a deep berry taste with antioxidant properties in the mind of drinkers, to keep that healthful aura around the slim cans of bubbly.

We can get even more granular, finding out details that might be important if you want to start your own seltzer brand, like which flavors are most popular in various states. Mango and lemon are some of the most mentioned flavors, so it’d make sense they are the most mentioned in many states. But in the Pacific Northwest it’s cherry, strangely followed by plain, and in Colorado it’s lime.

The map shows that in Colorado lime is the most mentioned flavor.

This new, ever-shifting category with few rules and many participants is a fascinating microcosm of America’s changing drinking preferences. As the spiked seltzer craze has exploded, other hard beverages adjacent to the category, so-called flavored-malt beverages, are also witnessing new focus and growth.

With the addition of PBR’s Hard Coffee and Hard Tea, Natural Light's lemonade sipper known as Naturday and so many more new alcoholic beverages, it’s clear that America’s booze makers are cooking up all kinds of new concoctions that grab attention, and some coin from drinkers’ wallets.

Key takeaways

  • With few rules and endless varieties, seltzer is a sparkling playground for the alcoholic CPG industry. It seems like everyone is coming out with a seltzer brand these days.

  • Make the seltzer fun to share. Whether that’s in person with friends or using a meme over the internet, your own followers can help keep the brand present in their minds.

  • It’s bubbly, it’s fizzy, it’s tasty, and it’s not too many calories….SHOUT ABOUT IT! With so many competitors it’s the ones that stand out that get snatched off shelves.

  • Target the right flavors to the right place. Now you know cherry does well out West and lime rules the Rockies, make it clear on social media that your flavors match consumer preferences.

  • As always and for anything: know your audience. Learn what they love...and give it to them!

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