Exploring sweet-spots in drinks NPD

We are more accepting now of challenging flavours in drinks than we have been for a while, in name if not always in delivery
Martin Dinkele

November 26, 2018

We have been struck recently by the emergence of flavours that might be described as more ‘adult’, somehow more challenging, perhaps, dare we say it, more sophisticated. But counter to this trend is a shift towards sweeter palates and sweeter flavour profiles in drinks more widely.

The case for both is intriguing. And how they play off one another worth some consideration.

Flavours come of age

Morar HPI recently worked on a new range of soft drinks that sought to be more adult, tapping in to a trend for alcohol abstinence that is growing not just among the under 30s, but stretching to include all age groups, men and women. These drinks defined their adult credentials by presenting challenging flavours: cinchona, quinine, turmeric and so on. The response to the flavours was broadly positive based on a desire for discovery and experimentation in the category. A reaction to boredom with conventional, somewhat childish, and often fruit led carbonated soft drinks that dominate the shelves.

The results have seen new, mass market drinks offering the likes of green tea, ginger and various spices, seeking to tap in to the same trend in premium or more ‘adult’ soft drinks.

What’s apparent however, is the need for an element of sweetness to make them drinkable. Mango is an exotic accompaniment to green tea, the light to its shade if you like. The more successful drinks we have tested included bitter flavours that were offset by a sweeter base flavour.

In these examples the bitter flavour offers the allure of adult, grown up sophistication. Even Strongbow’s Dark Fruit variant offers an emotional counterpoint to the accessible apple base. Wormwood, juniper, cardamom all create a similar sense of adventure and exoticism within what is essentially soda. The discernible presence of these flavours however, caused much wrinkling of noses and smacking of lips in truth. We want to like it more than we do, and one should always be wary of this in responses; drinks research is particularly susceptible to posturing.

Drinkers like the thought of a challenge more than the delivery?
Is this going to change? We think it is, gradually, and from the margins as these things often do. How they translate to the mainstream is up for debate.

There’s a couple of pointers and category developments to consider about how this trend may play out.

Gin o’clock has been growing since Hendricks’ redefined the category some 15 years ago - with just cucumber, an aromatic flavour profile and a well-designed bottle. This brand got us all started, more than the juniper forward London Dry’s which have a far punchier delivery. Gin is a perfect example for this topic. It’s more challenging than vodka in flavour. An early minority adopts the category and prompts reassessment via a purer form of the drink. Later brand followers develop sweeter options, strawberries and rhubarbs and so on, extending the trend to a mass audience with a sweeter tooth. That’s the way of these things. Then Tanqueray comes off the rails with a triumph of adult sophistication in its Seville Orange line extension – grown up accessibility, bitter sweet, in near perfect form.

Lagers often change their formulations. It’s common for many mainstream beers to reformulate towards ‘bigger’, if not sweeter then less bitter, flavour profiles with less bite as they reduce their ABV (mostly for duty led reasons). Easy to drink and extremely popular, they clearly sit on the sweeter side of the argument. But look to the pub and the chat is all about craft: what’s the hop, where’s it from, “it’s got citrus notes, hasn’t it Dave?!”. We’re not the first (and won’t be the last) to observe that some of these brands are almost undrinkable to the majority. Step up Meantime, step up Camden, step up Shipyard IPA and invite us to talk the talk without the walk.  Craft lager is where it’s at. It’s craft without pain and a signal of a rapidly maturing category.

We are more accepting now of challenging flavours in drinks than we have been for a while, in name and in delivery. Hop forward beers, London gins and, dare I say it, even tequila and whisky are all still trickling away in our trend watching surveys. I still like to think some of us will be drinking flavoured tonic waters straight up, nicely presented, soon. As the booze-free trend grips, so slower paced, less sickly, sipping options will increase. Step up Fever-Tree’s aromatic tonics.

Then I bump back to earth and recall that the second-best known tequila in the UK is Tequila Rose (yes, Strawberry again) and Patron XO Café which leaves its sticky trail like no other even in the best bars of the land. And there’s your sweet spot for brand development: a sugar-coated ‘challenge’, or sheep in wolf’s clothing.

The case of ‘Adult-Drink’; a new ‘grown-up’ soft drink for more discerning drinkers
Research in this case focussed on developing the proposition for ‘Adult-Drink’ (the identity of which remains a secret as it is yet to reach market) and its manifest elements: overall visual identity, packaging, communications, liquid and likely drinker profile in terms of people, place and occasion.

We used a qualitative approach to consult millennial consumers and ‘career’ bar tenders from premium London bars.

The brand included some rather obscure ingredients which resonated when heard of (quinine, juniper, cardamom) and far less so when unknown (cinchona, chipotle, wormwood). In practice, the ingredients served as brand signifiers – they signal adult, grown up sophistication and challenge  – more than any taste promise. However, anything more than a hint of these flavours is too much for most palates in soft drink form.

This especially applies to soft drinks intended to be drunk solus. However, mixers act as flavour enhancers to alcohol and so play by different rules. They can be more bitter, are generally sipped not gulped and have more permission to be challenging, like the spirit they partner.

There is a common pitfall using qualitative research in taste testing. It’s prone to posturing. It’s also only good at describing top notes of flavour and developing consumer language. It’s open to group bias as well. That said, it’s often all clients can afford, and in this case, it was entirely suited to the objectives. A large-scale quantified taste test, often used by brewers and manufacturers, would have ironed out the outliers towards a sweeter and more popular middle ground. In fact, the client wanted to retain those outliers in the liquid and the idea but make it just accessible enough to be drunk on occasions that suit a more challenging taste, in this case as an alcohol substitute.

10 best practice guidelines for taste testing in drinks

  1. Try not to judge the appeal of a product based on a quick sip. When only this is possible, in qualitative research for example, it’s permissible for generating taste description language as used by the audience, consumers or trade. It is not a reliable tool for genuine liquid diagnosis to be used in possible reformulations. Sip tests are perfect for simply effective ‘press claims’ studies.
  2. Use ‘JAR’ ratings for diagnosing appeal. Does it taste too much of something, not enough or is it ‘just about right’ (JAR) on that attribute.
  3. Use advanced analytics to understand the key drivers of liquid appeal, that other characteristics tend to follow. What should the focus be first and foremost: sweetness? Bitterness? Bite? Etc. It will vary according to category.
  4. Are you testing a drink that is intended for savouring or refreshment? This is an important factor in interpreting responses and setting relevant KPIs.
  5. Set relevant KPIs. Understand what success looks like by comparing to similar successful benchmark tests which an agency that knows this field should have.
  6. Don’t test intentionally challenging products among the mass market – but if you do, be accommodating of headline measures such as Purchase Intent dipping and create questions that allow for the responses of drinkers of similar brands to be up-weighted.
  7. We drink with our eyes. Be mindful of the power of brands to both enhance or detract from liquid taste ratings.
  8. Don’t use technical words more suited to sensory experts if you’re asking consumers – keep it real.
  9. Be aware of sessionability. All drinks, alcoholic and soft, will go through a range of responses according to how much of them has been drunk. Mouth-feel, bloating, teeth furring, after-taste; think about your own personal reactions to repeated consumption of a given drink.
  10. The best question in any drinks test is, after finishing the serve, “what would you do next…?” in terms of immediate purchase intent, not a vague idea of the distant future, but right now. If they don’t want another one you may have a problem.

Morar HPI Limited is part of MIG Global and part of the Next15 Group.

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