How White Claw and MSL made spiked seltzer the bro-approved drink of summer 2019

User-generated content from an unexpected audience is driving the alcohol subcategory to new popularity.

Move over, IPAs. A fruitier and lighter option has been taking the booze industry by storm, and it’s not even a beer. The hard-seltzer craze is being driven by an unexpected audience: young, health-conscious millennial men who self-identify as "bros" and are winning converts to the lower-calorie, lower-carb alternative to traditional beer from IPA-loving "haze bros." 

Even traditional media outlets from The Washington Post to the Chicago Sun-Times to Esquire have dubbed hard seltzer the boozy beverage of summer 2019, citing Neilsen data showing triple-digits spikes in sales since the beginning of the year. 

In this battle for the bros, the clear frontrunner is White Claw, from Mark Anthony Brands, the maker of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. It accounted for 54% of all hard-seltzer sales at U.S. retail stores for the year up to July 6. 

None of the brands in this burgeoning category have shared how much of their customer base consists of young men, but White Claw has clearly benefitted from a surge of user-generated content from memes to parody videos that have helped to commercialize the category. Case in point: the Draft Network's Kyle Crabbs created a meme showing how macho young men love the drink. 

Comedian Trevor Wallace created a parody video, "Drinks White Claw Once," that has more than 2 million views on YouTube and has spawned memes and catchphrases like "Ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws." White Claw was not involved in the making of the video. 

This UGC has in turn fueled earned media coverage. 

"It feels very consumer-driven. The product is selling itself right now, just flying off the shelves," says Caroline Levy, senior analyst covering beverages at Macquarie. "Many people would have thought the category would skew female, but what is compelling for this target is the low-calorie, high-flavor and no beer belly. Nobody I‘ve been speaking to thinks the growth is going to slow down at any point soon." 

The category is buzzing with activity. Boston Beer Company has launched its first major campaign for its four-year-old Truly Hard Seltzer brand. Anheuser-Busch InBev is planning the launch of a second spiked seltzer brand in its portfolio. Chicago-based Phusion Projects, which is known for its energy beer, teased the launch of a new Four Loko seltzer on Twitter labeled the "hardest seltzer in the universe" due to its high alcohol content. Phusion’s announcement generated coverage in outlets from People to Esquire. Others trying to get in on the party include Constellation Brands, which owns Corona, after launching Refresca in March.

"I think all the media we’ve been starting to see from the brands is to try and shut each other out and be top-of-mind with consumers when they go to buy a hard-seltzer product," says Levy. 

However, she predicts newcomers will have a tough time loosening White Claw’s grip on the category.  Levy credits its branding, which includes a wave logo and product shots in social media in beach and party scenes with, most of the time, no people. 

The lack of model shots is intentional, say White Claw marketers.

"We implemented a strategic, gender-neutral marketing approach from the brand’s inception and have maintained that direction each year. As a result, a wide range of consumers relate to the brand and want to share it with their friends," says Sanjiv Gajiwala, SVP of marketing of White Claw Seltzer Works. "Consumers connect with White Claw on a deeper level and are expressing their brand love through great user-generated content. Their content-sharing has caught the attention of a lot of people, continues to spread, and has fueled the brand into a social and pop-culture phenomenon. We have been blown away by all of the love on social." 

Much of that affection is coming from men. Gajiwala points to a growing number of male-led brand fan pages. 

"We are certainly seeing increased brand and category adoption by younger [legal drinking age] males," he says. "Our creative and integrated marketing plan is built to reach and appeal to our target audience of men and women at multiple touchpoints. We show up and engage with our consumers where they are through the channels we invest in, including extensive sampling efforts. This approach is resonating and continues to build momentum." 

For instance, a Coachella sampling prompted a wave of group shots posted on Instagram. 

MSL has been White Claw’s strategic comms and PR agency partner since the brand’s introduction in 2016.

"The outpouring of UGC content, brand love and pop-culture relevance is incredible," says Jamie Dammrich, VP at MSL. "Everything we do and how we represent the brand, from the stories we tell to the partners we enlist, is structured to appeal to both men and women. These efforts are making headway and media are taking notice of the balanced male-female hard seltzer and White Claw consumer." 

Summer 2019: The bro breakthrough
While some dismiss hard seltzer as a summer fad, executives say the category has plenty of room for growth. "Even though hard seltzer is growing at a breakneck pace, the category is still extremely new. Only 4% of households have ever purchased hard seltzer," says Boston Beer Company CMO Lesya Lysyj. "We know there is a huge opportunity for Truly to grow, and now is the right time to release an ad campaign that drives awareness and engages with new drinkers." 

Five 15-second ads for Truly Hard Seltzer featuring actor Keegan-Michael Key are running on TV and social media through paid digital advertising supported by earned media. It is the first major campaign launched under Lysyj, who joined Boston Beer Company in April from Welch's Foods, where she was U.S. president. Lysyj was also CMO for Heineken U.S.A. from 2011 to 2013. 

"I think a lot of players in the category initially thought hard seltzer catered to a more female demographic because of the calories, carbs and sugar. We’ve always known those product attributes apply to everyone, regardless of gender," she says. "In contrast to light beer, Truly is light and refreshing, and doesn’t give you ‘seltzer belly,’ so the biggest opportunity is bringing light beer drinkers into the seltzer category."  

Party crashers
Not every spiked seltzer brand is feeling the buzz. 

Anheuser-Busch InBev bought SpikedSeltzer, the first to market in the category, from Boathouse Beverage in 2016. At the start of this year, A-B InBev relaunched the brand with a new name, Bon & Viv, supported by the first Super Bowl ad in the category. However, the ad featured mermaids, which analysts say failed to appeal to men. Bon & Viv had just 7.4% of spiked seltzer sales at U.S. retail stores as of July 6, versus White Claw with 54% and Truly with 29%.  

A-B InBev declined to comment via one of its PR agency partners, Weber Shandwick.

The brewing giant this week is entering a second brand into the category under its Natural Light low-calorie beer brand. Called Natural Light Seltzer, the brand is inviting adults to share on social media why they need more flavor. It is promising to give 100 winners 10 cases on their doorsteps to drive organic social media awareness. 

And it’s taking on naysayers with a defiant tone. 

"That's right, we made a fucking seltzer," the brand posted on Twitter. 

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