How alcohol brands can adapt to the online scrutiny of Gen Zers

October 6, 2020 · READ

Alcohol brands have their work cut out for them with legal-aged Generation Z.

In the midst of shutdowns across the country leading to a shift to drinking outside of bars and restaurants, Gen Z consumers have become even more introspective about the role of alcohol in their lives.

The youngest and largest generation in American history, at 27% of the U.S. population, is estimated to make up 40% of spending power by 2021. Gen Z is also the most ethnically-diverse and most digitally savvy.

Unlike older generations—including Millennials—they are the first to be raised with the internet and social media, many of them with smartphones permanently attached to their hands from an early age. They have experienced childhoods and become young adults in a roller coaster world of economic uncertainty.

All of it adds up to a unique set of characteristics and expectations compared to prior generations, including drastic differences in their attitudes toward alcoholic beverages that range from sporadic abstinence to animated activism.

Alcohol brands are challenged to meet Gen Zers on their own terms and through their preferred means of interaction: social media. Because brands are more exposed online today than ever before, there is a need to be prepared to respond when the scrutiny of Gen Z consumers goes negative online.

Oftentimes unintentionally, a Gen Z instigator can pick up and amplify harmful content to millions of people around the globe in a matter of minutes. From advertising backlash to anti-alcohol campaigns, how a brand handles and responds to issues before they become a full-blown crisis can prevent long-lasting reputational damage and avoid negative financial effects.

Social norms are changing around alcohol

Like Millennials before them, Gen Z is increasingly mindful of how they live and the products they consume. That can make them more anxious and more conscientious about attaining a sense of balance and overall wellness.

As the most connected generation, Gen Zers are always on, always aware of the impression they are making online. They know they’re visible to a wider audience—from their parents and grandparents to their future employers—making them more cautious and wary of online displays of behavior perceived to be “irresponsible.”

In a recent survey, 49% of Gen Z claim their online image is always at the back of their mind when they go out socializing and drinking, and 76% feel it is important to be in control of all aspects of their life at all times.

Other findings of the survey around alcohol point out changing social norms that can affect interaction with this younger audience. Even before the pandemic largely shut down on-premise drinking, 40% of Gen Zers reported making cocktails at home rather than going out. The focus has shifted to DIY bartending and creating an experience that’s Instagrammable in the comfort of one’s own home.

While legal-aged Gen Z consumers have changed social norms for alcohol, the industry has set a high bar for marketing compliance, especially for social media. Its guidelines ensure consumers can engage in a safe and welcoming online environment with their favorite distilled spirits brands.

Alex Carlton, founder and chief executive of Stryyk, said brands looking to engage with Gen Z should market with them, not to them. “Understand it’s a two-way conversation, so be engaging but with authenticity and keeping it real and don’t BS them. Respect their privacy—they are more private and less collaborative than Millennials. We need to understand their values and tap into them.”

Misinformation can undermine an alcohol brand’s social media efforts

Gen Zers get most of their information and do most of their shopping on social media. They follow brands and they pay attention to influencers. As members of an ethically concerned and involved consumer base, they will be quick to call out a brand for something that they judge hypocritical or unacceptable, including: brand ambassador actions that are contrary to brand values; company actions that can be misinterpreted as unprincipled or unscrupulous; brand logos appearing in the proximity of non-related distressing content; and more.

Because they live their lives largely online, Gen Z’s dedication to and focus on social media can—intentionally and unintentionally—accelerate and amplify damaging misinformation that can damage a brand and undermine its social media efforts.

This requires brands to rigorously moderate user-generated content on owned social media pages, monitor comments made on brand-sponsored social media ad campaigns 24/7/365, and proactively remove underage or inappropriate engagements with alcohol from those channels. Failure to remain compliant with these standards could result in fines, the shutdown of marketing activities, and increased industry regulations.

Alcohol brands can be at the mercy of unknown risks

Many brands are finding ways to engage thoughtfully on social media with their followers during the pandemic and associated shutdowns of commerce—combined with taking a stance on socially-charged issues and staying compliant. For their part, alcohol brands have managed to keep engagement rates high, even within all of these challenges. 

Unfortunately, many corporate leaders simply aren’t aware of the disruptive, atypical risks that can have negative effects on reputation, long-term sales, and share prices. Having grown up with drunk driving PSAs and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, Gen Zers are accustomed to participating in activism, where alcohol is concerned. Today they want alcohol brands to be responsible for and take a stance on social issues such as equality, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo, and for environmental issues, such as water usage. 

Alcohol brands find themselves in a situation today where negative publicity can materialize anywhere on the web. Few are ready to respond to a crisis in real-time, let alone 24 or 48 hours later. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to dedicate in-house resources to sift through large volumes of online interactions to detect potential incidents. Even when an incident is brought to the attention of enterprise leaders, it’s invariably hard to discern if it will become an issue that gains real traction.

Without the resources to provide 24/7/365 global coverage of their brand-owned social media channels, and without the capability to monitor multiple languages, alcohol brands can be at the mercy of unknown risks that can rock the enterprise. 

When you can be the first to know, you can be the first to take action against attempted disruptions. By immediately identifying instigators through early-warning risk intelligence, you can immediately counter any negative effects through your own responsive communications.

While we all wait to raise a post-COVID cocktail, you can stay ahead of instigators, remain vigilant about issues online, and stay alert to incidents that could inflict serious damage to your reputation.

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