How to Build a Sustainable Beverage Brand

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director & Nicole Prefer, Strategy Director

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director & Nicole Prefer, Strategy Director

You’re throwing a summer party. Making an environmentally-conscious decision to do something better for the planet, you purchase some ‘eco’ cups instead of the usual throwaway plastic ones. Sustainable, right? Then you discover that the cups aren’t recyclable. Suddenly your spritzes don’t taste quite so sweet.

Even if we don’t realize it at the time, many of us have bought into a brand thinking we are making a better, more sustainable choice, only to find out that its “eco-friendly” claims are not what they seem.

With so much greenwashing going on – particularly in food, drinks, and FMCG – how do you know who is genuine and who to call bullsh*t on?

In this article, we identify four ways that you can transform, or launch, your beverage brand to ensure it is built for a sustainable future, and not part of the problem.

Beyond Materiality

The drinks industry is often called out as one of the worst contributors to the waste, single-use plastic, and overarching sustainability crisis. And it’s no surprise when you look at the stats. In the US, plastic recycling has been reported to be at just 5% (Source: The Last Beach Cleanup x Beyond Plastics via The Dieline), whilst Planet Patrol’s 2021 litter report traced half of the UK’s litter back to just ten brands, many of which were drinks.

When we think about ‘sustainability’ our minds often jump straight to single-use plastic and recycling, but has the challenge now gone beyond just materiality? Do brands also need to find ways to change people’s behaviors and rituals to help tackle this snowballing problem?

Think Sustainability-First

Taking a sustainability-first approach can be a no-brainer for start-ups and new-to-world drinks brands. Take Riff, America’s first carbon-neutral energy drink, as an example. Or Air Co, who are true innovators in the spirits category, developing a way to turn pollution into a carbon-negative premium vodka.

As new brands, the likes of Riff and Air Co can embed sustainability in every aspect of their brand – from how they source ingredients and create products, to how consumers experience the brand out in the real world, and every step and touchpoint in between.

We can also take a leaf out of Monmouth Coffee Company’s book. The takeaway coffee industry is notorious for its non-recyclable cups and lids, but that is starting to change, one cup at a time. In March this year, for example, Monmouth stopped using disposable cups altogether and introduced a reusable cup scheme. A bold move for a relatively small brand with stores in London’s tourist hotspots (where there are arguably less people with a reusable coffee cup to hand), but kudos to them for paving the way towards a more sustainable way of getting a caffeine fix.

Small brands and start-ups aside, what about the global drinks giants for whom making even a small change to suppliers, production, packaging, or distribution will have a major impact across their business and on their bottom line? How can they transform into brands that are genuinely better for the planet?

Sustainable Brand Transformation

Whether you’re at the very beginning of your journey in sustainable brand transformation, or already some way along, we have identified four areas to consider as you work through the process:

  • Find (and design) your voice
  • Shift behaviors and create new consumer experiences
  • The power of collaboration
  • Consumer responsibility

Find (and design) Your Voice

For established brands to succeed in making the sustainable shift, the first step is to develop your approach to sustainability. Really understand what it means for your brand and consumers, and then work with your creative agency to communicate it authentically.

A case in point.

Yorkshire Tea is the most popular tea brand in the UK. Covered in idyllic rural scenes, Yorkshire Tea’s branding and packaging designs are distinctive, iconic even. Now, tea drinkers, did you know that all of the brand’s products are carbon neutral? Or that it has pledged to make all of its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025?

When we think about the design codes associated with sustainability, Yorkshire Tea just doesn’t look like a sustainable brand. Despite having a robust strategy for sustainability and tangible credentials, to the everyday tea drinker, it’s the same tea they’ve always bought and brewed. Will Yorkshire Tea start to lose market share as consumer values shift, simply because the general public doesn’t realize the brand’s commitments?

In 2020, BrewDog also set out on a mission to transform its business and do better by the planet. Since then, BrewDog has achieved B Corp status, become the world’s first carbon negative beer brand, and embarked on a reforestation programme in the UK. Never ones to shy away from the limelight, BrewDog has loudly and proudly shared its achievements at each step.

Much like Yorkshire Tea, BrewDog isn’t a brand that consumers naturally associate with being sustainable. But by sharing its story authentically, and in a way that is uniquely BrewDog, there’s a real opportunity for the brand to retain existing drinkers as well as broaden its appeal to wider audiences looking for a more sustainable option.

Shift Behaviors and Create New Consumer Experiences

So you’re on the way to being a more sustainable brand. You’ve got your sustainability messaging ready to go. How do you take your consumers on the journey with you? With so much noise, it’s too much to rely solely on putting your message out there and expecting people to take notice. Think about how you can engage consumers as part of your mission and help them shift their behaviors into more sustainable ones.

Format can play an important role here. For example, where pouring a glass of wine from a box would once have had negative connotations and be seen as drinking a lower quality product, we’re now seeing premium wine brands exploiting the many benefits of boxes.

This packaging method keeps the wine fresher and drinkable for longer, it’s easier to transport, and more eco-friendly to produce. If Vogue is writing an article on boxed wine being cool, you know you’re onto a good thing. Juliet and Laylo are both great examples of brands that combine premium design codes with the creation of new drinking rituals around the box, reframing this previously unloved format as an elevated offering.

And it’s not just alcoholic beverages. Essentia Water, a brand associated with the health and fitness industry for its ionized alkaline hydration offering, now sells a 100% recyclable 2-gallon box of water. This format uses 80% less plastic than its bottled equivalent (Source: Hypebeast), once again proving that boxing up your beverages (and pouring them into your own reusable receptacles, as and when needed) can be kinder on the planet without compromising on quality.

Elsewhere in the drinks industry, quality refillable options are also on the rise, offering another route into changing consumer behaviors for the greater good. For example, Adnams is offering refillable beers, wines, and gin for people living locally to its HQ. East London Liquor Company has taken the refill revolution one step further, allowing customers to fill up any brand of 70cl bottle with its spirits. Sticking a bold new label over the original branding, customers can quickly identify what they have refilled their empties with, safe in the knowledge that their Friday martini won’t be contributing yet another bottle to landfill. Tito’s has taken a different tack, selling a Limited Edition refillable empty can and encouraging people to mix their own seltzers at home.

With reuse and refill platforms like LOOP growing new global brand and retailer partnerships, we’d love to see more of the big beverage brands joining their smaller counterparts in helping consumers change their behaviors by providing more accessible refill offerings.

The Power of Collaboration

Making these kinds of shifts can seem daunting, but they don’t have to happen in isolation. Collaboration is an important part of the creative process and it can also be applied here. Big global corporations are the ones that really hold the power to make sustainable change happen at scale, so why not team up?

Every Bottle Back is a collaborative initiative that aims to reduce plastic waste across the drinks industry. Led by The Coca-Cola Company, Keurig Dr Pepper, and PepsiCo, these three beverage giants are working together and sharing resources to take collective responsibility.

Collaboration, of course, can take on different forms. Diageo recently announced its Brand Activism framework, an internal sustainability programme to educate and empower the marketing teams behind Diageo’s vast global portfolio of drinks brands. Embedding sustainability-first thinking throughout the organization, the programme will also be rolled out across the agency partners that each Diageo brand collaborates with. This is a leading example of taking a holistic approach to sustainability, and involving everyone along the way.

Consumer Responsibility

We’ve talked about brands taking responsibility, but let’s not forget that consumers also need to take responsibility for what they purchase, the brands they buy into, and how their choices impact the world around them.

At Vault49, we approach every project by understanding consumer behaviors through the lens of the category and brand we are working with. Combined with a deep understanding of business realities, we then translate these into achievable consumer actions. For brands going on that journey with us, this means thinking about using your platform to educate and empower consumers to take responsibility and make more sustainable choices.

Equally, for every design and marketing professional reading this, put your consumer hat on for a moment. How can you change your habits and think sustainability-first in your day-to-day? We can ensure that thinking sustainably becomes second nature in our lives, and through this mindset it will flow through all we do for the brands we look after.

The Future of Sustainable Drinking

Let’s do away with pretending to act sustainable. Let’s stop the greenwashing. Consumers see right through it. Instead, why not start by reframing what sustainability means for your brand?

As brand leaders, how can you think (and act) beyond just materials? How can you deliver consumer experiences that elevate your brand through new rituals and behaviors, creating longer-lasting positive impact? Your agency design partners must be capable of embracing these brand challenges, otherwise you are designing and marketing while looking through the rear-view mirror. Make sure your brand belongs in the future. Vault49 would love to help.

And as consumers? Let’s dig to the back of our cupboards, hook out our own reusable cups and bottles, and fill them with something good for the planet. Ours is a (sustainable) gin & tonic if you’re asking!

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director & Nicole Prefer, Strategy Director