Did lockdowns during covid make drinking more acceptable in India?

Recently, a relative complained how her entrepreneur husband has started having one drink every evening ever since the pandemic. He wasn’t much into alcohol earlier and only an occasional social drinker. However, the gregarious gentleman, who runs his own marketing consultancy from Gurugram, took to enjoying a single drink daily when the first lockdown was announced last year. A habit formed during the stringent social distancing days, when he couldn’t visit his office or meet his friends, has, however, endured much to the chagrin of his wife and probably to the delight of alcoholic beverages companies.

Several other people in the friends’ and family circles have acknowledged similar shifts in habits. In another instance, a man quaffed down his collection of Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich, Black Label and Chivas 18 he used to stock for his close friends. The die-hard vodka fan experimented with brown spirits and started relishing the taste.

In the absence of any detailed, mega sample survey on alcohol consumption during covid, anecdotal evidence points to several changes in consumer behaviour towards liquor, something even companies in the sector spotted.

At a fireside chat during the Mint Marketing Awards recently, Deepika Warrier, chief marketing officer at Diageo India, said that though research agencies were not able to put their teams out to track consumers, the company spoke to its customers through virtual groups and one-on-ones. “We were really depending more on our own observations of ourselves as consumers, our friends, our community, and what little market visits we could do to understand what’s happening,” she said.

They observed that permission to drink grew. Drinking was no longer as much of a taboo as it was earlier. “It suddenly became far more central to family get-togethers, smaller, more casual, intimate gatherings,” Warrier said.

In an interview to Mint last week, Hina Nagarajan, managing director and chief executive officer of Diageo India, too, said alcohol has normalized to become almost semi-essential and people are drinking better since the pandemic. They are preferring to have very high-quality brands. Additionally, in-home consumption is leading to experimentation, “repertoire drinking”, and discovery, she said.

In pursuit of trying out new things, many have gone beyond their regular brand of whiskey. “Along with aspiration for global brands, we saw there is a huge local pride developing. This whole craft phenomenon has come out of this pride and local heritage,” Nagarajan said. This led the company to enter the Indian craft segment with a limited edition of artisanal whiskey Epitome Reserve.

Diageo owns Scotch whiskey brands such as Johnnie Walker, Black & White, and J&B, Smirnoff Vodka, and Gordon’s and Tanqueray gin.

The pandemic tossed up other things. Among them, home delivery got unlocked during covid. “We are progressively seeing states take a very positive view and opening up. We have got six or seven states now doing home deliveries. While it takes time for these models to evolve… we are working with retailers, regulators to see what models are the best on home delivery,” Nagarajan said.

The past couple of years have also seen liquor companies launch non-alcoholic or zero-alcohol drinks. Last week, international brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) launched its first energy drink, Budweiser Beats, here claiming it to be a logical extension of its zero-alcohol beers for Budweiser and Hoegaarden launched earlier, a segment growing at 19-20% a year.

Globally, the company’s ambition is for drinkers to integrate no-alcohol beers and beers with 3.5% or lower ABV (alcohol by volume) into their drink choices. In 2018, India’s largest beer maker United Breweries Ltd also entered the non-alcoholic beverages market with the launch of Kingfisher Radler. Most companies see this segment take off and are planning products accordingly.

Nagarajan too said that Diageo will keep the consumer at the centre while planning products. “I would say one of the things we are really changing is looking… at what the growth opportunities are there in the future, what the future trends that you know are evolving globally, and which might gain traction in India. So, we are adopting a much more future back lens right now,” she said.

Post-covid, globally, Nagarajan sees the trend of moderation and overall holistic wellness coming into play with potential for low- and no-alcohol beverages, especially, among millennials.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

Read the full article.