- Canned wine is quickly rising in popularity thanks to a growing global taste for more convenient and environmentally friendly alternatives to bottles, prompting a cultural shift in consumer perceptions of a product often associated with snobbery and elitism.
- The media conversation around the new trend has been dominated by beer giants Molson Coors and Anheuser-Busch, which are trying to lure young oenophiles amid declining beer sales.
- In an industry where age and tradition are typically on top of the marketing playbook, a new wave of start-ups like WineSociety and Uncanny Wines have managed to position themselves at the forefront of the discussion.
Canned wine made its debut in 2003 when California-based The Family Coppola, film director Francis Ford Coppola’s winery, started offering its Sofia Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine in 187-ml. aluminium cans with small straws attached. But for years, canned wine was a niche category that slowly moved into a fad dominated by smaller, innovative wineries such as Field Recordings in Paso Robles, Underwood in Oregon and Old Westminster in Maryland, which were responding to a new potential market.
However, the niche has gained traction in just the last couple of years, quickly bursting into the mainstream and now qualifying as a full-fledged wine category that continues to grow. And while some observers are still rather sceptical, the bulk of the wine commentariat agrees that canned wine represents an impressive flash, citing reports showing that sales rose by nearly 80% in 2019 over 2018 as consumers, suppliers, distributors, retailers are continuing to warm up to canned wine formats.
Blind tastings and studies of canned wines versus their bottled twins have found no significant difference in consumer evaluation across different age groups, but the can has become a staple for young drinkers in particular – the ones that many analysts argue are so reluctant to engage with wine.
Canned wine’s affordability is especially luring for these younger consumers, many of whom are just starting their careers and may not have the disposable income of their predecessors. Another key draw is the cans’ convenience in comparison to glass bottles: cans allow wine lovers to travel with them more casually, as they are lighter to transport and don’t require the special packaging and transport considerations of glass bottles. Moreover, they can be taken to beaches and parks where glass is often forbidden.
The smaller portion sizes also play an important role: millennials enjoy the cans because they can buy a single measure rather than a whole bottle, which allows for more product variety and trials. In addition, opting for smaller measures comes from consumers conscious of avoiding binge drinking. A sizeable percentage of young people in the US and UK are generally drinking less because of calorie counts and health concerns: a recent study conducted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch made headlines for revealing that 31% of millennials said they are drinking less, up from 21% in 2018.
Such findings corroborate the fact that young generations are increasingly health-conscious, influenced by viral trends on Instagram and YouTube. These generations also take a more proactive approach to healthy eating, taking the time to research before they eat out. A recent report by Nielsen showed that 41% of Generation Z and 32% of Millennials would “pay a premium for sustainably sourced ingredients”, leading to the popularity of the ‘better for you’ brands.
Tin vino veritas
Apart from the versatility, millennials are loving the sustainability angles of consuming canned wine. Cans are a greener option since they’re recycled more than glass – people recycle their cans 20% more often than they recycle glass, while the proportion of wine bottles that end up being reused is woefully low (about 50% in the UK and 30% in the US). Moreover, glass bottles represent up to 73% of the wine industry’s carbon footprint, with 80% of wine bottles ending up in landfills.
In addition to being more likely to be recycled, aluminium takes less cardboard to hold and weighs less to transport, which cuts down on carbon emissions. Furthermore, cans are made with much more recycled content than glass bottles: according to The Aluminum Association, cans are typically made with 70% recycled materials.
Sustainability has become a major topic for the wine sector, as with the food and drink industry as a whole, as such considerations are an ever-stronger driver for consumer preferences. This has been amplified by the media’s growing interest in climate change expressed by both liberal- and conservative-minded outlets. Climate change and global warming have become powerful coverage drivers not only in ecological and scientific discussions but also in political, economic and cultural analyses.
In addition, the messaging of a new wave of climate activists such as 16-year-old Greta Thunberg has given an unprecedented vehemence to the climate change media debate, engaging politicians and corporate representatives from various sectors. Having inspired a large number of school-aged adherents to launch their own school climate strike movements, Thunberg’s influence was dubbed by several media outlets as the “Greta Thunberg effect”.
Apart from glass, a strong coverage driver in the food and drink industry is the use of single-use plastic, an issue of growing importance for high-profile media publications. In line with the increasing focus on broader themes such as climate change and global warming, the media conversation around plastic pollution is becoming livelier and livelier, fuelling an ever-dynamic discussion on social media and creating long-reaching reputation implications for food & drink giants such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé.
We recently published a 30-page analysis report which looks into the topics and brands driving coverage around single-use plastic, the key messages pertaining to the top brands in the media discussion, and the influencers in traditional and social media.
Canning the way
Canned wine has become a focus of major industry publications such as Wine Spectator, Food and Wine, and BBC Good Food, while also drawing attention from large outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Forbes.
In order to find the companies at the forefront of the media discussion around the new trend, we analysed a sample of 547 articles published in daily and trade English-language outlets from October 2018 to March 2020.
The media conversation was dominated by beer giants Molson Coors and Anheuser-Busch, which have sought to capitalise on the canned wine trend amid worrying beer performance. Beer’s leading position in the US beverage market seems to be under threat as sales are declining and the number of new breweries is starting to plateau while alternatives are spiking.
For a growing number of consumers, the beer offered by industry giants is now something stale, especially in the context of emerging brands offering more exciting products. Even though the trend is visible across all generations, millennials again are driving much of it: according to a recent Nielsen Homescan Generations study, beer share loss totalled 2.1% among millennials, 4.7% among Gen X and 2.7% among Baby Boomers. Beer penetration fell one percentage point in the US market from 2016 to 2017, while both wine and spirits were unmoved.
Molson Coors and Anheuser-Busch bore the brunt of the decline while craft breweries have remained a key driver influencing the market mainly due to the introduction of new flavours which appeal to younger consumers. Against this backdrop, Big Beer continues to invest significantly in promoting its brands across television, radio, print, cinema and outdoor media. They are also looking to emulate the business models of start-ups that are quicker to bring products to market.
Molson Coors gained media attention for laying off 500 workers worldwide and restructuring its operations, dropping the MillerCoors brand name and the word “Brewing” from its full name in order to rebrand itself to a “beverage company,” not just a beer one. As it seeks to take “more risks” with innovation beyond beer, Molson Coors featured in the media discussion for testing a range of canned wine spritzers under the brand name Movo.
While the company’s new products are meant to capitalise on the rising popularity of canned wines, they also want to be differentiated for providing a lower-alcohol option than some canned wines on the market. The company aims to lure health-conscious consumers, as the new drinks are promoted as 100-calorie spritzers made with real wine, natural ingredients and no sugar added.
Molson Coors says it needs to streamline and bring new products to market more quickly. “You either innovate or you die,” said Sofia Colucci, vice president of innovations. “We recognise that we have not done enough. We need to do more and we are going faster [and] taking risks.” But as it experiments, the company is careful not to stray too far from its roots and says the new products can be consumed a lot like beer.
Anheuser-Busch, the world’s biggest brewer, is betting on a wine brand that made its name on social media. Through its ZX Ventures unit, which is focused on small brands outside the core beer business, the company took full control of Babe Wine, a canned wine start-up co-founded by Instagram influencer Josh Ostrovsky, known by his handle “The Fat Jewish.”
By buying the brand, AB InBev is heavily investing in the power of social media and the appeal of canned rosé to younger consumers. Indeed, rosé is a major growth category, with industry commentators attributing its rise to social media influencers.
Ostrovsky, who has more than 11 million followers and promoted his company exclusively on social media networks, knew that rosé was popular on Instagram and realized there was an opportunity to create a photographable brand.
In addition to the popularity of The Fat Jewish’s Instagram page, Babe Wine’s Instagrammable cans have been boosted by co-founders Tanner and David Oliver Cohen, who are responsible for the Twitter account “White Girl Problems,” and by mega-influencer Emily Ratajkowski, the brand’s so-called chief taste officer.
With the acquisition, Anheuser-Busch not only hopes to reach young consumers but also to drive sales with increased distribution in a category with a dearth of name brands. The company’s chief sales officer in the US said that this is the right time to capitalise “on what’s going on in canned wine space and wine in general”.
Anheuser-Busch applied this strategy outside the US: Carlton & United Breweries, its Australian arm, acquired Riot Wine Co., a start-up which has been positioning itself as the only company in Australia to sell wine exclusively in kegs and cans in order to start a wine revolution in Australia. The firm, which launched in 2016, puts sustainability in the heart of its marketing, saying that one keg saves roughly 23,000 bottles from entering the environment.
In addition to stressing their sustainability credentials, some wineries in our research sample have also promoted their canned products as organic: for instance, Bonterra was mentioned for the launch of California’s first nationally available organically farmed wine in cans.
Brands are increasingly tapping into consumers’ perception of the “naturalness” of food and drinks, which has evolved from a focus on sanitation to added ingredients like preservatives, flavours and sweeteners. The ever-increasing health awareness among consumers, coupled with the rise of the organic food industry, has put the notion of “naturalness” in the centre of many media debates around the food and drink sector.
For example, many consumers perceive GMO food as “unnatural” because they perceive genetic engineering as meddling with naturally occurring biological processes. The line of argument is that if the food is “unnatural”, it must be bad for our health or at least not as healthy as “natural” food. In the US, this view has been reinforced by organisations such as the Organic Consumers Association, Greenpeace and Union of Concerned Scientists.
Meanwhile, Constellation Brands, the company producing Corona and Svedka, announced on their earnings call that they have forged a relationship with the National Football League to promote their new canned wine brand Crafters Union. Constellation will push the boundaries of wine to test whether football, which has long been perceived as a beer-drinking game, could become an equally successful format for canned wine. The company’s move comes after its own research indicated “consumers are comfortable with a can format for wine”.
Following the drink industry’s heavyweights, WineSociety was the most often mentioned start-up in the media discussion. Launched in 2018, the premium canned wine subscription company’s mission is “to change the way Americans purchase and consume wine”. It was under the media spotlight when its TEMPT red wine stood up to bottles and secured high scores at the 2019 International Wine & Spirits Competition, obtaining the highest ranking for a canned wine in any wine competition to date.
The award was largely interpreted as proof that canned wines can have a spot in the top tier, a message WineSociety‘s CEO and founder Angela Allison has worked hard to convey. She said that the achievement is an exciting moment for the canned wine industry: “Wine lovers shouldn’t have to sacrifice quality for convenience and consumers are seeking an alternative option to bottles. So many people still don’t know wine is available in cans, let alone good wine. We have found that education is key and ratings reinforce that.”
Allison also told Forbes that the modern generation is wanting to purchase wine and perceive wine with practicality, simplicity, and convenience and great quality. She also drew a parallel with craft beer, 30% of which is sold in cans – something which could happen to wine as well.
Having become popular in the US, canned wine made its way across the pond when Waitrose listed it as one of the top trends in its Food and Drink report. The supermarket chain was mentioned in the media for being the first one to stock Britain’s first English sparkling wine in a can, produced by the UK wine-makers The Uncommon.
The winery’s cans, which have been viewed as “quirky” and “quintessentially British”, were promoted with a sustainability-centred approach as 100% recyclable, while the wine itself is vegan and low in sugar. Waitrose’s wine manager, Victoria Mason, said the launch “reflects key trends within the industry”.
Another start-up, Uncanny Wines, was mentioned for hoping to cash in on the growing global taste for canned wines in South Africa, one of the world’s top 10 wine producers, where cans are a novelty. The startup, based outside Cape Town, is targeting domestic drinkers first but has its eye on the export market with cans of premium red and white wines which are promoted as no sulphur-added and vegan-friendly.
The companies in our research sample strived to address the trends set by millennials and Gen Z in one way or another. As these generations are expected to be the biggest food and beverage spenders in 10 years, with their purchasing power projected to reach $1.4 trillion, the change in consumer tastes is bound to continue. A number of publications pointed out that millennials and Gen Z are more likely than older generations to prefer wine over beer.
It’s interesting to observe how brands are prompting a cultural shift in consumer perceptions of wine. While wine is a product often associated with snobbery, elitism and even pretension, companies tapping into the new canned trend are hoping to position wine closer to the accessibility of more casually consumed drinks like beer.
Wine is also usually perceived as a drink consumed in restaurants or during home-made dinners with friends or family. However, the media conversation around the canned movement has started framing it as a product you can take with you when out camping, at a festival or a sporting event. As some journalists noted, we’re witnessing the greatest democratisation of wine in our lifetime.