If 2019 was the Summer of White Claw, 2021 is the Summer of Travis Scott Cacti, Bud Light Seltzer, Four Loko, Natural Light, Topo Chico, SONIC Slush, TRULY, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Coors, Barefoot, AriZona iced tea seltzer, Michelob Ultra, BON & V!V, Vizzy (also owned by Coors), Smirnoff and more.
The hard seltzer market is getting crowded after companies observed the past years of success from brands like White Claw and TRULY. This year, consumers have a lot of choices.
Whether you're looking for new review contenders for your TikTok page or something new to try this summer, you might have noticed the huge expansion of available hard seltzers at stores.
But are there too many?
The average number of units of hard seltzer on store shelves has increased sixfold since 2017, said Dave Williams of Bump Williams Consulting, a firm that analyzes trends and provides insights to companies in the alcoholic beverage industry.
“The category itself has exploded just from the number of players in the race, and obviously sales have come along with it,” Williams said.
Rusty Featherstone, a college student from New England who posts reviews of popular alcohol brands on TikTok - after he and buddies drink a whole case. "Pretty much everyone and their mother has a spiked seltzer now," he says.
Some seltzers don't score so well.
In a recent review of the viral Travis Scott Cacti, he described the product as "moderately SICKO MODE" and "the hypebeast's White Claw" before giving it a score of 4.1 out of 10.
Featherstone says a lot of the brands he and friends have tried simply can't stand out. “I think, because everyone was rushing to get theirs out, there are a lot of them that need some work.”
“They’re all pretty much the same packaging: a white case with bright colors on it," Featherstone said in an interview. "I think honestly it’s more about blending in...like they’re all kind of the same product."
Hard seltzer brands trying to stand out
Companies might be dismayed to hear Featherstone's take that he can't differentiate from so many similar seltzers. Because right now, brands are really focused on what makes their offering different, says Williams.
They’re creating “points of differentiation,” Williams added. It could be an identity tied to a known brand, or marketing that touts the product's flavor, or the (relative) healthiness of the product.
“If you don’t nail the flavor and create separation from everyone else, or give the consumer a reason to go back and buy your brand again, then you’re not going to get that repeat [customer]," Williams said.
Most recently Featherstone reviewed Michelob Ultra's seltzer offerings which include flavors like spicy pineapple, cucumber lime - unique flavors compared to the pervasive citrus and watermelon. Michelob netted a higher score of a 6-7.
The seltzers' packagings might blend together to Featherstone, but marketing professor Swee-Lim Chia has noticed how much hard seltzer stands out on the shelf or in the cooler compared to a typical light beer.
“If you just take out 10 hard seltzers and you line them up against 10 light beers or whatever, it’s like night and day," says Chia, who teaches at La Salle University in Philadelphia. "The visualization that you find on the hard seltzer’s packaging is just so much more stimulating, and fun and breezy.”
Some of that goes back to a pillar of modern marketing: is a product Instagrammable?
"There are a lot of small, almost cults that follow these Instagram pages like Friday Beers for example. Whatever those guys they say they're drinking, everyone's going to go drink that" if they follow that page, said Featherstone.
“The only way you can set yourself apart...is get people to be like, committed to only drinking yours because it’s presumably cooler."
And in general, a lot of seltzer marketing hinges on its newness, contrary to marketing for an established beer that might focus on tradition, says Chia. (Pabst Blue Ribbon is still touting an award it won more than 100 years ago.)
It’s not that long-established beers can’t be instagrammable - Budweiser is only 50K Instagram followers behind White Claw, and both are beaten by PBR on the 'gram.
But in an Instagrammable world, there's a need to show off what you're doing that's new and exciting - and in your followers, it can create a need to keep up.
"The consumption is not just consumption by itself. It’s an extension of self, it’s an extension of identity, it’s an extension of your lifestyle,” Chia said.
A fad, or here to stay?
Seltzers have a broad appeal across genders and age groups, Williams says. Consumers also see appeal in hard seltzer’s lower calories compared to beer, and health-conscious additives like antioxidants or vitamins, and some try to stand out by using all organic ingredients. Plus, seltzer is a gluten-free option.
Another point for seltzer over beer is the alcohol content - this summer, White Claw is leaning into that, releasing a new drink, Surge, with an 8% alcohol content, compared to 5% in regular White Claw.
And White Claw seems to know it owes a lot of its popularity to virality like the "no laws when drinking claws" video. The company is planning its biggest ad campaign ever this summer with a focus on social media creators, according to CNBC.
That's ahead of an expansion into even more markets - continuing the trend of the past few years.
“Why they’ve been able to be so successful is they’ve hit the ground running and haven’t stopped. They’re filling out the footprint across the U.S., brands coming in riding the wave, so to say. I think it’s kind of firing on all cylinders right now,” Williams said.
“The big question mark is ‘can they stay in stock?’ Can they avoid going out of stock during these key moments, these holidays," Williams said. "That’s been a problem in the past - I say a problem, I mean it’s just limiting the potential that’s out there. If the supply is there to meet the demand, summer is a big boom for seltzer for sure.”
Featherstone is less bullish on seltzer.
"At some point I feel like people are going to have to get sick of it, but I don't know when that is," he said. "Something's going to have to change, we're going to move into another phase."
But Chia thinks there could be staying power if seltzer keeps up with its healthier perception. “A product that we can enjoy, we can indulge with a little bit less guilt - you’ve got me.”