Whether consumers call it happy hour, an "apéro", or an after work drink, the end of the workday is a popular moment of consumption around the world. For alcohol brands, happy hours are an opportunity to promote new alcohol. Bartenders and bars are a key component of the consumer experience, and have great insight into what their patrons are enjoying. With the usual opportunities to meet friends and family gone as the pandemic continues, people are craving the celebratory moments of pre-pandemic life.
Many are increasingly working from home, making it harder to distinguish an end to the workday and the start of leisure time. Brands and consumers are working to reclaim the time, and re-establish happy hour as a key weekly consumption moment. Those who might typically enjoy a happy hour during the week took to social media to show off their home bartending creations. As a result, discussions of at-home cocktails increased by 836% in 2020. Ultimately, happy hours did not stop, they simply changed to accommodate the new normal. As consumers redefine occasions for consumption, which moments are resonating the most, and how can brands reach them?
Consumers are Adapting to a Change of Pace
The change in the meaning and importance of ‘happy hour’ is clear when we take a look at hundreds of thousands of user generated social media posts from January 2020 through January 2021. As 2020 began, coworkers and friends could end the day with a quick and early drink at a pub, bar, or restaurant. Posts on social media discussed drink specials, indicated excitement, and were rooted in meeting face-to-face.
Effects associated with ‘happy hour and #happyhour’ Jan 1, 2020 - Jan 31, 2020, size indicates volume | Source: Radarly
By May, the conversation around ‘happy hour’ had shifted. Many cities across the world were restricting access to bars and restaurants. This severed the link between alcohol brands and their local patrons. Virtual happy hours gained a larger share of the conversation. Social Media users posted about missing happy hour and how difficult it was to be under lockdown.
Effects associated with ‘happy hour and #happyhour’ May 1, 2020 - May 31, 2020, size indicates volume | Source: Radarly
Consumers are trying to fill their bartender void and had started getting creative with homemade cocktails. The ready-to-drink craze hit a second wave, as hard seltzers and other canned drinks make a perfect low-commitment ingredient for experimenting with new flavors.
Adjusting to Consumer Demands
Saavy alcohol brands quickly realized that with bars and restaurants closed, increased social listening and brand empathy could serve both consumer and product needs. Distillers kicked into gear in the background, manufacturing in-demand products like hand sanitizer. They listened to consumer conversations online to make sure their social posts were empathetic to the need to not drink with friends, for a while.
Bon Viv partnered with LA Mag Food and Gabriel Briseno to teach viewers how to make their own cocktails using Bon Viv on Instagram. As 2020 endured and employees who were able worked from living rooms, kitchen tables, and more, the separation between work and home blurred. Consumers created new routines for the end of their workdays. Virtual happy hours declined in popularity after the first few months of working from home.
Volume of posts from individuals (not brands) mentioning happy hour and Zoom, Facetime, virtual, or video across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook |Source: Radarly
Making Bourbon Time the Happiest Hour
Both bars and alcohol brands have had to get creative with their approaches for maintaining relationships with consumers. As social distancing measures are set to persist through mid 2021, restaurants switched to carry-out cocktails and alcohol brand marketing budgets began to shift from in-person events to creating unique experiences for customers right at home.
American Beverage subsidiary, Beam Suntory noticed that 6 pm - 7 pm no longer resonated with alcohol drinkers as the “happiest hour” launched a campaign to reestablish a stronger work life balance. Beam brands are promoting #6ourbon7ime to encourage people to unwind for an hour with a glass of bourbon and are leveraging the popular hashtag #TheHappiestHour, as well. With the absence of in-person events like concerts, Beam brands are partnering with popular entertainers like singers Charli XCX and Brad Paisley and actors like Keegan Michael Key to spread awareness of “#6ourbon7ime”.
Love the new @JimBeam campaign! This is a great example of #EmpathyMarketing.— Pat💚💗 (@pattimmons_) February 18, 2021
They know a lot of people are overworked and stressed so they are empowering us to reclaim 6-7 as our time.
Overworking shouldn't be a trend. Reclaim 6-7pm as the Happiest Hour."
To maximize the success of their campaign and increase engagement directly with consumers, Jim Beam has started sending reminders of happy hour to Twitter followers who opt-in. There is a hearty appetite for happy hour discussion most weeks (the exception being the Christmas and New Years holidays) as Beam Suntory can continue their efforts to match the consumer conversation trends.
Post volume associated with ‘happy hour and #happyhour’ Nov 2020 - Feb 2020, not including retweets | Source: Radarly
When individuals are posting about happy hour recipes that use bourbon or whiskey/whisky they reflect a desire for easy and refreshing cocktails. By showing drinkers how to unwind with a special treat, Beam Suntory has a great opportunity to share cocktail ideas with folks who want to try their hand at making their own drinks.
Effects associated with happy hour recipes including bourbon, whiskey, and whiskey from individual authors from September 2020 to February 2021 | Source: Radarly
As patrons return to bars and restaurants as pandemic restrictions ease, we’re left with the question “what are consumer expectations for returning to public drinking?” With the investment in home bars, will consumers have stronger preferences now that we’ve dialed in our favorite home cocktails? Will the benefits of drinking with friends outweigh these preferences? Alcohol brands can keep an eye on the preferences of drinkers to make sure that they are appearing at the right time and place as drinkers return to public.
Stay on Top of the Trends
From health and safety concerns, to expressions of nostalgia about bar ambiance and good times with friends, there’s a lot to prepare for and learn from consumers. A significant part of the equation are bartenders - understanding how patrons feel about their bartenders and hearing how bartenders express their experiences will be crucial in re-creating the bar ambiance that is greatly missed during the pandemic.
Through 2021, AI-enabled consumer insights will prove invaluable for beverage brands as social trends shift. Understanding emerging moments of consumption and trends associated with alcohol-centric holidays will hinge on having real-time and on-demand access to conversations from patrons and bartenders. Digital moments will continue to play an essential role in keeping consumer attention while in-person events make a slow return. Ultimately, a push toward a more consumer-centric strategy help will build on the digital and direct to consumer foundation that has been solidly established in the last year.