We need complete, unequivocal transparency in the alcoholic beverage category, as we have in other sections of the industry. The U-label scheme doesn’t protect consumers or ensure they can access the information they need to make informed decisions and it most certainly doesn’t go far enough. It still leaves a giant black hole of opacity within the alcoholic beverage industry.
So, although I applaud this well-intentioned scheme, I am not convinced it will work, chiefly because it is voluntary when it should be compulsory.
Timing of scheme's launch
The U-label scheme was to have been launched on 1 November, but has been put back to 1 December 'to offer an even better experience to producers and consumers':
U-LABEL platform was expected to be opened to all wine and spirits companies as from 1st November.— U-label (@Ulabel_Platform) October 29, 2021
BUT, to offer an even better experience to producers and consumers, we have decided to postpone the opening to 1st December 2021. pic.twitter.com/GIg7pdp6nh
The hidden nasties
Consumers buying an alcoholic drink from the supermarket will, of course, be aware of the alcohol content (or ABV) and how many units of alcohol that bottle or can contains. But what else is in there? Often the ‘healthy’ ingredients are far lower than expected and the ‘unhealthy’ ones, much, much higher. To take an example, one cider brand’s standard bottle contains an enormous 53g of sugar and over 300 calories.
Brands could argue that there’s not enough room to display all ingredients and nutritional information on a small can or bottle. That’s fair, right?
No! I launched an alcoholic sparkling wine (Ibiza Ice) around seven years ago. All I was required to display on the packaging was the 5.5% ABV. But I decided to put all the ingredients and nutritional information on my product because I believe in transparency. So, there's certainly room for basic information and QR codes and websites can give consumers more detailed information. But at the very least, the ingredients should be on the bottle/can for everyone, including those who can’t afford smartphones, to see.
The Sugar Tax
When the sugar tax was introduced, I naturally assumed it would apply to alcoholic drinks too - and I still think it should. Take a look at this report from Action on Sugar: http://www.actiononsugar.org/media/actiononsugar/Alcohol-Survey-Report.pdf. There are some truly shocking examples in the ready-to-drink and cider categories.
There's no doubt that the sugar tax has turned the soft drinks market around. It has made drinks brands reconsider their ingredients, reduce their sugar content, and create drinks that are (at least slightly) healthier.
The sugar tax highlighted the issues and forced brands to do what consumers already wanted. Remember, today’s shoppers are far more aware of what they are consuming. And this awareness and desire to know extends to alcoholic drinks too, especially among younger people.
What should drink brands be doing?
I believe that, if responsible labelling does become compulsory, as it should, many brands will be forced to overhaul their recipes in order to avoid being shamed by what they have been tricking customers into consuming. And any brand intending to be in the sector for the long haul would do well to future proof themselves now by being completely transparent about what goes into their drinks.
I believe the tide will turn. It is inevitable that one day we’ll see full labelling on alcoholic drinks. It just doesn’t appear to be a priority for the Government right now. But it should be.
So, although I am pleased to see an accessible voluntary labelling scheme for the alcoholic beverages sector, I do not believe it will work. We need compulsory labelling, complete transparency, and a sugar tax. This is the only way the sector can ensure it acts responsibly and delivers what consumers want.
Richard Horwell is the owner of Brand Relations, a specialist food and drink marketing and branding company based in London.