Caroline Parkes
Feb 1, 2023

Should we be calling time on adland's booze culture?

If you can do a dry January, maybe you can do a dry 2023.

Should we be calling time on adland's booze culture?

It’s the end of dry January, when people have a) already fallen off the ladder, b) put boozy early-Feb calendar plans in or c) are starting to think "maybe this isn’t just for one month".

This feels like a very top-of-mind subject for me right now, and I know it’s something that many of us are grappling with.

One in six UK adults is estimated to have participated in this year’s dry January, but it’s not just a "new year, new me" fad. Many people in their teens and twenties are rejecting alcohol altogether (because it’s the domain of their embarrassing gin o’clock parents).

Sober curiosity is also a growing trend among older groups, and especially prevalent among menopausal women like me, with ladette culture heroines such as Zoe Ball now eschewing alcohol.

Aziza Makame, my colleague at Rapp, inspired us before Christmas about "making the holidays more inclusive", including thinking about how and where to create social gatherings that are not alcohol-focused.

With her list of reasons that people might not drink (she named more than 20) or startling insights around accessibility (pubs and bars are felt to be harder to access for wheelchair users than centuries' old castles, according to Euan’s Guide Access Survey 2019) she got the team thinking about challenging our Christmas cultural norms, which are super-soaked in booze.

This is something we need to be thinking harder about for the whole year, not just this wintering season. So much of agency culture that I’ve grown up with, has been alcohol-fuelled.

My career started in the early 1990s in Leeds when, every day, I went to the pub with my older male colleagues, very much in the "ladette" vein.

I couldn’t afford to drink four pints (I stuck with lime and soda) on my graduate salary, but my colleagues regularly did. When I moved to Soho, I loved my Friday afternoon ritual of getting hammered in Zinc or The French House.

Nowadays, when I’m thinking about how to create social connections in my team, I’m concluding that cocktail-making or popping some money behind the bar doesn’t really cut it.

And brands need to think about the sober curious trend too. What if Barclays partnered the Drink Aware app to encourage its customers to think about how much money they’d save if they gave up or cut down on booze for the year, not just for January?

What if Oliver Bonas thought about the customer experience of all those female-focused, alcohol greetings cards that, for example, focus on "Prosecco o’clock", and "gin-credible" birthdays.  

What if Virgin Atlantic’s "See the world differently" campaign celebrated individuals choosing a mocktail to celebrate the start of their Upper Class trip? 

Fifteen years ago I won a Cannes Lion for a Gordon’s Gin loyalty programme where we increased brand consumption by 86%, by reminding gin drinkers to choose Gordon’s with beautifully crafted playing cards and other branded gifts (that can still be found on eBay).

Now, thinking about a new client engagement in the alcohol space, my ambition is to elevate the team’s thinking to award-winning heights that also truly considers responsibility, in a way that – despite the Portman Group – in 2000 we really didn’t pay much heed to.

Who knows where my sober curiosity will take me in 2023. I’ve always been known as a party girl, I’m a high extrovert who loves being in the middle of things, and I love to create gatherings and groups, and my home is definitely known as a party house.

But things feel a bit different for me this year. My sister died of breast cancer last year, and as alcohol and cancer are very much linked, this gives me cause to pause.

I’m reading Holly Whitaker’s How to Quit Like a Woman, a sober-feminist perspective on how alcohol "keeps women down". I’m not saying I’m giving it up forever, but for now, I’m enjoying a glass of Trip, a cannabis oil-infused drink that you can buy in the supermarket, that gives me that psychological end of day/start of evening treat.

So, as we move into F***it make mine a double February, there’s more we can all do to be more inclusive when it comes to alcohol.

As the CSO at an agency that stands up for individuality, we focus efforts on being more inclusive in creating communications and brand experiences.

Our Standing Up for Diversity research found that we need to be thinking about consumers in ways beyond protected characteristics (race and ethnicity, sexuality etc) to be truly inclusive.

So, remembering that a significant proportion of our audience – or our colleagues – neither drinks nor accepts that life revolves around it, is something that all agencies and brands could benefit from to create a better connection with customers and our talent. 

Caroline Parkes is chief strategy officer at Rapp UK

Campaign UK

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