For many of us, it’s been a dry—or damp—January.
The idea of taking a post-holiday sauce break is hardly new. But participating in this rite has never been less lonely or lame. In fact, in 2024, not drinking has arguably become sexy, thanks in part to the proliferation of sleek brands offering “zero-proof” products to the “sober-curious.”
Such brands have an interesting opportunity, and challenge. The opportunity is being more appealing than a can of ginger ale in an era when young people are turning away from alcohol. (Big upside there.) The challenge is being expensive compared to the vast array of options in the now-mature sparkling water market, not to mention faucets.
Messaging from these alcohol-free outfits—including their brand names—must convince buyers to forgo a big benefit of abstaining (saving money) in the name of something else. So what might make consumers pay $4 a can, or $40 a bottle, for products designed to not get them tipsy?*
Look at the bubbling market and three F’s quickly rise to the top.
. . .
Naming Message #1: FOMO
One reason people are loath to give up drinking is that they feel left out when attending drink-centric social occasions. Many people do use, or have used, booze as a catalyst for bonding. This works, in part, because alcohol lowers our inhibitions. As one expert recently put it to Bicycling, “If I sit down and have beers with you, I put my prefrontal cortex on the table.”
But many NA brands are making the argument that they can help you have that same experience while keeping your prefrontal cortex intact—by replicating the taste, look, and feel of sipping a cocktail or going through a six pack. While ginger ale may never get you there, the logic goes, a more thorough approximation will be close enough.
“The most enjoyable thing about beer has never been the alcohol,” argues a video spot from nonalcoholic beer startup Cold Ones. “It’s the ritual.”
The name Cold Ones highlights one of the many aspects of beer that is replicable without ethanol: temperature (and, by extension, refreshment). Free AF, which makes booze-less cocktails and wine, has focused on the same detail, trademarking a feature called Afterglow, which is designed to imitate the “warm wave that washes over you after your first few sips.”
And a similar angle applies to products like the Phony Negroni, which wouldn’t look out of place at a buzzy dinner table and is crafted to provide “the same bitterness drinkers of the classic cocktail expect.” This bev, the maker promises, is a “true … dupe.”
. . .
Naming Message #2: Freedom
The downsides of drinking sprawl far beyond one’s wallet. Drink enough and you could end up hungover, sleep-deprived, depressed, confused, and at higher risk for myriad diseases—not to mention injured, inadvertently single, or perhaps even incarcerated.
Are we bumming you out? Well, yeah. While bringing all this up in a fear-based advertising campaign would be a real Debbie Downer, emphasizing the flip side—freedom from such concerns—is a go-to for the 0%-ers.
We clearly see this value proposition in names like Free AF (the letters can be read as standing for “alcohol-free” or “as f***”) and also in names like Recess, a word that suggests carefree play. The company promotes the idea of taking a “recess” from alcohol, but the word also conjures feelings of an innocent era when no one thought alcohol was required to have a good time. “Tastes like your favorite cocktail,” the company crows of its mocktails, “without the consequences.”
This value of freedom extends in other directions as well, as in the idea that consumers deserve freedom from the historic stigma of abstaining, or from pressure to partake, or from being relegated to boring beverages if they don’t—or even from the binary, all-or-nothing attitudes that have historically flavored the pastime.
Take Hella, a Brooklyn-based business that makes mixers and other NA drinks. The company, with an emphatic name that suggests a galvanizing experience, positions its products as “inclusive” creations: “Great taste is essential and the buzz is optional.” A truly good party, the messaging posits, should offer “elevated drink options across the imbibing spectrum.”
. . .
Naming Message #3: Fitness
A third angle, which builds on the first two, is emphasizing fitness and health.
To recap: You don’t need booze to have fun, and interesting, bond-building drinks don’t need to be alcoholic. There’s a lot of stuff you can leave at the door if you’re not imbibing. And nothing tastes as good as fit feels, and you can only be so fit if you’re guzzling high-calorie gasoline every weekend.
Take Athletic Brewing, a nonalcoholic beer brand that says it owns one-third of the category and has adopted the tagline “Fit for all times.” The double-meaning bridges values here: It’s a drink you can freely have at any time (in the middle of a workday!), and it defies the ultimatum between drinking and maintaining your health.
Plenty of NA brands emphasize that they are lower-calorie than boozy counterparts; some brands offer the zero-proof equivalents of Michelob Ultra. Others, like Recess’ Mood line, emphasize the inclusion of ingredients like stress-combatting herbs. And another set goes even further, making claims that border on transcendent.
Consider Bonbuz. The name itself suggests a good, even salutary, kick. And the company vows not just to skip “the toxic additives and hangovers” but to provide “active ingredients [that] heighten your senses and transport you to a deeper mind-body experience.”
Or take Rasāsvāda. The name, adopted from Sanskrit, literally means “the taste of juice,” but more broadly refers to the taste of pleasure. It’s not a shocking name for a brand that positions itself as a “spirit restorative company” that has harnessed “ancient rituals” and “botanical disciplines” to facilitate “courage, clarity and connection.” The company’s 375 ml bottles (half the size of a typical bottle of wine) are priced at $40 a pop.
. . .
Thus far, the alcohol-free market is still tiny compared to the alcohol-included market, yet it’s also booming, with some sectors poised to grow 30% annually.
As it does, the branding in the space will evolve too, matching broader evolutions in the language around drinking and attitudes attached to our choice of quaff. And we’ll toast to that.
*When sobriety feels optional. Obviously the calculus is different for individuals in recovery.