How can we prevent children from mistakenly consuming alcohol?
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Now, let's dive into a thorny subject.
What constitutes “adult” design vs. something a child might find enticing?
What is our responsibility as brand builders and Bev Alc producers?
And how can we prevent children from getting hold of alcohol, or at least how can we avoid directly marketing to them?
These questions were first posed to me by Matt Kirkegaard on the Australian Brews News podcast (question starts at the 41-minute mark) more than a year and a half ago.
My gut response at the time was that this falls on the parent to keep dangerous items out of reach of children, no different than kitchen knives, medicine, household cleaning products, etc.
This is still my stance, but if I’m being honest, I felt like this was an unsatisfactory answer—that it might too be too conveniently avoiding the question of a designer's responsibility in all of this.
I've been thinking about this topic off and on for the last year, and it seems like the rest of the industry is starting to have this conversation as well.
Matt’s question was explicitly about beer package design. Is it responsible to put a juice box or cereal-box cartoon character on a beer can? (Funny to note that this doesn't even begin to address the adult Capri Sun pouches and boozy frozen popsicles that have trended since we had this conversation.)
In order to hone in on this issue and somehow offer a few solutions, I’d like to shift focus away from beer specifically and towards the ongoing trend of traditionally non-alcoholic beverage brands launching alcoholic extensions in general (e.g. Monster Energy, Mountain Dew, Sunny D, Simply Lemonade, Fresca, Lipton, Sonic).
While I still believe the responsibility here begins with the parents, I want to explore this issue from a few different perspectives and finally give it the thought it deserves.
The problem (let's set a scene)
Little Timmy comes home from school and, doffing his backpack and skateboard, opens the fridge and grabs a Mountain Dew. (He’s parched from doing strenuous Tik Tok dances.)
*scary narrator voice* "But Timmy didn't grab a Mountain Dew. He (unknowingly) grabbed a HARD MTN DEW."
Little Timmy cracks that bad boy open and crushes the entire thing in one go. He belches and leaves the can on the counter for Terry (his step dad) to clean up.
A barren wind rattles the kitchen window pane. Winter is coming.
I'm guessing in most cases, this is the end of the story.
We can spice things up and have Timmy hospitalized—getting his stomach pumped? Or maybe, in a drunken stupor, he steals and wrecks Terry's (his step dad) 2009 PT Cruiser?
But even without a hyperbolic ending, this is a bad situation. Even if no immediate harm comes from this scenario, children shouldn't drink alcohol.
And a point that a lot of industry watchdogs are making [Paywall Warning] is that these traditionally non-alcoholic beverages that “go hard” are an opportunity for accidental consumption at best, and at worst, are being outright marketed to underage consumers.
Why this problem won't go away
The last few years have seen a bevy of high-profile, traditionally non-alcoholic beverage brands launching alcoholic extensions. And they are doing this explicitly to leverage their brand equity.
To wit, Mountain Dew launching a hard seltzer under a different name isn't newsworthy. But Mountain Dew launching HARD MTN DEW is something that gets attention.
This issue isn’t going to go away because these extensions have been (mostly) successful. Whether that is runaway success or only limited incremental growth, big brands have big brand equity. So we expect the desire to continue releasing these sorts of alcoholic products will continue unabated in the future.
Why we (craft beer folks) should track this
Just in case you think this doesn't apply to your brewery, my (completely buried) lede here is that as more mega corporations enter the room (e.g. Coca-Cola, Monster Beverage, PepsiCo), this issue will become more front and center in our industry.
A craft brewery putting a juice box illustration on a tall boy is one thing. Coca-Cola releasing an alcoholic product that could be perceived as marketing to children (or any under-LDA person) in the court of public opinion is something else entirely.
I think large corporations will be more cautious, and maybe even lobby for more label requirements and compliance standards to protect their interests.
I’m guessing here, but it’s not hard to imagine an eventual new set of labeling standards and compliance regulations that could affect all tiers of Bev Alc, from Coca-Cola down to your local brewery.
I don’t believe more oversight is the answer
I want to state up front that I'm not calling for more oversight or regulation—the labeling oversight we have on alcohol (here in the States) is laughable anyway. (Shoutout to everyone who’s had a label rejected by the TTB that includes language, like Köln-Style, that you copied verbatim from another label that the TTB has previously approved.)
But the larger issue is that no matter how we build it—third party review boards, artificial intelligence tools, etc.—at the end of the day, figuring out how to reduce the risk of kids accidentally consuming alcohol with labeling requirements would be an attempt to measure something that is completely subjective.
The problems here are many:
1. What constitutes "adult" design vs. design that appeals to kids? To wit: I grew up mesmerized by the intricate details adorning the Budweiser and PBR cans that littered all of our family cookouts. And some of my earliest memories are of rinsing and collecting Budweiser cans. Was Budweiser marketing to me?
And if illustration-heavy packaging could appeal to kids, where do you draw that line? If we carry this out all the way, then half the industry will have to rebrand. (Maybe I should push for more oversight? That would be tremendous for business…)
2. Kids—more so teenagers—will find a way to get their hands on alcohol if they want it, just like they always have. I did. You did. And despite our best efforts, our kids will as well.
This brings back my feeling that this is mostly a parent's responsibility: That we have to educate our children and equip them with enough self confidence and common sense that even when they do do something reckless, like drink alcohol before it’s legal, they do so with some measure of responsibility.
If we really want to solve this problem…
The only real solution here would be to develop a more child-proof packaging format. Think along the lines of an aspirin bottle or (some) cannabis packaging.
But this only solves the issue of young children physically accessing and accidentally consuming alcohol. There is no real solution to keeping older children and teenagers away from this (again, other than education).
I don't want to lose track of the larger question of our responsibility as brand builders to not intentionally or unintentionally market these products to underage folks in the first place.
So let’s address that issue now.
Some potential Brand Architecture solutions
Most of the traditionally non-alcoholic brands that have launched alcoholic products have done so as straight Brand Extensions in order to leverage their brand equity.
This puts these products on the left end of the Beverage Brand Architecture Continuum. Consequently, this approach has the highest probability of a child seeing familiar branding and mistakenly grabbing an alcoholic product from the fridge (Won't someone please think of Timmy?!?).
An across-the-board recommendation would be for these groups to move further to the right on the Continuum—likely releasing some version of an Endorsed Brand—and thus, put more visual distance between the Parent Brand and new alcoholic extension.
One example here is Monster Energy's forthcoming boozy extension, The Beast Unleashed. On pack, the Monster icon is relegated to a smaller endorsement role with the product brand, The Beast Unleashed, taking the main stage.
This isn't completely differentiated from the original Monster can (e.g. it looks and feels like a Monster product). But hey, at least it’s not coming to market as Hard Monster Energy (er, Hard MNSTR NRGY).
Of course a child could still mistake this for a regular can of Monster Energy, but this is at least a good faith attempt at delineating between their alcoholic and nonalcoholic lines.
Jack Daniel’s x Coca-Cola’s Jack & Coke extension is another good faith example. This is a co-branded product that leans more on JD's iconic visual equity (all black background, white typography and filigree) with hardly any of Coca-Cola’s iconic red Pantone.
It would be hard to imagine a child mistaking this product as a Coke.
This is far from a panacea, but if designers and brand builders want to address this issue through brand strategy and actual package design, I believe we need to have a stronger focus on Brand Architecture-specific solutions.
This is where a designer can affect this process and responsibly shape what goes out into the world.
If we go this route (and if parents do their part), we can all enjoy our alcohol responsibly and keep our kids safe.
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