The research spanned seven focus groups at universities across the country and a follow up survey of 1000 further interviewees. The research was also informed by a panel of major name alcohol brands, venues, experts and industry bodies. These included WKD, New Zealand Wine, Campari Group and PuttShack.
Students may be drinking less, but the student union remains the focus of university social life. The majority of students are still drinking regularly, and drinking a lot (any reduction is coming from a very high starting point).
However, the biggest shifts are in how students are now drinking.
The research uncovered some major shifts in attitudes to drinking, peer pressure, a major disregard for major brands, social media/influencer activity and alcohol replacement drinks and a better regard for mental health and how it links to alcohol.
Most students in the focus groups did not consider themselves loyal to any particular brands. Two thirds considered themselves loyal to categories – such as IPA or rosé – but even within those categories, were actively disloyal to brands.
Qualitative research reinforced this point – 53 per cent of students said they didn’t care about brands and would always go for the cheapest option, while 15 per cent said their biggest driver was an interesting history, story, packaging or design. Where brand loyalty was a factor, it was often driven by price or practicality.
“I guess I’m loyal to Captain Morgan, but that’s because it’s quite cheap and it’s decent,” said Tom, 19, from Leeds.
Just two per cent of the 1000 students surveyed said that they were influenced by endorsements or influencers, and just four per cent said they were influenced by a brand’s social media activity.
Around two-thirds of the focus group attendees said they would be drawn to a brand they hadn’t heard of, with most saying they associated it with higher quality. ‘Supporting local businesses’ and ‘being adventurous’ were also common reasons given for actively avoiding big brands – a potential plus for new launches in this market.
The Death of Peer Pressure
Perhaps the biggest notable change in attitudes comes with the reduction in peer pressure felt by students. Around 80 per cent of those in the focus group said they would never feel self-conscious ordering an alcohol free drink. A similar proportion said they never felt peer pressure to drink.
This was backed up by the qualitative survey, where 81 per cent said they either rarely or never felt pressure to drink alcohol when in a group.
No appetite for low and no alcohol brands
The reduction in peer pressure was linked to another finding: students are not interested in low or no alcohol products, such as mocktails or alcohol free beer. Just a third of students in the focus group had tried one; most had never purchased one themselves.
Most agreed that they would be more likely to drink water or a soft drink if they didn’t want alcohol. Cost was again a factor, with the price of alcohol free alternatives a turn off. However, with no peer pressure to drink, it seems, there is no peer pressure to appear to be drinking either.
“I see them and think, ‘What’s the point?’,” said Sally from Cardiff. “If I’m not drinking, I just won’t drink.”
Healthier outlook for mental health
The end of peer pressure for the majority of students also seemed to link to a healthier attitude to mental health in general. Around 80 per cent of students were aware of the negative effects of alcohol on mental health, and a third of the students interviewed in the focus groups said they had made a decision to drink less because of how it impacted their mental health.
Of the 1000 students surveyed further, almost one in 10 said their mental health had caused them to stop drinking entirely, either temporarily or permanently.
Paula Bond, brand marketing executive at WKD, said: “Students are generally seen to be one homogeneous group, but we see it very differently. We see geographic location as having a big influence towards drinking habits and thus a big impact on our business. This research is really useful as it dispels some other myths around student drinking habits.”
Sarah Shepherd, events manager, Europe, for New Zealand Wine, added:
“The report gives a really full picture of how students are buying and consuming alcohol today – things like their loyalty to a particular category and interest in lesser known brandsare particularly interesting for us. We can see some of the move to more considered drinking that is taking place across young people generally reflected here. It’ll be really interesting to see how this generation adapts to the workplace and to new social situations over the next few years.”
Tom Harvey, co-founder and new client director, YesMore Agency, said:
“The findings here have major implications for brands looking to reach students – in that big brands now seem to be an active turn-off for many. Price has always been a big driver for students, of course – but now many are actively seeking out new, unknown brands at the expense of better known names – potentially good news for new launches. The irrelevance of endorsements and social media for this group is also really interesting and another reason for brands to have a solid marketing strategy before jumping on the influencer band wagon. The findings are also really relevant for low and no alcohol brands – of course, this is also somewhat price driven, but for students, these brands are just not relevant.”
Simon Lucey, managing director, Hype Collective, said: “The changes in behaviour that this study identified are really interesting, and likely to drive a lot of other trends. The massively reduced impact of peer pressure in drinking situations – and likely corresponding rise in awareness of mental health and the impact of alcohol may have a big influence on how brands approach this group. What will be interesting is to see how these attitudes translate down the line, as students enter the workforce, with a different set of pressures. But advocating strongly for their own mental health at this stage is likely to translate into a more aware generation with a different outlook on alcohol in five to 10 years’ time.”
The research took place between March and May 2019 with seven focus groups across six locations: London (mix of universities), Aston University, Cardiff University, University of Glasgow, University of Leeds, University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University. A total of 61 attendees took part.
Nine interviews with brands, industry bodies and experts took place ahead of time to inform the discussions. The survey was conducted following the focus groups with 1,000 qualified students in the UK via student research company YouthSight.
Source: YesMore Agency