• Bill Petrie

Avoiding the Hard Seltzer Trap

Trends are traps that keep you from differentiation and long term success.

Good or bad, humans love to follow trends. Think I’m wrong? Why don’t you walk down the beverage aisle next time you’re at your local grocery store and gaze upon the wall of hard seltzer. There are a seemingly endless array of options such as Truly, White Claw, Bon & Viv, Henry’s, Bud Light, Maha Organic, Corona, Ficks, Natural Light, Michelob Ultra, Smirnoff, and well over 50 other brands. It’s as if a new hard seltzer brand pops up every few hours.

To be clear, I’m not assailing the benefits of hard seltzer: they are light, crisp, refreshing, and low in calories which have created a “better for you” libation. However, until a few years ago, few of us knew hard seltzer even existed. As a society, we’ve been drinking fermented beverages for a long time, and breweries have known how to make malted beverages that aren’t beer for an equally long time. So, why is half of the beverage aisle at the local Kroger devoted to the slim-canned cocktail? The answer is simple: the power of social influence and word of mouth.

Of course, the first hard seltzer, as we now know it, Bon & Viv, spent some money on advertising, but it was really people trying the product and letting their friends know how delicious it was. From there, a trend was born, and now you have a too crowded marketplace where competitors developed amazingly similar products to capitalize on the furor.

It’s a tale that’s as long as businesses have been around:

  • A person or company creates something innovative in their chosen marketplace

  • That “something innovative” becomes a trend (a much less derogatory way of saying “fad”), and the originator begins to reap the financial rewards

  • In the short term, companies will reap the benefit of consumers desperately wanting to keep up with the trend

  • As more organizations break out their surfboards to ride the financial wave of a current craze, they will see their market share slip, margins erode, profits plummet, and, worst of all, they simply blend in with the competition losing any prospect of differentiation

Trends are nothing more than a search for safety because there’s no risk in doing the same thing as the competition. However, it’s also this quest for security that leads companies to near extinction as they struggle to retain their points of differentiation once the trend has run its course. We can all think of companies – and individuals – who eagerly bounce from trend to trend and, in the process, completely lose their core identity to the point their target audience doesn't know who they are.

I could have just as easily written about Greek yogurt, CBD oil, plant-based meats, or fidget spinners in the promotional products industry. Reliance on a trend may yield some results in the short term, but the long term damage of blending in with the crowd will be difficult to repair. In any creative industry, when organizations rapidly move in the same direction as their competition, it tells me that a new approach is a far better, perhaps only, approach.

Betting on a trend is like investing in penny stocks – the “sure thing” doesn’t exist, and it’s impossible to honestly know when it’s time to get out before losing your shirt. Instead of trying to create the next flavor of hard seltzer, it’s much better to chart your own path of differentiation and innovation.

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