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Sobriety is the new black: inside the launch of AF Drinks

Interview with Lisa King, founder of AF Drinks

Boss AF

As if Lisa King didn’t have enough to do in the last year, the CEO of Eat My Lunch also launched a beverage brand, AF Drinks. To recognise the start of Dry July, The Feed’s Vincent Heeringa explores Lisa’s ambition for the sobriety business.

Vincent: I can’t believe when I read that you had done this. You’re the Energizer bunny. I mean, you’ve already won this big government contract for Eat My Lunch, as well as going through several Covid-19 lockdowns. Where do you get your motivation?

Lisa: Yeah, well I started getting a couple of bouts of vertigo at the start of last year [2020]. And I realised that every time I had vertigo, I’d had a gin and tonic. And so I thought I would stop drinking for a little bit and see if that would help. And what I quickly found was that it was actually a lot harder to stop drinking because of the fact that it’s such a strong part of the Kiwi culture. If you tell people you’re not drinking, you just feel like a bit of an outcast, or people started asking questions, like are you pregnant or if you’ve got some problem. And there never be any good non-alcoholic options.

And it just kind of surprised me because I’ve read that this was a bit of a trend overseas and that there should be better alcohol-free options than what is currently available. I’m not a beer drinker either. I also did a lot more research on alcohol. I think we all know that we should drink less but I was quite shocked at the impact that alcohol actually has – on our health, on drunk driving, domestic violence and mental illness. 

It made sense to me that there was this problem that needed to be addressed and that if we could encourage more people to go alcohol-free, not necessarily go completely sober all the time, but to have more alcohol-free moments in their lives, that we could actually start moving our way towards a healthier society.

Vincent: So it’s as much purpose-driven as Eat My Lunch. 

Lisa: Absolutely. Look, I wouldn’t have done it if it was just really about selling another drink. Like you say, I’ve got enough on my plate. For me to invest a lot of time and effort, it has to be making a positive difference in the world somehow. 

Now, the way that we’re choosing to tackle this, isn’t fear messages around how bad alcohol for you is for you. We’re trying to do it in a really positive way, which is to make not drinking really fun and sexy and aspirational, and to tell stories of successful people who have a better relationship with alcohol. And provide really great alternatives because it’s one thing to get people to go, ‘yeah, I’m going to go alcohol-free’ and then not find something to replace their normal drink.

Vincent: So how far can you push this? How big could it be?

Lisa: I want to walk into the alcohol section of the supermarket and 50% of the space be allocated to really good alcohol-free options, so that people have the choice. Or go into a bar or restaurant that has alcohol-free options displayed as prominently as alcohol options.

Vincent: Your marketing is promoting the idea of sobriety as a movement, especially a movement of high-performing people. 

Lisa: Yes, I would really like to see us use people who are inspirational and successful. I was really surprised when I found out about all these celebrities that don’t drink, like Pharrell Williams and Anthony Hopkins and Jennifer Lopez. All these really successful people who don’t use alcohol to fuel their lifestyle or their success. And it’s almost like they’ve discovered the secret, you know, which is that they don’t need it to be themselves and to enjoy life and have fun.

Vincent: Are they too busy to be drinking or is there a health element to it?

Lisa: A lot of it is driven by health. Particularly with millennials who don’t want to compromise their health just to have a good night out. So yeah, there’s definitely a big drive towards health and understanding what alcohol does to you. This is particularly for women. Just having one alcoholic drink a day can increase the risk of breast cancer by something like 25%. It’s been linked to 200 diseases. And you know, obviously drunk driving.

And you’re not a hundred percent yourself when you’re drinking. I don’t think anyone will ever say that when they’re drunk that they’re the best versions of themselves.

Vincent: You’re far too sensible. I’m feeling uncomfortable now.

Lisa: No judgment! 

Vincent: That’s good. I guess what you’re saying is that it’s not about being a hundred percent free, unless that’s your choice. But you’re saying, let’s mix it up.

Lisa: Yeah. I think a lot of people are doing that already. You know, there are people who won’t drink during the week and only on the weekends or people who do a month off for Dry July. And I think we can all kind of start reducing it in our lives. I still have a small glass of wine on special occasions. But when I do, I really appreciate it and I’m really mindful of it. So that’s what I’m suggesting: being more mindful when you are drinking; looking at how you can have a healthier relationship with alcohol.

Dry July campaign product: 31 cans hath July …

Vincent: At least one reason to continue drinking is because it tastes so great. It’s very hard to replace that delicious sensation, the richness, the diversity, the contrast, the explosions of flavors that you get with alcoholic drinks. So tell us about how you tackled that challenge.

Lisa: When you take alcohol out of something, it loses the texture, the depth and the mouthfeel. It also loses a lot of buzz. So rang up a flavour-house business and I said to them, ‘look, I want to create this alcohol-free gin and tonic. I want you to just make it taste like a freshly made G and T, but obviously with no alcohol and just using natural flavors. 

Well, flavor technology is really incredible these days. And they were able to mimic all of that experience using botanicals to get the tonic flavors and the citrus. We’ve created something that’s really complex, you know, so this isn’t just flavoured, sparkling water.

But you’re also drinking it for the feeling of drinking. And so we found a natural botanical extract that we call ‘afterglow’, and it gives you a little burn as you’re drinking. After a while my cheeks start warming up and I can kind of feel it. 

Interestingly, we did a blind tasting of AF against the RTDS of Bombay, Tanqueray and Gordon’s. The New Zealand Herald reported that we did this tasting and the participants actually picked AF as the buzziest one of them. Which was amazing. 

Vincent: Fantastic. Now I know you have fans but how has it been received by the trade?

Lisa: We’re one of the first in this category and when you’re first it comes with its own set of challenges. There’s no natural space for this in retail. So there’s definitely been a bit of work trying to convince people about the need for shelf space.

Vincent: Do you mean it’s not a soft drink nor a spirit nor a wine. So they’re finding it hard to find a natural place in the aisle?

Lisa: With supermarket regulations, we can’t go in the alcohol section but it’s also not a soft drink. But consumers are looking for it in the alcohol section. In some retailers we sit just outside of the wine section. So there’s a bit of education to be done and potentially revisiting the legislation that was made without thinking that there would be alcohol-free alternatives like this.

But we’re in about 240 stores at the moment and hopefully increasing that quite quickly in the next couple of months.

Vincent: Wow that’s already so many outlets. It hints to me that this is an emerging category. If you do a quick Google search on non-alcoholic drinks, there is an explosion in the category overseas. Do you feel like you’re at the vanguard of a movement?

Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like this could be the next kombucha, you know? No one knew what kombucha was when it first came on the market. And now there’s so many players and the category is massive. Last year globally, 30% of people stopped or reduced their drinking. This category globally is about 3% of total alcohol market. If you took that into New Zealand terms, 3% of the alcohol market here would make this a $45 million market.

Vincent: Do you worry about competitors coming and following on your coattails?

Lisa: We are going to see more players in this category and that’s good because we need it to grow. You’re seeing lots of alcohol-free wines and beers. Giving people lots of options will bring more people into the category. But yes we want to be established as the leaders. And, you know, we’re also working on other options at the moment outside of G and Ts because not everyone loves a gin and tonic.

Vincent: Anything you can tell us about?

Lisa: Yeah. Well, for winter we’re moving into darker spirits. [AF released a rum alternative after this interview]

Vincent: So here’s a cheeky question: does it make a decent mixer for an actual gin and tonic?

Lisa: A lot of people ask that. As I said no judgment, Vincent. Feel free to! 

This is an edited version of the podcast interview, which you can listen to here!

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Vincent Heeringa

Vincent Heeringa

Vincent Heeringa is a communications strategist, writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in tech, investment, and sustainability. He was co-founder of Idealog, Stoppress and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. He is the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’, co-founder of The Feed.co.nz, and a trustee of the Adventure Specialties Trust. And there's nothing he loves more than a good story. vincentheeringa.com

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