“What are you meant to do when you see it everywhere?” Young people, alcohol packaging and digital media

Alcohol Insight Number 120

Research and Development Grant


Key findings

  • Alcohol marketers use social networking sites (SNS) and packaging to create and reinforce brand values. SNS are used to build relationships with users through conversation, appreciation of user-generated content and sharing of users’ interests and values.
  • SNS users co-create marketing in their social networks and brand content is entangled with communication between peers. Consequently, marketing messages often appear to be endorsed by trusted friends, lending them greater credibility, authenticity and persuasiveness.
  • Consumers also derive benefits from interacting with alcohol brands on SNS. Alcohol brands communicate social status, appeal to individual aspirations, and are used to express aspects of personality and lifestyle.
  • The omnipresence of SNS allows marketers to cement brand identity among consumers. Through SNS marketing, brands are successful in priming consumers to associate products with specific attributes and values.
  • Drinking and images of excess are often a central feature of user-generated content on SNS. These images can create a platform for endorsing specific alcohol brands, but may also normalise excessive consumption and potentially risky drinking behaviours

Research team

Richard I Purves, Martine Stead and Douglas Eadie
Institute for Social Marketing, University of Stirling


The consumption of alcohol plays an important part in the way in which people create identities and live their social lives. Alcohol brands become embedded in everyday life through marketing practices, and this is amplified by an increase in new technologies that facilitate the transference of marketing messages. This research explores how alcohol brands use social networking sites (SNS) and packaging as part of their repertoire of marketing activities, and how users respond to these activities.

This study does not examine the impact of marketing on behaviour; for that, studies of different design and much larger scale are required (see Pinsky et al., 2010; Gordon and Harris, 2009). Instead, it explores marketing strategies and users responses. Much marketing activity is directed not towards producing direct effects on consumers but towards creating and reinforcing powerful brand identities. In order to understand marketing, we need not only to examine evidence of direct effects – increased sales or consumption – but also to explore how marketing works: how marketing activities contribute to the creation and reinforcement of desired brand values. In other words, are the messages communicated by the brand consistent with the desired brand position? Are the associations created in consumers’ minds the desired associations? Are consumer responses in line with the emotions the brand is designed to evoke?

Research in this new and little understood area needs to use reflexive and inductive approaches. There is great value to be had in combining traditional qualitative research methods, such as interviews and focus groups, with more recent innovations in the field of online research (Maclaran and Catterall, 2002). Therefore, two qualitative methods – content analysis and focus group discussions – were used to address the following research questions:

  • How do young people perceive and engage with alcohol packaging and labelling?
  • In what ways do alcohol brands feature in community conversations on social media sites?
  • How are alcohol brands used by young people in social media networks to construct desired identities?
  • How do alcohol marketers encourage consumers to actively engage with alcohol brands through the use of web addresses and QR codes on packaging and labelling?
  • How do alcohol marketers encourage user engagement on social media sites?
  • What alcohol brands do young people find most appealing and would be most likely to engage with further through websites and social media pages?

The first stage of the study identified, observed and analysed communications on SNS as a lens through which to understand how alcohol marketers encourage consumers to talk about alcohol brands, and how consumers use alcohol brands in conversations and sharing activities. We examined these communications by conducting a content analysis informed by netnographic approaches. ‘Netnography’ applies ethnographic methods to the study of online cultures (Rokka, 2010), treating online communications, such as comments and images shared on social network sites, as a form of social interaction (Kozinets, 2010; Maclaran and Catterall, 2002). Five of the most popular social networking sites in the UK were selected for analysis over a seven-day period (March 3rd 2014 to March 10th 2014). These SNS were: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and Tumblr. Six alcohol brands (Budweiser, Bulmers, Dragon Soop, Malibu, Smirnoff and WKD) were selected for analysis.

All potentially relevant data were ‘captured’ using the web browser extension NCapture and imported in NVivo 10. A coding frame was developed and piloted by two researchers to assess consistency. To establish inter-rater reliability, findings were compared and any differences in interpretation resolved. Codes were developed inductively, using grounded theory based on observations that were summarised into conceptual categories and gradually refined and linked to other conceptual categories (Glaser and Strauss, 1967).

The second stage of research consisted of qualitative focus group interviews with 14-17 year old males and females. Eight focus groups (6 participants per group, n=48) were conducted involving single sex friendship groups of girls and boys aged 14-17, recruited in two categories: 14-15 year old ‘starter drinkers’ and 16-17 year old ‘established drinkers’ (MacKintosh et al., 1997). The interviews were transcribed verbatim and transferred for coding and analysis into the NVivo 10 software package. Each transcript was reviewed by two members of the research team to identify major themes and sub-themes through open coding. To establish inter-rater reliability, findings were compared and any discrepancies resolved. Findings were then grouped into major categories reflecting key topics. Again, codes were developed inductively, using grounded theory.


Alcohol brands performed a number of actions on SNS: they used SNS as an advertising platform, for product and distribution information; they used SNS to solicit feedback from users and open up a conversation; they used SNS to encourage users to act (for example, by ‘liking’, or posting comments, or entering competitions, or re-tweeting brand authored content); and they used and co-opted user generated content to support their own branding.

These actions are designed to reinforce brand values and identity. When marketers post content, the tone of voice, selection of images and wording, cultural references and so on are carefully selected to evoke associations and emotional responses consistent with brand identities. A key aspect of brand identity is the persona or personality the brand chooses to project. Brand personality is an expression of core values and characteristics with an emphasis on human traits such as trustworthiness, excitement, stylishness or warmth.   Brand personality can be constructed through tone of voice when ‘talking’ to users, through cultural references which say something about the brand’s values, through imagery and language designed to appeal to a particular gender or age groups, and so on.

As well as evoking a particular personality, brands sought to appeal to values that resonate with target users and were consistent with brand identity. These values varied: ranging from heritage and tradition to glamour, fun and alternative leisure pursuits. Brands were also associated with particular cultural events, activities and organisations, including popular music and sporting events, as well as other brands, retailers and producers.

While SNS marketing is designed to cultivate brand identification and loyalty, our analysis suggested that such marketing not only drove feelings about particular brands, but also alcohol consumption in general. Two strategies were identified: co-opting seasonal events and occasions, and positioning products as part of everyday life.

A particular strategic benefit of SNS for brands is that they can work with SNS users to co-create social media content. In effect, brand-authored content and user-generated content work together to create and distribute marketing messages. Brand messages are passed on, commented on and transformed by users who become part of the marketing, co-creating the branding and working in synergy to create marketing messages. Users engage with, respond to and create alcohol brand related content on SNS in three broad types of engagement: direct responses to the brand, included responses to advertising, new flavours and promotions, and direct questions or answers in response to brand content; self-presentation refers to the use of alcohol brand content by consumers to say something about themselves, their tastes, personality and lifestyle; space for conversation refers to the ways in which users conversed and shared content which did not directly refer to the brands or even to alcohol. While this content did not at first appear directly relevant, it was important because it took place on platforms linked to the alcohol brands.

Focus Groups

The findings identified four main uses of SNS by young people: maintaining contact with and expanding friendship groups; providing a shared space to establish a sense of belonging; building and expressing self-identity; and allegiance with friendship groups. Although the term ‘network’ implies these sites make it possible for users to make contact with strangers and befriend them, the findings suggested that most SNS were used primarily to support pre-existing social relations as opposed to meeting new people. This was significant as it confirmed that SNS formed part of, and consolidated, participants’ existing social reality. In addition to consolidating existing relations, SNS were important to building new connections and extending social networks. In this sense, content shared with friends online was also shared with a wider social group, and was important to forming a person’s ‘real’ social world. It was generally felt that if you did not have access to SNS 24 hours a day there was a risk that you could be missing out on social occasions or general chat, which could result in being excluded from certain groups. The implications of this dependence are extremely important as it illustrates how corporations using SNS can have direct access to, and indeed form part of, a young person’s social reality. In this way, commercial brands and messages can become omnipresent in young people’s everyday life. Who and what a person associated themselves with on SNS could influence their ability to make new friends and contacts. The brands ‘liked’ by respondents were often carefully selected to reflect their desired values and identity.

It was apparent that respondents could attach value to brand labels and symbols, with brand packaging acting as a trigger, signifying a brand’s values. This could be particularly significant for products such as alcohol which are consumed publicly, and where brand preference can be used to say something about the consumer to those around them. Gender emerged as a an important dimension for differentiating between brands with respondents distinguishing alcohol brands they believed were aimed at males from those aimed at females. The appeal of brightly-coloured packaging amongst female respondents was in stark contrast to male preferences for simpler designs and well-established brands. While male tastes and preferences were generally very conservative female choices were more likely to be driven by a desire to try something new, to experiment and to take risks.

Respondents reported seeing large volumes of commercial marketing on SNS sites, a significant proportion of which included advertisements for alcohol products. There was a general acceptance amongst participants that alcohol marketing was an inevitable part of SNS and that it had become just another part of the daily content. Participants stated that they regularly saw examples of friends having ‘liked’ or ‘re-tweeted’ a post from an alcohol brand and that this led to advertisements for alcohol appearing on their home pages on SNS. As a consequence many of these brand messages appeared to come from or to be endorsed by a trusted friend or source with the exchange of user-generated messages and information between friends becoming entangled with marketing content.

The fact that they were exposed to such a high level of alcohol marketing led participants to question the amount of alcohol advertising they saw in everyday life and the apparent mixed messages they were receiving from different sources about the attractions and dangers of consumption. Participants stated that they had seen numerous examples of their ‘friends’ posting content related to their alcohol consumption, particularly in relation to weekend drinking. These findings illustrate how drinking and images of excess were often a central feature of the self-generated content that was widely accessed and shared on SNS, and that these practices not only served to normalise excessive consumption and potentially risky drinking behaviours, but also to provide a platform for endorsing specific alcohol brands.


A key finding from the study, observed in both the focus groups and the thematic content analysis, was that users associated alcohol brands with the same values and personality as those promoted by the brands themselves on SNS, proving that brands are successful in priming users to associate the brand with certain attributes and values. New pack technologies are emerging that enable consumers to directly access online content and in particular SNS pages or websites for specific alcohol brands. These examples and the positive response they received provide a clear illustration of how technologies such as these have the potential to not only enhance product packaging as an advertising platform, but also to reposition it as a new channel for generating branded user-led content on social media.


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