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The Inside Scoop: Laura Willoughby, Founder, Club Soda 

Written by Cracked // 29th September 2023

Hot off the heels of our latest drink trends tour (and Drink Trends 23’ Crumb issue), what better time to chat to one of the most influential people in the industry?  

With the low- and non-alcoholic drinks trend bubbling up, we were thrilled to chat with Laura Willoughby, MBE and founder of Club Soda – the world’s largest mindful drinking movement.  

Named #16 in 2023’s Drinks Retailing’s ‘Top 100 Most Influential People in Drink’, Laura is the UK’s foremost expert in low- and non-alcoholic drinks, ranked as one of the 100 ‘Most Influential Women in Hospitality’ by CODE, and trustee for the Drinks Trust.  

For the first of our Inside Scoop interviews (our ‘aperitif’, you might say!), we chat about the challenges of low market penetration for alcohol-free drinks, the powers of ‘trying before buying’, inspiring positive change and inclusivity in the industry, and more…  

Cracked: Tell us more about the Club Soda Tasting Room! 

Laura: “We’ve been going since 2015, and we did research that year on how to improve the offering for non-drinkers in pubs and bars. At that time there was nothing out in the market, which we identified as one of the issues. From the start of 2017, as other products like Big Drop and Heineken 0.0 started to appear in market, we decided to put on our first mindful drinking festival. And it absolutely packed out Bermondsey Square! Since then, we’ve done 10 festivals, and we’re the first physical no- and low- alcohol store and bar that’s opened in the UK.” 

The success of the festivals sparked an idea. To create a space on the high street where shoppers could taste some of the greatest low- and non-alcoholic drinks. 

“In the January after the pandemic, we set up a pop-up alcohol-free off license (aka. The Tasting Room) which got lots of news. It was the first time these products were put together in a space, where consumers got to taste 100+ brands in the shop. We realised there was real power – for both trade and the consumer – in trying before they buy and being educated by people who understand the products really well. So I decided that at this point in time, the physical space was worth doing for growing the market and for wider education – and we’re hoping we’ll do even more.”   

Psst! ?You can find The Club Soda Tasting Room at 39 Drury Lane, London, WC2B 5RR!  

Cracked: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned since setting up Club Soda?  

Laura: “Well, we started off as health tech, and we’re now hospitality and retail! So we’re continuing to learn – including how to set up a retail events bar space which is an interesting challenge. We’ve learned that when you’re at the start of something new, you need to be adaptable, change what you do and find your role within the space, which is ultimately what we’ve done.  

“Also, I’m continually amazed at alcohol-free and the binary attitude there can be. Historically, you’re either drinking or you’re not – and if you aren’t, you’re having a J20! So, when you’re bringing something new to the party, there needs to be new communication, tactics, and ways of connecting with consumers. And alcohol companies now selling non-alcoholic products are learning how different it is to communicate – because alcohol mostly sells itself. So, I think we’re still very early days of alcohol-free – and brands need new ways of talking about it.” 

Cracked: What do you see as the biggest challenge the low- and no-alcohol industry is experiencing today?  

Laura: “While there’s lots of noise about it in the drinks space and marketing, the penetration to the consumer is still very low. I’m still amazed that I meet people who don’t realise there are alcohol-free drinks that are designed for adults and not full of sugar.  

“Brands starting in the market need to get their heads around the legislative hurdles, too. We’re about to end up with more legislation around alcohol-free drinks than with alcohol because there are misunderstandings about it. So, whenever you start a business, never think it will be easy and that laws won’t be made that will affect it. 

“It is a competitive market, still not as big as alcohol and it probably never will be. So there’s not enough room for everyone that wants to be in it. Bigger brands do have bigger budgets, so for smaller companies it’s really hard to get your brand in front of consumers and bar staff. This is why we need new and different approaches to make that happen.  

“We’re still a very alcohol-centric country. Once you step back, you realise that in everything we do, alcohol is present and it’s the norm. Shifting that takes time. It’s not about ads or social media, it’s about changing the way hospitality works, caterers work and how we order things.” 

Cracked: What’s one thing your business did that was unexpected?  

Laura: “The fact we’re selling drinks isn’t what we intended! We started off with (and still have) courses helping people changing their drinking. Me becoming an expert in alcohol-free drinks is a complete accident!  

“Also, out of all the behaviour change techniques there are (we use University College London’s Behaviour Change Taxonomy), we focus on positive behaviour change that promotes self-efficacy. Most people’s journey to change their drinking isn’t linear. They’re moderating, and the easiest thing you can do in your own power is to swap out an alcoholic drink for an alcohol-free one – and that substitution in behaviour change is really important.  

“As a business, we’ve ended up leaning into one technique we think has the biggest impact on how we change as a nation. Because it’s not only how the individual drinks, it’s about the signals we send when we offer choice at events, with equality of serve, and making social spaces welcoming to everyone. It’s about challenging societal norms, and rethinking our lens around equality, diversity, choice and mental and physical health.” 

Cracked: Who has been your most important professional mentor?  

Laura: “It’s a difficult one, as my background’s in politics and campaigning. I see Club Soda as an equalities campaign, so I’m continually inspired by people who aren’t in the drinks industry as well as those who are.  

“I’m very lucky there are lots of people in the drinks sector who’ve grown their brands around me and been extremely supportive. But at the moment, it depends who I’m listening to on Desert Island Discs! One of my favourite people at the moment is Margaret Busby – Britain’s first black female publisher. In the programme a few weeks ago, she said: “It’s amazing what you can achieve when it doesn’t matter who takes the credit.” 

And I very much believe that! My goal isn’t to become someone who takes credit, there’s change I want to achieve, and I want that to be people powered. I believe there are many people that can make that happen – consumers, producers, venues, politicians and all sorts of people! There are many levers to pull to make change happen and I want to create a collaborative space to bring people together to do that.”  

Cracked: What are your go-to tools that are indispensable for your job?  

Laura: “My co-founders who manage to make it all happen! It’s always a team effort. In terms of practical tools, I don’t know how things existed before collaborative tools! It doesn’t matter where people are based, and they give our people on the shop floor a way to communicate with the rest of the team which is really important too.”  

Cracked: What one piece of advice would you give a small business owner looking to market their business?  

“Don’t spend lots of money and time buying and developing proprietary tech. Use the tools out there and learn!  

“For brands, it’s hard. You’re dealing with the fact that Heineken is spending 25% of its marketing budget on Heineken 0.0. No-one else has anything near that budget! So, I would always recommend understanding the audience you’re marketing to really well. 

“Some of that will be just putting your product out there and seeing who’s interested. It will surprise you – you may think you’re designing a product for one market, but you may find it’s another that’s more interested. In alcohol-free, you need to deal with the fact it’s a product that has to counter loss aversion” (the idea that ‘losses loom larger than gains’). “So, you have to find positive language with this in mind. 

“Also look at how your packaging and branding exudes joy, participation, inclusion and fun! A great example of all of that is Caleno. It’s founder, Ellie, came to one of our mindful pub crawls back in 2018 before she developed any liquid – showing that you need to understand the consumer and how you’re going to execute your idea really well. You do have to listen to the data and make compromises or change. In alcohol-free you have two important things – people must feel it’s a reward, and they need to feel included with your product and counter that feeling of loss aversion.” 

Cracked: Where do you get your latest marketing news and tips from? 

Laura: “We get them from all the publications in the space. There are also key people who do research like Neilsen. We also co-author reports and do our own research with agencies – which you can find on our website.”  

Cracked: What’s your favourite non-alcoholic drink/ cocktail? 

Laura: I don’t have any favourites! But the things I buy for the shop are REAL Sparkling Tea which is excellent, and Everleaf Forest is something I buy with bitter notes. I’m always up for a mood-enhancing spirit, so Three Spirit Nightcap is a great one.  

But also, I’ve become a beer drinker since I’ve stopped drinking. And it’s an exciting category to learn about. Big Drop and BRULO have done particularly well!

We got a big buzz from discovering Laura’s unique insights into the drinks industry. Because we’re always keeping an eye out for the next big thing. And the more we learn from experts like Laura, the better we can serve up killer strategies, content, and creative ideas that don’t just wow, but work. 

As for who’s up next on The Inside Scoop? That’s under wraps. But what we can tell you is they’re spinning plates and smashing barriers in the food industry!   

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