Fabs – the scourge of teenage binge drinking or a refreshing twist to an industry better known for its misty glens and coats of arms? Love them or loathe them, the flavoured alcoholic beverage is having a heady influence across the alcoholic drinks sector reports Louise Hunt

Ever since alcopops first made their brash entrance into the market in the mid-90s an evolution has taken place. The original alcoholic versions of kids’ drinks have been replaced with a cocktail of adult concoctions to become the ‘flavoured alcoholic beverage’ (otherwise known as ready-to-drinks and pre-mixed spirits).

Arguably, the arrival of the fab has sparked a renaissance in a packaging sector that has seen little obvious change over the decades.

“The alcopop came along and broke all the rules,” says Martin Grimer, creative director of design agency Coley Porter Bell. “The drinks that were around before took themselves very seriously with lots of emphasis on craft, heritage and typography. There were really only two types of drinks – posh – wine and spirits or beer.

“Two Dogs, Hooch and Thirsty Camel – seen as the first alcopops – challenged the visual territory with bright, crude cartoon graphics, made drinking fun and loosened up the whole alcoholic beverage sector.

“The problem was that in trivialising the graphics the products themselves were trivialised and they became seen as a flash in the pan.”

While the fab pioneers may have vanished in a puff of dry ice, the global white spirits brands should be the last to scoff. It is interesting to think where the likes of Bacardi and Smirnoff might be today if fizzy, fruity alcohol hadn’t exploded onto the scene.

“Drinks like gin and tonic were seen as something you would have after work at home,” says Martin. “You wouldn’t be on the dance floor with a Bacardi and coke in your hand, you would have a lager.”

If alcopops did one thing for an industry that appeared to be taking on the characteristics of bubbly… the morning after – it was to offer new drinking occasions.

For big brands it was an opportunity to get from behind the bars and hit the dance floor, effectively turning spirits into fashion accessories. “The movement has really done something for the big brands and visually it’s allowed that very strict category language to loosen up a bit. “It allowed drinks to explore more stretch in their portfolio. It breathed new life into these drinks by making them more accessible,” adds Martin.

For consumers, the arrival of sweet, palletable alcoholic drinks tapped into a need which had not yet been met, says Sharon Crayton, Rockware Glass business development manager.

“Younger drinkers, particularly females, found it hard to develop a taste for alcohol. Before fabs the choice was to add lime or blackcurrent to lager or drink sweet ciders. The fab has made the transition from soft drinks to alcohol much easier than it was 10 years ago.”

This need is greatest in the US and the UK which took 24% and 17% of the global market in 2001 respectively. Fab uptake does lag behind in mainland Europe, being virtually non-existent in France. Germany, however, is starting to catch on, taking 3% share. In the UK, fabs are now consumed in far larger quantities than spirits. In 2001, 335M litres were drunk in the UK against 228M litres of spirits, according to research by Rexam Glass.

The new generation premium packaged fab has learnt some valuable lessons in sustainability from its alcopop predecessors. “There has to be product truth,” says Martin Grimer. “When you look at the graphics of Smirnoff Ice, it’s still rooted in the heritage of the original bottle. Although it has a new freezer stars icon on the neck, it’s not being gimmicky.”

Today’s fab is characterised by simplicity. “Visibility is very important for fabs. Packs need to communicate lots of taste and refreshment cues that support the ‘easy to drink’ concept,” says Sharon Crayton.

Differentiation is, of course, still vital in such a crowded, display oriented marketplace but designs tend to err on the side of subtlety. Clear glass decorated in pressure sensitive labels is used to achieve the popular minimalist look, as are full length shrink sleeves over carefully tailored profiles exemplified by Archers Aqua.

For brands that do not have the luxury of a global spirit name behind them incorporating premium cues is critical in enforcing quality, says Sharon Crayton. At the same time, new products and innovative packaging are required to maintain interest.

Rockware Glass redesigned Halewood International’s Red Square this September with the focus on developing an iconic bottle to compete against premium spirit brand fabs.

The design features a more angular waisted bottle than current ready-to-drink brands. Rockware believes this conveys an image that will appeal to both male and female drinkers. The Halewood eagle – a core brand identifier – has been reproduced as intricate embossing four times on the shoulder of the bottle to give brand recognition and quality to the pack.

Red Square has become the third largest PPS brand, says Rockware, with a Mexican Lime variant recently launched in 275ml and 70cl bottles.

Fabs are growing up and a marked transition in drinker demographics is taking place. Originally aimed at an 18-24 year old target audience, the sophistication of recent pack design and introduction of adult flavours, such as cranberry, is stretching the age brackets to 35.

Drinks purposely designed to seduce males away from lager are also challenging the decidedly female bias. Bambao, a runner-up in the pre-mixed spirits category at last month’s Shine Awards, is a prime example.

Produced by Rexam Glass for Bulmers, Bambao – a blend of Brazilian Cachaca spirit and lime – is packed into a white flint 275ml bottle. Macho appeal is enforced through a footprint logo that appears as a screen-printed black label boldly stamped on the front of the bottle.

“We worked closely with Bulmers to produce a design that would appeal to the brand’s target market of 25-34 year old males,” says Rexam Glass design manager Martin Jones. “It has a heavier feel and the base has a thick deep push. Embossing makes the bottle tactile and gives a premium edge.”

Smirnoff Black and Boru Black are further fab variants flexing their muscles in this sector.

The encroaching threat posed by fabs on the premium packaged lager market is sparking a spate of redesigns that, strangely enough, aim to promote a youthful, refreshing image.

Kronenbourg 1664 is an example of a recently modernised PPL. United Glass developed a 330ml version of Kronenbourg’s 750ml green glass ‘Eiffel’ bottle for Scottish Courage.

The redesign saw an about-turn in traditional beer decoration with the label placed on the long, conical neck, while embossing is emblazoned across the empty space on the body.

Cider has had to make a comeback now that competition is against both lager and fab markets. Coley Porter Bell recently revamped Strongbow cider bottles and cans to sit proudly alongside its trend-setting cousins.

The new design dispenses with the archer and bow imagery with a sleek arrow icon that becomes the central feature of the brand’s new identity. “The old design was really flat,” says Martin Grimer. A brighter yellow was chosen to contrast with a deep green featuring a textured feather effect that replaces the old black, creating layers of brand identity.

Perhaps the most significant development is the metamorphoses of fabs into new drinking occasions. Over the past 24 months 70cl versions of Red Square, WKD and Martini-Bacardi Spirito among others have cropped up to offer the taste of fabs as drinks that can either be shared or mixed.

Clutching a first place Shine Award for Spirito, Andy Hartley, marketing manager of Rockware Glass, explains how fabs are coming full circle.

“These drinks are moving out of the flavoured alcoholic beverage segment to create a new product category. They started out as variants of spirits brands and became known under their fab names. Now they are breaking back into the spirits market to stand alongside their parent brands, which is an extremely difficult thing to do.”

Bacardi Breezer Twist is the latest of the new larger sized fab/spirit variants. The 70cl version of the Breezer fab contains a 22% drink in four flavours that can then be drunk long with lemonade or dry with a tonic.

Rexam Glass developed the bottle which features an indentation of a 3cm wide band around the bottle, complimented by an embossed Bat company logo.

Gradual tapering towards the base further differentiates the silhouette. A spray coating gives a frosted effect, with product data printed onto the coating for a contemporary feel.

The use of different materials is also helping the fab to broaden its horizons. PET bottles may still be at the dawn of the revolution but their day appears to be coming.

Mike Hanratty, business development manager of Amcor PET Packaging Europe/Asia, believes the need to create differentiation will fuel the continuing growth in the use of PET packaging in the fab market.

The ability to produce complex shapes without an increase in material and offer lightweights are seen as key advantages over glass in this sector. At events or locations where glass is banned, PET is already proving itself to be a suitable alternative able to maintain brand integrity.

Amcor has produced PET bottles for Bacardi Breezer at sponsored events, as well as the Sydney Olympic Games.

Cans, too, are inching their way towards a share in the fab sector. Caroline Archer-Reed, marketing manager at Crown Bevcan Europe, says that their presence is currently limited. But, as the on-trade fab sector nears saturation point, there are increasing opportunities for cans in the off-trade.

The company is in talks with several of the major spirits brands and is already producing 44 and 50cl cans for GBL International’s VK Ice and VK Blue.