Digital in Drinks 2021: Spearheading a new era of growth was held online last week to a global audience, featuring a panel of growth pioneers in the industry who shared their experiences and forecasts for the year ahead.

The mood was buoyant and optimistic. Digital changed the industry forever in 2020, and the consensus was that there’s no going back to how things were pre pandemic.

In 2021, consumers will expect even more from at-home and in-venue experiences as they reopen. The conversation revealed what is likely to stick, what’s going away and what’s coming up next.

The event was chaired by Jon Reay, Rewrite Digital’s CEO & Founder, who began with an overview of some of the latest digital advances in the industry we’re seeing or expect to see this year:

“During times of crisis, innovators shine through”, says Reay.

The expert panel of innovators carving growth in 2021:

  • Will Harvey – Global Digital Innovation Manager at Diageo
  • Andrew Morgan – Innovation leader for the drinks industry (ex-ZX Ventures)
  • Becki Stephens – Marketing Manager at Caleño
  • Ben Franks – Founder of Novel Wines

Watch a full recording of the event including the panel Q&A here:


Panel Q&A Highlights

The panel were asked a number of questions from Reay and other attendees.

1. What can we look forward to in digital in the drinks industry this year?

Andrew Morgan (ex-ZX Ventures) – Continued growth in consumer expectations and delivery of them after a year that’s accelerated both more than we could’ve imagined.

Will Harvey (Diageo) – 2020 felt like a lot of disruption, despair and kicking and screaming. 2021 is more positive as we see transformational change culturally and behaviourally bed in.

Becki Stephens (Caleño) – How events and experiences will evolve not just virtually but in combination with physical crowd too.

Ben Franks (Novel Wines) – Access to much wider groups, geographically, but also in communities that include bridging the digital divide.

2. Are virtual experiences a second best or fundamentally something different and even superior to physical ones?

Ben – We started doing virtual events during the pandemic out of necessity but found that we could reach more people, bring more authenticity (e.g. meet the winemaker) and make it more intimate (i.e. in people’s homes). We launched Virtual Tastings and will continue to run virtual events even when physical ones come back.

Will – Trial can be a challenge at home but the likes of Send Me a Sample and Tryit make it work. Replicating a premium cocktail experience at home isn’t so easy but you can create new meaningful experiences at home like we did with Talisker Tasting.

Andrew – At Beer Hawk, we had a distributor solution to deliver cold beer to pubs and bars (Beer Hawk Fresh). We pivoted to a consumer proposition during the pandemic (Beer Hawk Now), delivering fresh beer to Londoners within the hour. It didn’t quite work commercially but it opened doors that would otherwise have been closed and it’s clear that consumers are seeing the opportunities and benefits of not having to leave their homes for a premium experience.

3. Direct-to-consumer (D2C) gained significant traction in 2020. How will this evolve in 2021?

Becki – Caleño was mainly retail when Covid hit. We rebuilt our website and have grown D2C by 300% in the last year. We now have a larger audience to connect with and educate in the non-alcohol category. We’re adding more personalisation to our website and email too. People want and expect to feel special.

Ben – As a primarily online business we’ve always used data to personalise how we serve our customers but we’re now getting smarter and more automated – linking previously purchased and similar products to customers, understanding their preferences and predicting their behaviour. We’re working with other category producers and trade partners to share insights and offer customers more choice.

Will – We’ve used consumer insights and Artificial Intelligence to help people with their drinks choices. What’s Your Whisky? builds up an individual’s flavour profile to find their perfect single malt. From the data we’ve learned about regional differences too and are feeding that back into our market distribution.

Andrew – Traditionally brand owners wouldn’t have any data. The D2C shift has enabled both large and small producers to access and harness data to enhance the customer experience. The box being delivered should be exciting. Consumers should feel loved and cared for as individuals and now expect a personalised service.

4. What else from 2020 is going to stay, go and change this year?

Ben – Consumers will expect more choice. A lot of our new customers are from larger competitors so already expect a greater range. People like to shop local and from independents but want that choice there too. So even small businesses need to invest in providing choice.

Something that needs to change is the high volume of packaging and the distribution and logistics of getting drinks to consumers. We trialled a more sustainable packaging option for customers but the higher price tag put people off.

Becki – In home events will reach greater maturity. People will still want an entertaining experience without the hassle of going out. The digital experience will continue to play a role even when doors reopen.

Andrew – Some things people are going to be glad to go back to (like stone-baked pizza fresh from the oven). But there will be more live virtual, shared social experiences and the quality of video streams will go up.

5. What’s the biggest change you expect to see in digital in 2021?

Ben – More businesses offering a virtual experience, standalone or alongside a physical one – from your local pub, restaurant or wine shop to big chains, producers, online platforms and startups. All giving consumers more choice and raising the bar of what’s possible.

Becki – I’m interested to see where Virtual Reality (VR) can go. Digital enables people to connect anywhere. How can VR bring a social element? How can we find a more personal connection via a screen?

Will – The frictionless trade environment. There’s been a huge cultural shift in the use of smartphones in venues from track and trace to at-table ordering and payments. There will be more to come in “scannable media” and the merging of physical and digital experiences.

Andrew – If I never have to queue for a pint in a pub or wait for a bill in a restaurant again I’d be a happy man! Wetherspoons led this and consumers now expect it. It’s a win for the trade too. So the biggest change is that this becomes the norm. The tech just needs to work and provide a seamless experience as it had been a bit hit and miss in 2020.


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