A thirst for change: Key trends to help soft drink brands navigate the future

In 2024, the soft drinks industry finds itself at a crossroads — grappling with a myriad of challenges that threaten to reshape its foundation. 

From shifting consumer preferences to environmental concerns, the industry now faces a range of obstacles that call for bold vision, innovative solutions, and — above all — a need to confront some difficult truths.

In this piece, we explore the complexities of the soft drinks industry, and outline the key trends brands need to observe moving forward if they want to successfully navigate an uncertain consumer landscape. 

  • Redefining refreshment in a wellness-obsessed world.

Our society is increasingly fixated on health and wellbeing. As a result, the traditional perception of soft drinks as “indulgent treats” is being challenged. Today’s consumers demand delicious beverages, but they must also nourish their bodies and support their lifestyles.

For instance, figures show that fewer Gen Z and millennials are drinking alcohol, while a range of ‘wellness’ products including Kombucha, and CBD-infused soft drinks, like Trip, are seeing rapid growth.
To stay in shoppers’ baskets, soft drinks brands are now tasked with prioritising health and wellness — with a particular emphasis on functional ingredients, natural formulations and transparent labelling.

But this effort has to be backed by clinically proven evidence, particularly if brands want to avoid scepticism following several “health-washing” scandals in the industry, such as ‘lower calorie’ claims for products containing an adult’s daily recommended amount of sugar.

The brands that can adapt to this evolving landscape, and offer beverages that align with evolving consumer values, will thrive in years to come.

  • Adapting to shifting sustainability standards with eco-friendly practices. 

As well as concerns about personal health, the global conversation around climate change has become more prominent, and the adoption of sustainable practices has emerged as a non-negotiable imperative for the soft drinks industry. 

From plastic pollution to water scarcity, this is an industry that relies on finite resources and single-use packaging. But the hard truth is that this poses a significant threat to the planet. To secure a sustainable future, soft drink companies need to embrace eco-friendly practices like renewable energy, circular economic principles, and compostable or reusable packaging. 

On top of this, soft drink brands must deliver transparent communications about their actions. This approach can counter the scepticism of a public that’s grown wary of greenwashing tactics (for instance, misleading claims of bottles being made of 100% recycled plastic), and help to ensure that genuine efforts to improve sustainability are recognised and trusted.

  • Mastering the intersection of technology and beverage consumption. 

Technology has revolutionised almost every aspect of everyday life; it’s even reshaping the way consumers interact with and consume beverages.

From e-commerce platforms and mobile ordering apps to smart packaging and personalised recommendations, there are countless opportunities for engagement and customisation. Consider augmented reality to create immersive storytelling, or AI-driven analytics to offer hyper-personalised nutrition advice. 

Soft drinks companies can harness the power of technology to connect with new and existing consumers, enhance the drinking experience, and gain valuable insights into consumer behaviour. Keeping pace with the digital revolution by leveraging emerging technologies helps you stay ahead of the curve, and remain relevant. 

  • Adhering to regulatory changes when scrutiny is at an all-time high. 

With an enhanced focus on corporate responsibility, the soft drinks industry faces mounting pressure from regulators, advocacy groups and consumers to stay accountable.

From sugar taxes and advertising restrictions to labelling requirements and product bans, the regulatory landscape is becoming increasingly complex and challenging to traverse. 

There’s no shying away from these regulatory realities. Now’s the time for soft drinks companies to adopt environmentally and ethically responsible marketing practices, and advocate for policies that promote public health. Failure to do so could not only result in legal repercussions, but also lead to bad press, reputational damage, and a loss of consumer trust. 

So, how can brands in this sector chart a course for resilience? 

The future is fraught with uncertainty — yet also brimming with potential. To secure their place in the market, brands need to practise what they preach, making decisions driven by the same priorities dominating the public consciousness. Embracing wellness, sustainability and digital innovation — all while maintaining regulatory compliance — should help soft drinks companies rise to the challenges ahead, and be better equipped for whatever the market faces next.

With foresight gained from behavioural insights and the courage to lead by example, the soft drinks industry can forge a future that’s prosperous, sustainable and socially responsible. 

To learn how Trinity McQueen can help you get valuable consumer insights in the soft drinks industry, reach out to m.counsell@trinitymcqueen.com