The original bad boy of the RTD market is back

The anarchic brand of alcoholic lemonade credited with kick-starting the UK’s £630 million RTD industry is back on the market after a nine-year absence. 

Hooper’s Hooch was an overwhelming success when it was launched in the sweltering summer of 1995, and it was soon selling 2.5 million bottles per week.

But it was a victim of its own success and was surpassed by a raft of imitators including WKD, Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezer. 

In 2003, Coors decided to halt production of Hooch to concentrate on its more successful RTD, Reef, and the trailblazing black-and-yellow bottle joined such era-defining icons as Converse, Cadbury’s Wispa and Blur on the scrapheap.

But since the latter three have re-emerged bigger and arguably better in the past few years as consumer love for all things retro shows no signs of abating, Global Brands has decided to sign a licensing agreement with Molson Coors to distribute Hooch in the UK. 

The company aims to exploit the trend for long drinks served over ice, and Hooch will reappear in 500ml bottles and take on the might of Magners and other ciders as well as the likes of WKD. 

Global Brands, which also produces the VK premixed vodka drink, is upbeat over Hooch’s chances of a strong reception from nostalgic consumers.  

“For retro brands to be re-launched successfully, they must draw on positive associations of past times by retaining the brand’s authenticity, whilst also connecting with today’s consumers who are seeing the brand for the first time,” says marketing director Simon Green. 

“Hooch delivers on all points as it has a loyal following, and the new, over ice serve is popular with the current generation of drinkers.”

Mr Green oversaw Amstel’s transformation into a 4% premium beer and has overhauled the image of a number of brands throughout previous stints at Heineken and Carlsberg, but says he is more enthusiastic about the Hooch re-launch than any of his previous projects.

“Based on the response we’ve had I can honestly say I’ve never been this excited about a re-launch,” he says.

When its popularity exploded among teenagers, the drink that blended heaps of sugar with a 5% kick faced a savage backlash. 

Headlines like “Alcopops led to daughter’s death” and “Judge’s fury at alcopops” were littered across tabloid pages, with the media linking RTDs to ASBOs and the burgeoning binge drinking culture. 

The name itself, hooch, was enough to incite fury. Like moonshine and white lightning, it is slang for illicit spirits produced in unlicensed stills that have led to death and blindness. 

Considering the barrage of negative publicity Hooch originally faced, senior strategist Adrian Day, of The Brand Consultancy, believes reintroducing the brand to the market is a risky move.

He says: “I remember there was quite a lot of controversy around these drinks and a lot of pressure from the press, the regulators, NGOs and the great and good.

“They were seen to be overtly selling to underage drinkers as it was such a sweet drink. 

“My first reaction is this is a risky move.

“There is a gap in the market for new, long alcoholic drinks, so I understand the market opportunity, but politicians will remember the negative publicity and I imagine a bit of a backlash. 

“I imagine getting distribution might be hard. They might go for on-trade more.”

The new Hooch Alcoholic Lemon Brew features the tagline “Refreshment with Bite” and is targeted primarily at 18 to 35-year-old males.

Mr Day continues: “They say they are going for the 18-35 market but people may accuse them of secretly targeting the 13-17 market, so they may face negative publicity. 

“But there is a market opportunity, so it will be interesting to see how it performs.” 

Green says: “RTDs are still worth £629 million in the UK, and this type of innovation will rejuvenate the category.

“We expect to do quite a lot of advertising. The key to Hooch’s success will be creating a buzz around it, so we have a communications plan. 

“The new 500ml bottle has very distinct packaging and we are working with retailers on getting it prominence in-store. 

“We are working with a number of off licences and off-trade groups to secure listings. 

“I am confident because we have a fantastic liquid. We have got the original Bass recipe and developed that and it works brilliantly over ice. 

“We have deliberately brought the drink into the 21st century. The nostalgic drinkers will be into their 30s now, and now that the drink is 4% and served over ice we are also presenting it in a way that’s interesting, relevant and contemporary.”

Debs Carter, marketing director at Beverage Brands, owner of WKD, agrees its rival has hit upon an opportunity.  

“We absolutely welcome innovation and investment in the RTD category as it brings growth and healthy competition,” she says. 

“The category has really evolved considerably since Hooch was launched in 1995. 

“Some of the biggest spirit brands like Smirnoff, Bacardi and Jack Daniel’s are operating in the RTD category, so that’s testament to the fact it’s still got legs.

“We have seen that the category has got proven longevity. 

“All categories need to respond to changing consumer needs and RTDs have done that via cans and over ice formats, and I would say that other categories have raised their game and RTDs have to keep pace.” 

As market leader, WKD has had to defend the reputation of the category in the face of tough criticism and Carter is all too aware of the negative reaction suppliers can attract.

However, she believes Global Brands will succeed thanks to the responsible approach taken by producers in recent years.

She says: “I think the category and the whole alcohol industry has come a long, long way in the last 10 years in terms of social responsibility.”

Related articles: