How is the Regulation of Energy Drinks Impacting Consumer Choice?

Energy drinks are a staple for many adults and adolescents in the UK, but this could be set to change.

In late August, the UK government began a public 12-week consultation to discuss banning the sale of energy drinks to adolescents under the age of 16 or 18 following concerns over their impact on health and obesity.

The ban would apply to all drinks containing at least 150mg of caffeine per liter.

Previous studies have shown that more than two thirds of UK teenagers are drinking energy drinks, 50% more than the EU average for their age group.

In a bespoke study, we surveyed 1,000 UK internet users aged 16-64 to explore their attitudes towards energy drinks and whether the proposed regulation would have any impact on energy drinkers’ perception or consumption of these drinks. Here’s what we found.

How many people are consuming energy drinks?

Energy drink consumption is considerably high.

Over 50% of people in the UK drink energy drinks, with more men consuming them than women.

The most popular energy drink brands for both men and women in order of preference are Lucozade (65%), Red Bull (61%) and Monster (45%).

They’re also consuming energy drinks frequently, with over 40% drinking them 2-3 times a week or more.

They’re mostly drinking them for the energy boost.

Energy drinks serve a functional purpose, helping people get through their busy days.

The majority of people consume these  drinks for the energy boost (57%), which makes sense considering their high caffeine content, and 35% drink them if they know they have a long day ahead.

Notably, 12% of men drink energy drinks because they believe they’re good for them – almost double that of women, showing a contrast in perception of energy drinks across gender.

A niche for men is health and fitness.

1 in 5 men consume energy drinks before or during the gym.

More men aged between 16-24 are doing this than any other age group.

Again, this reinforces the main motivation of functionality for drinking energy drinks, with a need for stimulation before doing a specific activity.

Our data also shows that 1 in 4 energy drinkers use energy drinks as a mixer for alcohol.

Of those who say they drink them before or during the gym, 28% say they use them as a mixer for alcohol.

This demonstrates that people who are into health and fitness also consume energy drinks recreationally.

People who don’t consume energy drinks believe they’re unhealthy.

For those who don’t consume energy drinks, the primary reason they avoid them is because they think energy drinks are unhealthy (59%).

By age, we can see that the highest percentage of people who think they’re unhealthy are aged between 25-34 (64%).

Across all ages, however, over 55% think they’re unhealthy, signifying that they feel similarly regardless of how old they are.

On a gender level, more women than men think they’re unhealthy.

This is closely followed by over half who say it’s because they’re too sugary and over 1 in 4 non-energy drinkers say they’ve heard bad things about them.

It’s hard to escape the negative press surrounding sugar. When we asked people to use one word to describe energy drinks, over half of them chose the word “sugary”.

High sugar consumption and its subsequent impact on health is well broadcasted, and as a result many brands, not just energy drinks, are feeling the pressure to offer healthier alternatives.

Energy drinkers feel the ban won’t change anything.

Awareness of the proposed regulation is high, with over 3 in 4 people saying they’ve heard about it.

When we ask energy drinkers about their views on the regulation, more than a third believe the ban won’t make a difference (37%) and a similar amount (36%) think it’s more the responsibility of the parents to regulate their children’s diets.

Those who don’t consume energy drinks also feel the same.

This is interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, a significant number believe the ban is not going to change anything.This might be because adolescents can still get access to drinks in hard-to-regulate settings, such as at home if parents buy them.

10% of parents say their child’s energy drink consumption levels will stay the same if the regulation is passed.

Also, adolescents may just switch to alternative caffeinated and sugary drinks such as coffees and sodas.

Finally, there appears to be a strong belief that responsibility should sit with the parents, not the government or brands, to monitor what their kids buy and don’t buy – in contrast to the main aim of the regulation.

Still, a significant amount of energy drinkers believe that the ban will help keep the nation healthier and can see the benefits of it (31%), and 27% think it can help reduce obesity rates in the UK.

Consumption levels may not be affected.

If the regulation is passed, the majority of adult energy drinkers say that their consumption levels won’t change (76%).

This suggests that regardless of any possible health impacts, they’re happy consuming energy drinks and will continue to do so.

This reinforces the main reason for why they drink energy drinks in the first place – it serves a functional need.

That said, almost 1 in 5 energy drinkers say they will consume fewer energy drinks if the regulation is passed.

When we look at this by age, we see that energy drinkers aged between 16-24 are more inclined to say they will drink less.

Correlating with the conversation around the ban and reasons for introducing it, their main motivations for drinking less is to lead a healthier lifestyle overall and to reduce their caffeine intake.

What could this mean for brands?

If the ban comes into effect, it’s likely that energy drink brands will face losses if they can no longer sell to adolescents, a key target audience for many of these brands.

Having said this, from our data we see that the majority of adult energy drinkers will continue drinking them regardless.

The main challenge facing brands is how they position themselves in light of the regulation, if it comes to pass.

Key questions to consider include:

  • How can these brands best manage their brand image?
  • How can they change the perception of non-energy drinkers who think they’re unhealthy or those who say they might drink less?
  • What kind of impact could the regulation have on other industries like soft drinks or alcohol?

Innovation is key.

Innovation in positioning and marketing is central to moving forward.

Many consumers care strongly about health and fitness and this often impacts their food and drink decisions.

In their biannual attitudes tracker, The UK Food Standards Agency found that sugar is now consumers top food concern, overtaking price.

An example of a brand that’s tackling this issue is Coca Cola – who have homogenized their Coke Zero Sugar design to look more like Coke Original, which forms a part of their commercial strategy to push more people towards their sugar-free variety.

Brands need to consider alternative ways of positioning their products that will better fit consumers demands. If they don’t listen to consumers needs and act quickly, they risk falling behind.