Controversial Hard Solo to be renamed

Carlton & United Breweries (CUB) has announced it will change the name of its ready-to-drink alcohol lemon beverage Hard Solo to Hard Rated.

The decision follows the release of the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code Scheme’s (ABAC) decision in response to complaints about Hard Solo appealing to minors.

The Hard Rated liquid will be identical to Hard Solo – the only thing that will change is the name and packaging.

Despite ABAC pre-vetting considering Hard Solo an appropriate product and consistent with the requirements of the Code, the ABAC panel’s final determination found that the name Hard Solo breached the Code standard [s3(b)(i) on strong or evident appeal to minors.]

The rebranding process will need to be complete by 9 February 2024, with Hard Solo tap decals in pubs and clubs also needing to transition by that date.

What ABAC said

ABAC Panel Chair Professor Michael Lavarch said: “This decision was the first occasion the Panel has been called upon to assess the packaging of an RTD product with a brand name and core branding elements taken from a well-established and iconic soft drink brand.

“CUB were careful to devise a packaging design that identified Hard Solo as an alcoholic beverage and not a soft drink. However, the Panel believed a reasonable person would probably understand that as a household soft drink brand found in an estimated 1.7 million homes, stocked in supermarkets and convenience stores and marketed freely without the restrictions placed on alcohol products, Solo was an entirely familiar and relatable brand to minors. Using the Solo name and other branding features on Hard Solo would elevate the appeal of Hard Solo and create an illusion for minors of a smooth transition from the non-alcoholic to alcoholic variant of Solo.

“Hard Solo was a novel case in that previous RTD packaging designs considered by ABAC had been built upon emphasising an alcohol type or a well-known alcohol brand being combined with a soft drink such as cola or ginger ale. Hard Solo packaging in contrast is led by the brand recognition of Solo soft drink. Because of the novel issue, the number of complaints spread over a month and the two-stage process for final decisions on brand names and packaging, the Panel determination was lengthy, and the process has taken several months to finalise. Most ABAC decisions are made within 30 days.”

How CUB responded

CUB said that while it was disappointed by the outcome, it accept Lee ABAC’s decision.

“CUB respects the work of ABAC, particularly the Chief Adjudicator, former Australian Attorney-General, Professor the Hon. Michael Lavarch AO,” CUB said.

“ABAC performs an important role in ensuring that alcohol marketing is undertaken responsibly.”

A CUB spokesperson said: “As we comply with the ABAC decision and the Hard Solo brand exits the market, we’d like to assure the many Australian adults who have loved Hard Solo that the taste won’t change when the name changes to Hard Rated.

“Consistent with ABAC rules, CUB will ensure the last Hard Solo can packaging will exit our supply network by no later than 9 February 2024 (s4.17. of the ABAC Code). Additionally, Hard Solo tap decals in pubs and clubs will also have transitioned to Hard Rated by that date.

“Importantly, the preparation to transition from Hard Solo to Hard Rated has commenced to minimise potential disruption of our Alcoholic Lemon drink to retail and on-premise customers.”

In its submission to ABAC, CUB argued Solo had always been positioned toward a distinctly adult demographic, evidenced by the ‘Solo Man’ ads of the 1970s and 1980s with the tagline ‘a man’s drink’. While more recent ads show a broader range of adult Australians engaged in adult pursuits, the Solo Man and the undertaking of extreme activities has remained associated with the brand and reinforced its position as a lemon soft drink targeted at adults.

CUB also said that consumer data commissioned by it showed that around 85% of Solo consumers are over 18 years old, with most of these consumers in the 20-49 age brackets. The commercial success of Solo is entirely based on its appeal to and consumption by adults, CUB argued.

Living in a nanny state

Sky News host Caleb Bond was among those who felt the ABAC decision was extreme.

“The alcoholic drink Hard Solo, they’ve got to change their name now to Hard Rated after the alcoholic beverages advertising code found the boozy version of the popular soft drink, apparently breaches the industry code by appealing to minors,” Mr Bond said.

“We are living in a nanny state.

“It doesn’t sound as good as Hard Solo.”

Bond said minors wouldn’t be able to walk into a bottle shop and purchase the alcoholic beverage anyway.

Many social media users agreed, with one X user saying ‘the nanny state strikes again’ and described the change as ‘pathetic’.

Another asked how it was different to rum and coke and said it was ‘nonsense’ people would be confused between the two products.

A third said those who had complained about the beverage were as ‘whining’ and pointed out ‘it’s not sold in supermarkets or corner stores to kids’. 

Hard Solo success story

Hard Solo sold out at many Dan Murphy’s, BWS, Liquorland and independent bottle shops across country when it was released earlier this year, with calls to ban the RTD fuelling its popularity.

Bottle shop owners reported sales were already booming due to positive word of mouth before Cancer Council WA and politicians including the Teal MPs started pushing for it to be taken off shelves.

Several bottle shops told the Daily Mail that their Hard Solo supplies had sold out on the back of publicity.

“There would be the odd four pack around, but it’s completely sold out for us,” one said. “I had one bloke buy a case after hearing talk on the radio they wanted to ban it.”

Endeavour Group CEO Steve Donohue told investors during the company’s FY23 results briefing that the RTD space was “going faster and bigger” than it ever had before. He noted that lemon-flavoured beverages were performing particularly strongly and confirmed that Hard Solo was selling out in some Dan Murphy’s stores.

What the critics said

Cancer Council WA described it as a “particularly concerning example of alcohol marketing” and made a complaint to the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme about the product.

“We submitted a complaint about Hard Solo on the basis that Solo is a well-known soft drink brand in Australia, which is popular with children and teenagers, and has highly recognisable branding, packaging, and advertising,” Cancer Council WA said.

“The Hard Solo product is an extension of the soft drink brand, using the same colours, icon and font on the packaging and the same can shape as the Solo soft drink. The appeal of Hard Solo to minors is evident given the established appeal of Solo to minors.

“Every West Australian should be able to grow up and live in an environment that supports their health and wellbeing. The current reality is that alcohol companies develop and promote products that appeal to young people, and that West Australians, including children, are constantly bombarded with promotions for alcohol. Governments can and must set higher standards for how the alcohol industry markets and sells its products.”

At the height of the controversy, Independent Brewers Association CEO Kylie Lethbridge told The Daily Telegraph: “I call it a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It doesn’t matter if it’s black and yellow instead of yellow and black. It is absolutely alcoholic Solo. Obviously, a company like Asahi can do whatever they want but we think it’s probably one of the most damaging things that has happened to alcohol for a little while. We’re unsure of what those ramifications are going to be but we’re trying to work through them at the minute.”

What it means for hard lemonade & other RTDs

ABAC’s decision is the first of its kind relating to a ready-to-drink product with a brand name and core branding elements taken from a well-established soft drink brand.

“Previous ready-to-drink packaging designs considered by ABAC had been built upon emphasising an alcohol type or a well-known alcohol brand being combined with a soft drink such as cola or ginger ale,” Lavarch said.

“Hard Solo packaging in contrast is led by the brand recognition of Solo soft drink.”

There has been a boom in the US of branded soft drinks creating “hard” versions of their best sellers, with Bernstein Research beverage analyst Nadine Sarwat describing it as “a major category”.

Last year Mountain Dew got a boozy boost when PepsiCo released Hard Mtn Dew.

The New York Times reported: “Hard Mtn Dew reflects a major change in the alcohol industry, which for the last century mainly produced drinks categorized as beer, wine or spirits. In recent years, those lines have blurred, and a fourth category of ready-to-drink beverages has emerged — hard seltzers and other flavored malt beverages, wine coolers and canned cocktails.”

Pepsico also released Lipton Hard Iced Tea, while Monster Beverage, a maker of energy drinks, began rolling out its first line of alcoholic drinks called The Beast Unleashed in February.

However, ABAC’s decision regarding Hard Solo will put the breaks on any new releases in Australia and also raises potential issues with the growing “hard lemonade” category in Australia.

What it means for ABAC

The backflip has sparked criticism of ABAC by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. Chief Executive Caterina Giorgi said the reversal showed that the industry-led scheme was not working.

“The ABAC, which was set up and is run by alcohol companies and their lobbyists, waved Hard Solo through by ‘pre-vetting the product’ before it hit the shelves in July,” she said.

“Now the very same scheme is saying that this product appeals to kids.

“Today’s announcement just confirms the very obvious point that alcohol companies and lobbyists cannot be trusted to set their own rules about alcohol marketing.”

NAB analyst David Walls agreed: “The fact that the ABAC have had to overturn their own pre-vetting, shows there is an issue with the pre-vetting process in the first place.”

Modus Brewing Head of Marketing Roland Thiemann said: “This decision calls the whole pre-vetting process into question and raises the issue of who should pay for the rebranding if the results are overturned. Companies need to have confidence in ABAC and its decisions.”

Kylea Tink, the MP for North Sydney, has previously said questions needed to be asked of the ABAC panel.

“This is a product that looks like a soft drink, tastes like a soft drink, has the same name as a soft drink, went through a self-regulatory process and seemingly was approved to be marketed,” she said.

“To me that there is nothing about this product that makes it an acceptable product to have on the shelf when it comes to alcoholic beverages.”

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