Japan’s biggest brewer Asahi trying to attract sober Generation Z


Mariko Oi,Business reporter

Getty Images People drinking beer at a year-end party at a pub in Tokyo.Getty Images

Nommunication has traditionally played an important role in Japanese businesses

For thousands of years, alcohol has been used as a social lubricant. In Japan, it is known as nommunication – a combination of the Japanese word for drink, nomu, and communication.

The idea is that drinking alcohol creates a more relaxed environment.

Businesses have even tackled difficult issues in pubs, rather than conference rooms.

The late former chairman of then-bankrupt Japan Airlines, Kazuo Inamori, explained in 2012 how he used beer to get his employees to open up.

But there is now a whole new generation that chooses not to drink as much. Multiple studies in the UK, the US and Australia show that people from Gen Z are more sober than their parents and grandparents.

In Japan, faced with declining alcohol tax revenues, the authorities even arranged a national competition, named Sake Viva!, in an effort to reverse the trend in 2022.

The sober generation does not only affect Japan’s tax revenues, it also offers a whole new challenge for businesses that make and sell alcohol.

Getty Images Atsushi Katsuki, chief executive officer of Asahi Group Holdings.Getty Images

Atsushi Katsuki, chief executive officer of Asahi Group Holdings

“We have realised that younger people are increasingly choosing not to drink as much alcohol,” said Atsushi Katsuki, the chief executive officer of Asahi Group Holdings.

However, Japan’s biggest brewer sees this as both a risk and an opportunity.

“Our firm is quite unique because while the majority of our sales comes from beer and alcoholic beverages, we also have the capability to produce non-alcoholic beverages or soft drinks which gives us a competitive advantage,” he said.

Asahi is also pushing its non-alcoholic and what it refers to as low alcohol offerings – such as alcohol-free beer or drinks with less than 3.5% alcohol – outside of its home market.

“By 2030, we want to double the share of beverages with zero or low alcohol to 20% of our overall beverage sales,” he said.

They are already popular in its home market. Mr Katsuki said that alcohol-free beers account for 10% of Asahi’s beverages sales in Japan as people avoid drink driving.

But the Japanese market is shrinking because of an ageing population and falling birth rates.

“Alcoholic beverages sales in Japan will continue to decline because we cannot go against the shrinking population, which means we cannot expect the Japanese market to grow massively,” he said.

That means Asahi’s main growth opportunities are overseas, and it has been expanding rapidly abroad for 15 years. Today, more than half of its sales are generated outside Japan.

One major market the firm has yet to tap is the US. The question is: can alcohol-free beer get as popular there as it is in Japan?

Vincent Ball Vincent Ball and Samantha Benaitis.Vincent Ball

Vincent Ball and Samantha Benaitis choose not to drink much alcohol

Vincent Ball and Samantha Benaitis are a 20-year-old couple who live in Jacksonville, Florida. In the US, laws relating to alcohol vary in different states but the minimum age for purchasing it is 21 across the country.

While those above the age of 40 in their families enjoy boozy nights, the Gen Zers do not drink much alcohol.

“I think drinking in moderation is perfectly fine,” said Vincent, adding that he would enjoy having a beer after work but “not crazy parties”.

“I just find other things more enjoyable, and I don’t find drinking very important, especially in party settings.”

For Samantha, it was a lesson learnt from seeing others drinking heavily.

“I definitely was influenced by everybody around me in my life getting way too drunk or hammered, and making mistakes that impact them for a lifetime rather than just for that night.”

So instead, Samantha drinks kombucha – a fermented black or green tea, which is often flavoured – because “if you’re just drinking water, I’ve been asked many times, oh, are you really just drinking water?”

To avoid peer pressure, would they drink alcohol-free beer? Their answer was a resounding “no”.

Layla Neal Josie Ball.Layla Neal

Josie Ball, 18, says she understands why some people drink heavily

Asked how Asahi would tackle new, non-drinking, consumers like Samantha and Vincent, Mr Katsuki said the firm has learned an important lesson.

“We realised that we have been producing non-alcoholic beverages from the point of view of alcohol drinkers,” he said, admitting that Asahi has not yet been particularly successful in appealing to non-drinkers.

“We’ve been collecting data in Japan by asking those who cannot or choose not to drink alcohol to understand what kind of products they want.”

In a sign of uphill battle drinks companies face as they try to win over Gen Z, Vincent’s younger sister, Josie, explained how she feels about people getting drunk.

“I definitely understand people who overdrink. Would I do it myself? I hope not because people kind of tend to make a fool of themselves when they overdrink.”

If you, or someone you know, has been affected by issues with alcohol, the BBC Action Line has details of organisations which may be able to help.

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