Portman Group’s Advisory Service issues first category guidance on hard seltzers after finding just 7% of consumers know what they are

Rebecca Oladipo, Advice and Training Manager, Portman Group’s Advisory Service

An important part of our work is to ensure that producers have access to clear advice on the application of the rules in the ‘Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks’ so that products can be marketed in a socially responsible way. This involves offering free, confidential advice and publishing guidance as changes occur to the Code and in the market.

A new trend from the US, hard seltzers are a variant of flavoured alcoholic sparkling water, often advertised as being low-calorie and fruity. We’ve seen a sharp rise in requests for information on the category. Following the current investment in growing the market, and reflecting a past change to the Code of Practice, we decided to conduct consumer research on hard seltzers. This showed little awareness of these products. As a result of these factors, guidance has been issued to clarify the use of the term ‘Hard Seltzer’ to assist producers in marketing these products responsibly. The guidance can be read in full here.

Consumer perceptions

In the US, ‘hard’ is a phrase commonly used to signify that a product is alcoholic.  For instance, cider is typically a soft drink in the US and the phrase ‘hard cider’ is used to let know consumers know that the product contains alcohol. Across the Atlantic however, the phrase isn’t currently translating. In November 2020, we commissioned YouGov to carry out consumer polling on perceptions and understanding of the terms ‘hard’ and ‘hard seltzers’. Highlighting their relatively new arrival to the market just 7% of UK consumers had heard of hard seltzers. In total, less than a quarter (21%) had heard of at least one of ‘hard water’, ‘alcoholic sparkling water’ or ‘hard seltzer’. Polling showed that understanding of the terms associated with alcoholic seltzers was highest in younger consumers, those aged 18-24. This may be due to the fact that hard seltzers are specifically targeted at this market.

Over two thirds (68%) of British consumers didn’t understand whether ‘hard’ was being used to convey either the alcoholic content, alcoholic strength, or both. Additionally, nearly two thirds (64%) did not feel the term was useful when used to indicate alcoholic content.

Given the investment that the industry plans to make in building the category over the coming years, we will repeat this research in November 2021 to understand any shift in consumer understanding. At this point however, the research highlights that ‘hard’ is not a broadly recognised term in relation to alcohol.

Hard Seltzer guidance

The guidance focuses on three main areas to assist producers, but it is important to remember that the Code will always apply in its entirety.

Communicating alcoholic nature

As consumer awareness of the term ‘hard seltzer’ is minimal, producers need to make sure that the alcoholic nature of a product is communicated clearly.

To avoid any suggestion of misleading consumers, or consumer confusion, we would encourage companies to adopt the following best practice guidance in this area:

  • Include the alcohol by volume (ABV) on the front of the packaging
  • Include references to ‘alcohol’ or the word ‘alcoholic’ on the front of the packaging
  • Ensure that positive alcohol cues (ABV, alcohol phrases etc.) are given more prominence than negative alcohol cues (fruit images, fruit descriptors, overly busy design, cartoon illustrations etc.)

Alcoholic strength

YouGov polling showed that consumers do not necessarily associate the word ‘hard’ with higher alcoholic strength.  Despite this, it is always the overall impression conveyed by a product’s packaging and marketing that will determine compliance with the Code.  Our new guidance makes it clear that care needs to be taken when using the word ‘hard’ if there are other elements present that could also create a link to a product’s higher alcoholic strength.

The Panel is likely to consider how strong a hard seltzer is when compared to the Ready to Drink (RTD) category average strength and we would encourage all producers to read the guidance to understand how this may apply to hard seltzers.

Therapeutic qualities

Health claims should not be made on alcoholic drinks above 1.2% ABV.  Hard seltzers tend to be low-calorie and are likely to appeal to health-conscious consumers.  While hard seltzers may be low-calorie, producers cannot make health or wellness claims and should avoid all suggestions that the product could be used as a slimming aid or is a ‘healthy’ alternative to other drinks.


Producers need to be mindful that certain language and imagery could create a link with bravado.  We would advise against any potential suggestion that a consumer needs to be ‘hard’ to consume the product or that consuming the product would invoke such a quality.

Our guidance does not bind the Independent Complaints Panel, the body which makes a decision on complaints. The Panel will always assess the overall impression of the product and make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

We also have further guidance on both of our Codes of Practice and wider industry trends. To see the full suite click here.

If you have any questions about the guidance or would like an informal conversation about a product’s packaging or promotion, please email with full details of your query.  We’ll get back to you within 48 hours, free of charge.