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Is It an RTD Cocktail Or an RTD Coffee?

by Chloe Gordon on 02/06/2023 | 6 Minute Read

It feels like everyone is trying to coin a phrase for internet points and planting a flag by recognizing that we're in some kind of moment. Sometimes, it undeniably works. Cheugy describes something that's the opposite of trendy, taking the internet by storm early last year, and while one could argue that the word is now cheugy in itself, its virality makes sense. Likewise, new terms like "dupe" and "touch grass" are on the up and up in the endless dark hole of internet phraseology.

My new favorite and potentially soon-to-be viral expression is "vibecession," coined by Kyla Scanlon, who writes a Substack focusing on economic analysis. Scanlon defines it as "a period of temporary vibe decline where economic data such as trade and industrial activity are relatively okayish." Of course, the economy is more about how consumers behave than how they consume data, as proven by the ever-popular Lipstick Effect, or how in times of economic hardship, women will allow themselves a momentary, inexpensive treat, i.e., lipstick.

But there also might be an economic shift through a packaging-centric lens. 

Lately, there's been a rise in RTD coffee packaging mimicking the design of the RTD cocktail industry that exploded during the peak of the pandemic.

Of course, that shift in the coffee industry isn't entirely new. Brewing a pot of coffee is a time-honored custom, but the pandemic catapulted the RTD coffee industry into spaces much before its time. And now, with rising costs of food, thanks to the ever-looming potential recession, there's a new reason why consumers are motivated to drink their morning brews from the comfort of their own homes. "I don't think there will be an impact in terms of volumes, but in the way coffee is drunk and in the quality, people are going to lower the quality of what they drink and change where they drink it," said the executive director of the International Coffee Organization Vanúsia Nogueira to Reuters in October of last year.


COVID forced the cocktail industry to pivot as bars and restaurants shuttered their doors, prompting spirits brands to create more innovative products, such as Williams Canteen's beautifully designed canned cocktails created by Offff Branding Studio. Offerings of this nature sparked a movement, inspiring RTD cocktail brands to encapsulate the same upbeat, euphoric experience and classy bar aesthetic that consumers would get when drinking at home. The canned wine brand Glass also proved its strength in reframing our delivery systems for homefront happy hours. 


“Consumption trends continue to fluctuate with the impact of supply chain challenges and rising inflation, but growth opportunities remain,” said Scott Scanlon, executive vice president of the Beverage Alcohol Vertical, IRI, in a study about how more people are choosing to drink at home. “Consumers are looking to indulge and create entertaining experiences at home, and retailers should emphasize premium products with unique attributes in this space.”

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With an anticipated recession on the horizon, the easiest way for consumers to trim their daily expenses is to cut out their daily cafe trip and, instead, drink a cup of joe at home. 

Still, while consumers hit the breaks on discretionary spending, their appreciation for well-designed, innovative packaging doesn't just go out the window. What's more, it seems that the RTD coffee space is gradually taking cues from the RTD cocktail space in the realm of packaging. As of recently, the packaging aesthetic for RTD coffee is beginning to move away from the stereotypical "highbrow" coffee shop attitude, seen with brands such as La Colombe, and into a design aesthetic that opts for something a little more thrilling, pulling from the vibrance of cocktail culture and packaging.


RTD coffee beverage Alive! has glass bottles drenched in psychedelic-inspired designs, and the coffee's depth and mysterious darkness shine through the transparent packaging. Designed by nu studio, it's an obvious nod to a bar cart-ready glass bottle. "Because of their interesting shapes and the effort they put into the design, alcohol packaging has become this sort of North Star in beverage design," mentioned Ubaldo Ortiz, the co-founder and creative director at nu studio, "We were inspired by their interesting and memorable shapes and pulled that into our design."


"The cocktail industry has always been at the forefront of creating experience, community, and fun out of a drink out of a bottle, right?" added Ortiz. "So that was the natural inspiration for the name and packaging system for the brand. We wanted to connect with people but allow them to feel alive.” 

Another brand that has done an excellent job of taking inspiration from the RTD cocktail space for the coffee industry is VOI Coffee, a brand designed by Merve Gülay from Just Design, that borrows a flask-like silhouette. "VOI almost looks like a cocktail because of its packaging, but it's just cold brew coffee. The packaging gives consumers an edge just by drinking out of it. Also, the brand's demographic is for young adults ages 16 to 25, so we wanted to infuse the brand with color, humor, and icons that would attract a bold, younger demographic," comments Gülay. 


Another coffee brand taking cues from the cocktail industry is Adicto Caffé. The brand's glass bottles, paired with an unexpected, textured peach label and a whimsical line-drawn illustration, gives the brand the illusion of the cocktail industry's go-to aesthetic. Designed by PERSPECTIVA, the slight edge paired with the innocence of the design parrots the packaging formatting of the spirits space. 


Additionally, Transcendence Coffee is a brand focusing on coffee flavoring syrups, and the bottles lean directly into spirits' stereotypical design style. The glass bottle and its shape create a libation-inspired approach. The label design, with its blending of typography styles and line-drawn illustrations, highlights elements often found on alcoholic labels. Hess Brew's Cold Brew Coffee and Atypical Coffee are two other brands that take inspiration from the shape and design of cocktail packaging, each with its own coffee-based twist. 


While the future of the U.S. economy is uncertain, that much we can all agree with, the future for RTD coffee is trending in a positive direction. According to Fortune Business Insights, "The global Ready to Drink (RTD) Coffee market size was valued at USD 22.44 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach USD 42.36 billion by 2027, exhibiting a CAGR of 8.31% during the forecast period." 

Likely, in the coming months, we'll see more coffee brands finding inspiration from the RTD cocktail space, infusing the category's rich, vibrant energy into their packaging. Not only will we see more charming glass bottles ready for their bar cart spotlight (but next to your coffee mugs), but design that makes Starbucks cold brew look basic and tired. 

As for the economy? I'll leave that prediction up to the experts. But if a “vibecession” needs anything, it’s certainly more caffeine.