Feeling FREE AF and Living the Sober Curious Lifestyle

free af

s consumers grow tired of the lack of variety in mocktail options at their favorite bars and restaurants, they look to create their own. Some even bottle their creations and turn it into a business. And that’s exactly what Lisa King did. 

After making the decision to stop drinking in 2020 due to experiencing severe bouts of vertigo, King discovered just how hard it was to get a “good non-alcoholic drink that wasn’t a sugary soft drink or juice,” she says. “I wanted a sophisticated, adult drink that was as good as my old gin and tonics. So I decided to make them myself, and that is how AF started.”

FREE AF is a zero proof RTD canned cocktail brand offering alcohol-free variations on classic drinks, such as Apero Spritz, Cuba Libre, Vodka Spritz, Cucumber G&T, Paloma and Sparkling Rose. The New Zealand-based brand recently made a splash in the U.S. and is now available in over 1,000 stores nationwide including Safeway, Wal-Mart, Target and more.

Getting the Ball Rolling

During the first Covid lockdown, King got the founding team together and worked over Zoom for the first three months before meeting each other in person. 

Lisa King, founder and CEO of FREE AF.

“We were clear from the start that AF was not only about providing great alcohol-free options, but we also wanted to create conversation and change behavior to make not drinking cool and sexy,” the CEO and founder says. “Helping people to moderate and reduce alcohol consumption is ultimately our mission.”

FREE AF isn’t King’s first venture. After spending the first 15 years of her career working for large food CPG companies around the world, including Unilever, PepsiCo and Heinz, she started her first business in 2015 — a social enterprise called Eat My Lunch. 

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“It was a for-profit business with a social mission of feeding hungry school kids, using a ‘Buy One. Give One’ model,” she notes. “We successfully gave over 3.5 million lunches in the time Eat My Lunch was running and was instrumental in the government setting up a national school lunches programme.”

Both King’s corporate career and Eat My Lunch were instrumental in starting FREE AF. “My CPG experience such as understanding the consumer, developing a fast moving consumer product, working with retailers and building a brand plays right into the heart of FREE AF,” she explains. “Using my learnings from the first business of how to scale, raise money, build something from scratch, how to overcome challenges and be resilient really prepared me well for AF.”

The Demand for No and Low Alcohol Beverages

The ever-increasing desire for “better-for-you” beverages is what’s driving the no and low alcohol category. According to Nielsen IQ, sales growth of non-alcoholic beverages increased from 0.22% of total alcohol sales in 2018 to 0.47% in 2022. Global Market Insights also predicts the non-alcoholic drinks category to grow to $30 billion by 2025.

Between 2022 and 2026, the no-alcohol category is expected to increase in volume by 25%, while the low-alcohol category will increase by 6%. The most substantial volume growth is expected in the beer category.

“The non-alcoholic industry is simply not a trend — it’s a societal shift,” says Sèchey founder Emily Heintz. Sèchey is a specialty online and in-store retailer that carries alcohol-free spirits, wine and beer. “Consumer demand for different options is what’s fueling the growth of the category. They’re looking for different options to celebrate, socialize and connect as adults without alcohol. And when you think about this societal and cultural shift, it all comes down to wellness.”

FREE AF Paloma flavor.

Spreading the Word About FREE AF

With the no and low alcohol category still fairly new, marketing can be tricky. Not many drinkers know the variety that’s out there and can be worried about how the spiritless options may taste.

“We are very fortunate to have an incredible team with collectively over 125 years of brand building experience,” notes King. “We were clear from the beginning that we are here to change culture, not just sell a product. Being able to connect with consumers beyond just products or functional benefits has always come first.”

Not to mention FREE AF’s aspirational, yet cheeky and fun brand name which allows them to easily connect with younger consumers. 

In the U.S., the brand has created awareness through social media, with a focus on TikTok and partnering with creators. They also market through PR, digital media, events and through their retail partners marketing platforms. 

“Sampling has been the key,” notes King, “especially for this category, as one of the barriers we’ve had to overcome is that NA beverages in general do not taste very good.”

The marketing efforts at FREE AF have certainly paid off, especially with the beverage now available at major retailers across the U.S. And since the drinks don’t contain alcohol, they don’t have to trudge through the 3-tier system. 

“While we position ourselves within alcohol and we aim to be everywhere the alcohol is, we can go directly to customers and also use grocery store distributors,” King explains. “We also have the advantage of being able to sell where alcohol cannot, for example, on Amazon, which was a significant portion of our revenue in the U.S. last year.”

The Future of FREE AF and the No Alcohol Category

King echoes Heintz’s earlier statement, saying “I think what we’re starting to see is this trend is no longer a trend and is coming into the mainstream and much more acceptable, even compared to a few years ago. When you have big retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target investing in this category and making space for NA, you know that there is huge consumer demand and it’s not going away.”

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