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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Friday, 25 January 2008

The slow death of a once wonderful brand


From this...

This week Young's pubs announced that they were delisting Stella Artois because it was no longer premium enough. All Bar One also recently delisted the brand on the same grounds.

I'm enormously sad about this, because however unlikely it seems, it was Stella that caused me to become a beer writer.

Ten years ago I was a strategic planner working on the "Reassuringly Expensive" TV campaign. The ads were set in Provence, filmed as cinematic epics, and widely considered to be among the best stuff on TV, ads or programmes. Polls revealed that it was the brand more desired by Publicans than any other. Research among drinkers showed that the brand was seen as authentic, 'genuinely continental', and above all, premium. That was its cachet. The nineties was a decade when people who couldn't afford flash cars or designer clothes started to trade up to premium versions of everyday goods - freshly squeezed orange juice, Haagen Dazs ice cream, and Stella instead of 'standard' lager. No other mainstream beer brand - with the exception of Guinness - came anywhere close to it in terms of image and desirability. In one or two research groups I did, one or two people told me it was nicknamed 'wifebeater' because of its strength, but I never heard this on a day-to-day basis.

We hadn't intended for it to become so popular. We didn't know how it had happened. It was the right brand in the right place at the right time, and we knew that somehow, it had managed to be a mainstream brand that was simultaneously perceived as special. Millions of people were drinking it, but each one of them believed they were making a more discerning choice than everyone else in doing so.

To some extent Stella is a victim if its own success. Most beer in the off-trade now is sold at steep price discounts that brewers are powerless to control. As the most desirable brand, Stella ended up being featured in promotions more than most, and this damaged its 'expensive' positioning.

But it was walking a tightrope. If retailers were pulling it towards the mainstream and the everyday, the brand's owners needed to counter this by doing a whole lot more to increase its premium image. Instead, following the merger that created Inbev, the brand's new owners chased volume.

For a short time, they got it, but the brand was starting to rot. Kronenbourg sold a fraction of Stella's volume, but started to innovate - a wheat beer, a stronger beer called Grand Cru, a new ultra-premium font, extra-cold serve, beautiful large bottles to be shared over a meal... Stella did nothing.

In 1999 I was asked to write the first positioning presentation for Artois Bock. The truth about Bock is that it is the first beer ever brewed by Sebastien Artois, thirty years before Stella. It was a great story - a TRUE story (which is more than can be said for the recent campaign claiming Stella has been brewed by the Artois family for 600 years, which has just been banned for being a big fat lie).
Reviving Bock would have increased the sense that the brand was different, premium and continental, at a time when people already loved it. The idea was shelved, even while the market for imported Belgian speciality beers was growing by 30-40% a year.
Bock was finally launched in 2005, when Stella had already started to decline. Launching a new variant from a position of strength is completely different than doing it when you're in trouble, when it's often seen as an act of desperation. Every student of marketing knows that - it seems Inbev didn't.

Likewise, Peeterman Artois is a decent enough beer if you're looking for something cold at no more than 4%. It should have been premium - within weeks of launch it was on special offer on massive displays in Sainsbury's.

Instead of investing in image, they chased volume. Every bar owner who wanted Stella got it, so it started to appear in dives, product quality began to vary, and drinker image changed. I've often said that the main thing preventing many British men from drinking cask ale is the fear they would be lumped in with the socks-and-sandals ticker stereotype. By the mid-noughties there was an equally repellent drinker image at the other end of the scale - the binge drinking lad who made 'Stella-ed' into a verb shortly before trying to pick a fight with a policeman. Inbev did nothing - certainly nothing that was visible to the average lager drinker - to counter this.

I last worked on Stella in 2000, but it was a great brand for several years after that. Then Inbev simply seemed to ignore everything we had learned about the brand and managed to turn 19% growth into double-digit decline in the space of three years. Of course, the people who wrecked the brand will have worked on it for two years before being transferred to something else, picking up their bonus for achieving short-term sales volumes and leaving someone else to clear up the mess they created.

There are good people inside big brewers, even good people inside Inbev, people who are as passionate about beer as any beer blogger. I wish the people they answer to would realise that this is what happens when you ignore the good people. But I doubt it.

... to this, in five short years.

12 comments:

Peter May - The Pinotage Club said...

Those 'refreshingly expensive' original TV ads were a brilliant rarity, clever, witty, cinematic -- I clearly remember the first world war soldiers).

The UK campaign, positioning it as very expensive, worked well, but that was the only USP the beer had here. And, as you say, once it lost that .....

But in its homeland, it was just another beer. I was working in Leuven at the time and used to have a glass of it on the station platform while waiting for the train.

Boak said...

I'd often considered the Stella case as an example of the luck factor in branding and marketing - or in this case, the bad luck. It was marketed so carefully as a premium product, but ended up as the symbol of Binge Drinking Britain.

Interesting, then, to see your insider perspective. But then, what should they have done differently when they got that overnight success? I can't really see any company in that situation saying "well, we won't sell you anymore" when there's thirsty punters out there.

Pete said...

Great Question, Boak.

No-one can say whether anything could have stopped Stella going this way eventually, but we spent a lot of time trying to put rules in place to keep it as premium as possible.

We had a set of characteristics like 'it's a brand that doesn't shout too loudly', 'treats people with respect', 'allows you to discover it rather than foisting itself upon you', 'is always true to itself'. I think a lot of these have fallen by the wayside. When you start putting up poster slogans like the recent 'Now you know three famous Belgians' with pics of Stella, Bock and Peeterman, and when you start inventing an entirely ficitious 600 year family brewing heritage, I'd say they've been forgotten completely.

Brands like Marston's Pedigree (and I'm sure many others - but Marston's is the one I've worked with) invest heavily in quality control. If the beer is shit and the publican can't fix it, the Marston's technician will literally rip the font off the bar rather than have shit beer sold under the name.

Guinness have mystery drinker programmes where they check the beer is being served correctly. Stella wanted to be the leader on quality, but did little to attempt to control quality in outlet. I've had beer out of a Stella tap that I know is not Stella. When you can get it everywhere it's no longer exclusive.

I've also heard completely unsubstantiated rumours (albeit from very good sources) that the product was dumbed down to appeal to a broader palate. The point of Stella was always that it demanded to be treated with respect - it was important that it was a little more bitter, a bit more challenging than other lagers. It meant that young kids at the start fo their drinking careers wouldn't like it; it was something you had to work your way towards and grow into.

I'm not saying they should have turned away from growth - any successful brand has to grow. But Stella grew for a quarter of a century on its own terms, at its own pace. When Inbev started to hothouse this growth, and push it at artificially accelerated levels, that's precisely when the rot set in.

Zythophile said...

Excellent analysis, Pete, as usual.

There was a time when Stella marketers would boast that they knew some lager drinkers didn't like it, and they didn't care, they would rather have a core of really loyal drinkers who loved it and would drink nothing else than dumb down the taste and appeal to a broader group who would be less loyal.

Once they showed contempt for their core drinkers by letting the supermarkets sell "their" beer for 30p a can - and particularly if they were fools enough to alter the taste - then they lost their loyal core and attracted, as you say, a short-term sales boost at the expense of long-term loyalty.

A similar thing happened with Holsten 15 or so years ago: it used to be a reasonably OK North German lager, but the UK marketers wanted to boost it from 3rd or so in the UK premium lager market and altered the taste for the UK market to give it "broader" appeal. The people who had been drinking Holsten previously didn't like the new, blander taste, and not enough people who hadn't been drinking it wanted the dumbed-down version, so it lost all its old drinkers without getting any new ones and the brand went "pop" ...

Boak said...

I'm not in the marketing business, so this is all just conjecture, but it seems to me that another problem with premium marketing campaigns is that they forget that everyone has aspirations, rough types and all.

I'm thinking of Burberry here, another example of a premium product coming to symbolise "chav culture". Or the Slug and Lettuce pub chain. I'm sure they were plumping for aspirational city workers with their chrome interiors, "European" lagers and exclusive pricing. Instead, many seem to have become fight clubs for binge-drinking builders.

Marketing beer is subject that fascinates me, whether it's fizzy swill, craft beer or real ale. Perhaps you can give us your views on marketing beer to women, which seems to be topic of the month in the beer world.

sarcasticon said...

Very well put, finally a well-balanced view on the whole Stella story...
And I would absolutely agree that it is the hunger for more volume, causing Stella to show up in dump sales at supermarkets in the UK, that has destroyed a large part of the so carefully built premium image. On the other hand, looking at the firm's bigger picture it is logical that every focus goes to increasing the profits (through more volume, lower cost and slightly higher prices), that's what the investors and board are eventually after.
On a side note the various changes in leadership and marketing positions will not have helped either to keep a consistent marketing strategy in the UK. People don't meet their volume targets for a few years and are shoved aside, then replaced by someone who will take a 180° turn or launch a marketing campaign with little or no ties to the previous ones.

Stonch said...

You were a strategic planner, eh? Can you explain what you did? One of my mates describes himself as one of those but is unable to express to us in words his function. He works for booze clients too.

Tandleman said...

Enjoyable insight Pete. I don't mourn Stella's problems at all and agree with the Holsten analogy. InBev has a hand in both. It seems to me that when it was just Interbrew, for all its faults, it had a better grip on things. I don't think that this augurs well for the future, A lot of store is being set on "premium" products, but I doubt if premium and mass availability can ever sit together and the big brewers only seem to know how to do mass availability. Subtle, they just aren't. With huge companies like InBev comes muddled thinking. In beer "one size" does not fit all.

Maybe quality is maybe a concept they should explore a bit.

Greg Clow said...

I read on Protz's blog today that they've pulled Artois Bock from the market as well.

Meanwhile, over here in Canada, they're just getting started with the brand extensions. First was Stella Nobilis, a strong lager (7.2%) that was launched in Champagne-style bottles just before the holidays.

I'm amused that my rather negative review is the third link that comes up in Google search for the name of the beer.

Sid Boggle said...

You're right about the people inside breweries, but sadly, what does (in this case) the conglomerate InBev have to do with that?

The people making business decisions don't see a crafted product, all they care about is market penetration, units sold and brands promoted. They allowed, nay promoted, a brand dissonance and now it's bitten them on the arse - good. Fuckers.

Matt said...

"Brands like Marston's Pedigree (and I'm sure many others - but Marston's is the one I've worked with) invest heavily in quality control. If the beer is shit and the publican can't fix it, the Marston's technician will literally rip the font off the bar rather than have shit beer sold under the name."

Interesting comment as I get the sense that many beer drinkers seem to find Pedigree a poor pint. I find it a highly variable one which I have always chalked up to the cellarman.

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

Intersting there seems to be something of a disagreement between you and Mr Protz on the authenticity of the Artois Bock,

"The truth about Bock is that it is the first beer ever brewed by Sebastien Artois"

as opposed to

"As Stella Artois is not known to have brewed a Bock in its long history," from http://www.beer-pages.com/blog.html

I imagine there would have been a few raised eyebrows over the Marston anecdote.