CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/CASTLEMAINE XXXX - Australian favourite gears up to take on its old stablemates

Castlemaine calls time on Saatchi ads after nearly 20 years.

It seems a shame that an agency should lose a brand for which it has created some of TV's funniest advertising, but Saatchi & Saatchi didn't really have any choice in forfeiting its Castlemaine XXXX account last week.

The agency, which had held the brand's account since 1983 and created the "Australians couldn't give a XXXX for any other lager strapline, was the victim of a change of ownership in the marketing rights to the lager.

Interbrew UK bought the rights to the brand from Carlsberg-Tetley last week, and since Saatchis already works on that company's Carlsberg lager brand, it had to relinquish its long-standing relationship with Castlemaine, now a competitor brand rather than a stablemate to Carlsberg.

The loss, although the end of a creatively fecund relationship, won't come as much of a blow to Saatchis financially - last year, Carlsberg-Tetley spent just £130,000 on promoting Castlemaine XXXX. The last ads, starring an Aussie chap who happily shags his best mate's girlfriend but draws the line drinking his last Castlemaine XXXX, ran in 1999.

Unfortunately for Saatchis, but happily for the brand's new agency, Mother, Interbrew is relaunching Castlemaine. Interbrew UK's marketing director, Richard Evans, is planning to spend £9 million next year on a pack redesign and some hefty above-the-line advertising.

He claims that Carlsberg-Tetley kept Castlemaine at a low profile to prevent it from usurping its champion brands, and deliberately underspent on marketing support to ensure that the brand was kept in its place.

"It has a consumer appeal, generated by its advertising heritage, which Carlsberg felt needed to be suppressed in order to prevent it being too strong a competitor, he explains. "It was effectively in what's known as 'managed decline'. Now he's looking to change all that, and boost Castlemaine from its current position as the sixth-largest lager brand in the on-trade - or pub - sector and fifth-largest in the off-trade to much further up the list, even perhaps in the top three .

Evans said he chose Mother above Interbrew's two other roster agencies, Lowe and Bartle Bogle Hegarty, because he wanted to tap into its credentials as a big-client-friendly creative shop that can deliver on what has been the primary factor in every single Castlemaine ad - humour. Remember the wife who suggests "losing some weight when the "ute comes a cropper on a rickety bridge? Her husband's mate calls her a good sport for offering to jump out. Or the bottles of sherry that scuppered a van already overloaded with beer?

"It's safe to say we'll be continuing to make people laugh with the new ads, Evans says, although he won't be drawn further on the strategy.

However, the company clearly states that the brand's Aussie roots will remain at the top of any new branding message, albeit updated.

"Saatchis' work on the previous advertising has been consistent, bang on target and highly effective. At its peak, Castlemaine was taking a bigger market share than Carlsberg, and was nudging Heineken for the top spot, he says.

Exposure is likely to focus heavily on TV and cinema work, but Evans is also looking at other options, including sponsorship and ambient media.

Evans is keen to assert what he claims are inherent truths about the brand that translate well for consumers in the UK. "Our research shows Castlemaine is the favourite Australian lager. That is a wonderful tool with which to work."

He is also well aware of the similarities in strategy to fellow antipodean lager Fosters, and insists that the relaunch will involve a careful look at the points of difference.

Again, he has a good starting point - consumers are savvy to the heritage of both brands, and are unlikely to confuse them.

Mother, which has never handled a beer account, is itching to get started on the new campaign, but Evans says there's much to be done in upping Castlemaine's distribution and educating the trade.

"We won't be launching any activity until after Christmas, Evans stresses. "This is because there's no point advertising the product if the infrastructure to supply it isn't fully developed. Availability in pubs is critical to the success of a relaunched product."

The other issue is taking a more modern look at the brand itself. The design company jkr will be revamping packaging and branding.

M&C Saatchi chairman James Lowther was the copywriter on the original ads, and worked on the account for nearly ten years. Now working on Foster's, Lowther won't comment on potential creative strategies from Mother, but says it must look carefully at addressing a target audience that may not necessarily remember the previous work. He warns that the market has evolved since the heyday of Castlemaine advertising.

He admits to feeling "paternal about the brand, has visited old shoot locations in Australia and awaits Mother's work with anticipation. "For me, it was a unique account - we made good ads that performed well and were brilliant fun to make, he says.

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