Close-Up: Live Issue - How Stella defied convention with its epic-style advertising

The brand has used its TV spots to appeal to a broad market, John Tylee reports.

It's not just a World War One pilot who gets shot down in flames in the latest Stella Artois epic that took to the air at the weekend.

So also does advertising convention. What's more, the premium lager brand has been doing it for more than a decade.

Like the canvas-clad stringbags whose dogfights over France inspired the new two-minute blockbuster, the campaign looked in danger of crash-landing almost as soon as it took off a dozen years ago. And yet, nine memorable ads later, Stella's advertising continues to defy the laws of gravity.

The films are the ad industry's bumble bees. In theory, they shouldn't be able to fly. For one thing, the dialogue is in French. For another the stories they tell are long-winded and not side-splittingly funny.

Yet in practice they do.

Little wonder, perhaps, that when Millward Brown tested the first of the Jean de Florette-inspired commercials in 1990, it bombed. So badly that the research company suggested to Lowe, the agency that created it, and to Whitbread, then Stella's UK distributor, that the idea ought to be strangled at birth.

It's to their eternal credit that Miles Templeman, then Whitbread's managing director, and Frank Lowe, the agency's irascible founding genius, chose to ignore the Jeremiahs.

Today, Stella is the UK's top-selling premium lager by a long way on the back of advertising that has collected more than 150 creative and effectiveness awards.

Its appeal is so broad, it is just as likely to be ordered by the habitues of a cool Soho bar as it is by pubgoers draped in red-and-white flags herded around a plasma screen to cheer on England in Euro 2004.

Equally astonishing is that the advertising has been able to sustain the brand's premium positioning. The "reassuringly expensive" slogan continues to resonate even though Stella is often heavily discounted in the multiples.

So what's the secret? "Stella advertising has a formula but isn't formulaic," Jeremy Bowles, the Lowe managing director, who has worked on the brand for nine years, explains.

Certainly, Stella seems to be shattering sales targets. It has combined on- and off-trade sales of £1.5 billion, giving it a 23 per cent value share of the UK premium lager market which was worth £6.5 billion in 2002, according to Datamonitor. The brand, which was selling just 600,000 barrels a year when it went on TV in 1990, now sells 3.6 million, a 10 per cent increase on 2003.

Against that background, the relatively high production budgets of the commercials - each film costs between £600,000 and £800,000 to make - seem modest given that each has a shelf life of about 18 months.

Just as importantly, the ads have to be seen to mirror the strong production values of the feature films around which they are seen. It was their "filmic" quality that led Stella marketers to the conclusion that the brand should "own" film as a property and a resultant sponsorship deal negotiated by Starcom Motive with Channel 4.

It's a far cry from June 1990 when Stella went on to TV in an attempt by Whitbread to catapult it into a burgeoning premium lager market.

Earlier print ads had reflected the "greed is good" philosophy of the Margaret Thatcher years by emphasising Stella's expensiveness. The TV work, with its tales of selflessness and selfishness in the stunning French countryside, took the idea on by making the brand, rather than the consumer, the centre of attention.

"The key to the TV campaign has been the strong positioning of the brand," Matt Edwards, the business director on Stella at Lowe, says. "The ads have never emphasised how much Stella costs, but its worth and the things you might be prepared to sacrifice to get it."

Bowles believes the ads work because of their broad appeal. "Not only do they speak to people of all ages but you can decode their messages easily. Stella is saying to people: 'This is who I am. If you like me then come and get me.'"

Today, the agency's challenge is to build a consistent positioning for Stella across Europe, having been appointed by Stella's Interbrew parent to run the brand's global advertising 18 months ago.

Although the UK work runs in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, it's not thought suitable for France and Belgium, where Stella is seen as a blue collar brand, or for the unsophisticated developing markets of Eastern Europe.

Hence the different series of Lowe ads that run in Europe and celebrate the pouring ritual which is important to beer drinking in many markets.

They feature an old barman teaching his apprentice how to pour a perfect glass of Stella. But he sabotages each effort and has to drink the reject beer himself.

Getting Stella re-appraised as a premium brand by drinkers across Europe will be a tall order. "We haven't got the answers yet," Edwards admits. "We know we can't change perceptions overnight."

STELLA: THE ADS

1992 "Jacques" - Director: Mike Seresin

1993 "Monet" - Director: Mike Seresin

1994 "good samaritan" - Directors: Vaughan and Anthea

1995 "red shoes" - Directors: Vaughan and Anthea

1997 "last orders" - Director: Jonathan Glazer

1999 "returning hero" - Director: Frank Budgen

2002 "the good doctor" - Director: Ivan Zacharias

2003 "Devil's Island" - Director: Jonathan Glazer

2004 "pilot" - Director: Ivan Zacharias

STELLA: THE FACTS

- Legend has it that Stella's "reassuringly expensive" line was plucked by Sir Frank Lowe from the body copy on an early print ad.

- Charles Inge, then a senior Lowe creative, was inspired to create the first of the Stella scripts after he and his wife had been to the cinema to see Jean de Florette.

- Stella's UK sales are higher than in all the brand's other world markets combined.

- Millward Brown researched the first ad in 1990. Its verdict: "Brand-linked memorability is such that advertising awareness is likely to be below average. There is an indication that the ad will not fuel a sense of exclusivity around the brand or communicate quality worth paying for."

- Stella is Lowe's oldest account, having arrived at the agency as part of Whitbread when it set up in 1982.

- The award of Cannes Lions to the Stella campaign usually gets a frosty reception from a largely Gallic audience that regards the advertising as glib and simplistic.

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