Close-Up: Live Issue - Should Stella drop its iconic strapline?

Will dropping the line 'reassuringly expensive' help reinvigorate Stella Artois, Noel Bussey asks.

Lowe London's work for Stella Artois is always noticeable; but the current poster campaign for the Belgian beer stands out more for what's not included, than what is. The "reassuringly expensive" line has been dropped.

It's a bold move for a brand that is struggling with its identity while also trying to maintain a lead in the buoyant alcoholic drinks market. Figures from Mintel show sales of Stella Artois grew by 25 per cent between 2002 and 2004, but fell by 6 per cent between 2004 and 2006.

It is also being harried by the growth in the mid-strength lager sector, with sales of Carlsberg, Foster's and Carling growing by 19 per cent, 15 per cent and 7 per cent, between 2004 and 2006.

John Allert, the chief executive of Interbrand, says: "Beer drinkers used to drink in packs, but people are becoming more courageous in consuming different brands. "It is becoming easier to walk away from a brand such as Stella."

The beer is also struggling to transcend the discrepancy between its high-brow advertising and its volume sales strategy of offering cheap deals through the off-trade.

"For years, it somehow got away with this," David Bain, the planning partner at Beattie McGuinness Bungay, says. "But it's only now that it is starting to become a problem."

Stella also has to contend with an unflattering nickname and a reputation as the beer that, more than any other, gets you drunk, quickly.

But, David Hackworthy, a partner at The Red Brick Road, believes the "reassuringly expensive" line has to remain: "If InBev takes the line away, it will be left with a product that's cheap in off-licences, with the notorious, and less than charming tag of 'wife beater'."

Bain adds: "Burberry managed it after becoming the must-have attire for 'chavs', so why can't InBev? It would be a shame for advertising and for British pop culture if the line was dropped."

The drink is also struggling with changing perceptions of what the word "premium" means when used in reference to beer. It no longer denotes an alcohol by volume level of more than 5 per cent.

"Premium now equates to authenticity. You can't just make something up and put it out there. You have to prove the ingredients are the finest, and that you have a brewing heritage," Allert says.

The brand has addressed this issue in its latest poster campaign.

InBev has also announced plans to promote Stella as one of its four global super brands, a move that one senior agency executive, who works on an InBev account, warns could lead to the end of the "reassuringly expensive" line.

The executive says: "The prevailing model at InBev is all about values-based marketing: find a value set that punters aspire to and then attach that to a product. However, InBev is intent on instilling this global view of the "globo consumer" on us all."

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STRATEGIST - David Hackworthy, partner, The Red Brick Road

"It would be a massive mistake to drop the 'reassuringly expensive' line. It was one of the truly great marketing ideas of our time.

"However, Stella has turned into a three-headed beast: high-brow ads, massive off-trade sales, and the nickname of 'wife beater'.

"Dropping the line would be an easy way out. InBev needs to re-evaluate why Stella Artois is reassuringly expensive, but concentrate on the reassuring part.

"InBev needs to give the product a focal point to lift its horizons, such as line innovation, or its authenticity. The company needs to understand what is authentic about 'reassuringly expensive'."

RETAILER - Ralph Patel, independent retailer

"Stella Artois is still a strong seller, but is definitely losing ground on the medium-strength lagers such as Carling or Foster's. People who would only ever drink Stella, will now gladly go for another lager.

"I'm also seeing sales affected by the introduction of premium beers such as Cobra and Asahi, and some of the new types of cider.

"I think the term 'wife beater' and the strength of the drink is putting people off.

"It has always been Stella's way to push deals in the off-trade, and I don't think changing the advertising will affect this."

BRAND STRATEGIST - John Allert, chief executive, Interbrand UK

"Stella definitely has issues to address, but it is still a massively popular and profitable brand.

"It is definitely in danger of being caught up by the rest of the pack, though, because the alcohol market is so fickle and transient.

"At the moment, the brand's identity is very inconsistent and if it is left too long without changing the proposition in the mind of the consumer, it will lose more ground.

"However, whether this means it should drop the line, I'm not sure. The opportunity for Stella here is to lead in areas that have already worked well in terms of positioning, such as its sponsorship activity, which provides a very cogent message about the brand."

CREATIVE - Damon Collins, creative director, Mother

"One reason why it may have to drop 'reassuringly expensive' is that consumers will not buy an idea that is false - this line is simply not true anymore, because you can buy the lager so cheaply in supermarkets and corner shops.

"This has been a conceit that Lowe has got away with for years, because the advertising was high quality, which denotes expensive, but consumers are becoming aware of this and their attitudes are changing.

"However, the main problem the company faces is not whether to keep the strapline or not, but how it can move away from the awful 'wife beater' nickname."