Stella Artois' James Watson insists the brand has shaken off negative associations

By Gemma Charles, marketingmagazine.co.uk, Thursday, 18 August 2011 11:00AM

Is Stella Artois perceived as the drink of booze Britain, or a sophisticated premium beer? James Watson, its European marketing director, claims the answer is the latter, although he is willing to concede that this has not always been the case.

James Watson, European marketing director, Stella Artois

James Watson, European marketing director, Stella Artois

Watson, 38, a smooth operator with an easy manner, says the brand is now in rude health. 'We have done the same "deep dive" piece of research every year for the past five years. You can see that the brand has come on a journey. Consumers talk about some of the past issues in the past tense,' he says. 'It is a living case study.'

He points to the launch of Stella Artois 4% in 2008 as the turning point. A creative advertising genre came with the product; out went the bucolic scenes for which the brand had become famous, and in its place, consumers were offered a Continental Riviera world, set in the swinging 60s.

'The ad perspective was fresh, we were doing things in a different way,' explains Watson. 'It softened and contemporised the brand image, and all of that played back toward the parent brand.'

'Madcap' marketing

A raft of marketing initiatives, which some may argue are a touch 'madcap', have flowed from the lager brand's marketers since then as they bid to shake off the negative associations. The brand embraced the green movement with a 'hedge fund' promotion, allowing consumers to support Britain's hedgerows by purchasing special packs of the lager.

Another idea was the creation of a 15-minute black and white YouTube video based on a humorous 60s TV chat show, with a recycling theme. To add to the strangeness of the content, or perhaps its pretentiousness, it was entirely in French, with English subtitles.

These marketing drives did not take place on Watson's watch, but he, too, has managed to rack up some original initiatives since moving across from a similar role on sister brand Budweiser a year ago. 'It's been a hell of a year,' he says.

In a wholly unexpected move, AB InBev extended the Stella Artois brand into cider with the launch of the premium packaged Cidre product three months ago. He claims the brand, which is pitted against Bulmers Original and Magners, has made an 'incredible' start in terms of consumer response, and the cannibalisation of other Stella brands is 'much lower than we thought'.

Will this bright start for Cidre fade away in a similar vein to the 4% variant, sales of which are reported to have dipped once it came off promotion? He rejects the basis of the question on two counts: Cidre, he says, is not being heavily discounted in supermarkets and 4% has to be seen as a success.

His sunny disposition dims slightly and an edge of tetchiness creeps into his voice as he expands on this. 'People have very short memories,' he begins. 'Stella Artois 4% was launched less than three years ago. Its retail value is about £80m. It's worth £50m in the off-trade, that's £30m more than Peroni in the off-trade; in three years,' he says.

Activity around the Stella Artois 4% brand dropped off last year during the football World Cup because 'we have this thing called Budweiser', which as a global sponsor of the tournament was always going to be the brand that AB InBev would focus on during the competition.

Immersive theatre

Watson is happier talking about the marketing of Stella Artois Black, the on-trade only variant that launched last year. In a standout move, it has been promoted through a campaign led by immersive theatre, where the audience participates and interacts with the play's characters in various locations. Two productions, The Night Chauffeur and The Black Diamond, involved people, who had applied for tickets online, being drawn into worlds of stolen diamonds, curses and femmes fatales.

On the face of it, this could be interpreted as Watson cutting loose from the shackles of marketing effectiveness and letting his creative juices flow while working on a small brand - Black is available only in selected pubs and bars. He insists, however, that the work is created and judged along the same lines as the more mainstream Stella Artois brands.

'Whether it's Stella Artois Black or Stella Artois 4%, I think we manage them as big brands. We're as rigorous in everything we do. It isn't an entrepreneurial "just pump things without testing them" environment,' he says. 'If you can't evaluate it, you can't learn; if you can't learn, you don't know whether it works. We're prepared to do things differently, as long as we learn from it.'

Watson is similarly hard-nosed about the plight of pubs, which are closing at a rapid rate. Rival brewers have been known to snipe that AB InBev has turned its back on the ailing on-trade. He points to initiatives such as the World Draught Masters, a global competition based on pouring the perfect Stella Artois, as an area of support, but is otherwise devoid of sentimentality for this part of British culture.

'We will reflect our offering to meet the needs of consumers depending on how they are behaving in different channels,' he says. 'Are we committed to the on-trade? As long as our consumers are.'

Heinz, where Watson worked between 1999 and 2004, has shaped his outlook on marketing. 'It is firmly of the belief that FMCG brands exist to serve a purpose; you build brand health to drive topline,' he says of the prevailing culture. Although he is sure that it has become more liberal, Watson says that when he worked at Heinz, it was 'quite process-driven and conservative'.

Sometimes his heart rules his head, however. While Watson wanted to ply his trade at a more 'image-driven' brand, he admits that the main reason he quit his career in Australia and returned to the UK was 'for a girl'.

His tendency to speak with a rising inflection at the end of his sentences suggests that Australia left its mark, but Watson says people are more likely to think he hails from the US, another place he has worked. His original Yorkshire flat vowels were lost pretty quickly when, at the age of seven, his family relocated to the south of England. 'People always try to place my accent, I'm a bit of mongrel really,' he jokes.

Watson believes he now has the best job in marketing and regularly refers to being 'fortunate' to be able to do what he does. While no-one is going to declare their job awful in a press interview, a strong air of genuine enthusiasm is apparent when Watson declares his love for the role at the helm of the Stella Artois brand. 'It's tough, it's no place for the faint-hearted, but it is energising and very fulfilling.' Based on this definition, Watson is surely the ideal man for the job.

INSIDE WORK

  • 1995-1997: Strategy specialist, Ford Motor Company
  • 1997-1999: Brand manager, Sara Lee
  • 1999-2004: Brand manager, frozen desserts and ice cream, rising to marketing manager, cold sauces and condiments, Heinz
  • Feb 2004-Sept 2004: Marketing manager, Wyeth Australia
  • 2004-2005: Guinness global innovation manager, Diageo GB
  • 2005-present: Marketing manager, speciality beers, rising to European marketing director for Stella Artois, AB InBev

OUTSIDE WORK

  • Lives: Teddington, west London
  • Family: Married Neal's Yard Remedies marketer Amanda-May Watson in February last year
  • Hobbies: Mountain biking and photography
  • Favourite brand: BMW

This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk

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