’Two pints of GB and a packet of crisps, please.’ The phrase may
not roll off the tongue just yet but if Sophie Spence - the development
brands director at Whitbread - has her way, the order will be issued at
bars across the land before the clocks go back this autumn.
GB is the new mass-market lager from the stable of Stella Artois,
Heineken and Boddingtons. It may seem like lunacy to launch a new lager
brand when the market is flat but Spence is convinced that the time is
’There is a lack of innovation. Consumers are always happy with what
they’ve got until someone like Go or First Direct comes in to shake up
the market,’ she says.
So far, Whitbread has had 100 per cent take-up from the outlets it has
approached, signalling that the trade acknowledges and embraces the
notion of change.
Despite decades of lager marketing and brand-building, most punters
still ask for a generic ’lager’ when they want to drink a
standard-strength brew - even if they have a natural disposition towards
one in particular.
’They all taste the same,’ Spence contends. ’Only Stella is distinctive,
but most session drinkers will not stick to Stella all night because it
is so strong.’
And here’s the opportunity for product innovation. At 4.4 per cent
proof, GB is slightly stronger than Carling (3.8) or Heineken (3.4), so
the lager is still suitable for session drinking but retains a
Whitbread aims to reinvent the standard lager. Historically, decent
lager is either American or continental European, so a gap in the market
was identified. GB was born to celebrate the British drinking
From an early stage the tap dispenser and the GB car sticker logo were a
part of the brand’s identity. Spence says: ’The car sticker is
associated with leisure and fun. When you saw other cars with a GB
sticker abroad an instant camaraderie would spring up.’
But once the brand logistics are in place, an advertising budget has to
be approved and the cost of entry into this market is huge. Luckily,
Whitbread is well known for its faith in advertising and GB is being
launched with a campaign from Mother.
’The idea is that it is accessible and not leading edge,’ Spence says.
GB isn’t meant to appeal to the sort of people who adopt a brand early
on and then drop it once they see someone unsophisticated knocking back
a pint of it. GB is meant to become a part of the great British drinking
Whitbread is testing GB in the Granada region before committing to a
national roll-out. ’The North-west is a tough test market with a strong
legacy of bitter drinking. It’s the acid test.’
Mother’s television campaign features the Gibson family who are so
obsessed with lager that their whole house has been turned into a pub.
The central ’Lager like us’ line is being used in all communications and
GB’s ’street marketing’ agency Exposure has created another innovative
campaign around the test launch.
One of Exposure’s first projects was to identify regular drinkers in the
trial pubs and photograph them. Flyposters were then created sporting
their mugshots alongside the GB logo and put up across Liverpool and
The idea is to create local heroes at each outlet who are famous for a
fortnight. This, in turn, will generate goodwill for the GB brand among
those pictured and their friends and acquaintances.
To encourage sampling, Whitbread is using a spectacularly simple
GB representatives are paid to go into pubs, approach groups of drinkers
and offer to buy them a round. There’s no catch.
Spence has avoided overt links with sport for GB. The only sponsorship
deal so far is with Ben Sherman, a brand with the requisite
’Britishness’ to match GB. Punters can collect tokens to redeem them for
a free Ben Sherman shirt and the label is developing a GB line of
GB is meant to be ’aggressively iconoclastic’ and the ads had to have
’contemporary humour’, which was defined by Spence and Mother as
containing comic clues and references that become more fulfilling with
’The Gibson family represent all lager drinkers. They are obsessed with
drinking,’ Spence says.
It is a turbulent time for the beer market. For the past two or three
years there has been speculation about the future of brewing interests
of companies such as Whitbread, Bass and United Distillers and
’This won’t change the fact that there’s an opportunity for the GB
brand,’ Spence says.
Traditionally, brewing was the dominant force in these companies but
sell-offs are looking imminent as other arms have greater success and
brewing becomes, for most of them, 20 per cent of their business as
opposed to 70 per cent only a decade or so ago.
The two dominant trends in the market are the continuing move away from
bitter towards lager and the increase in female drinking, without which
the market would be in decline because men are drinking less outside the
home. However, the good news for GB is that the penetration of draught
lager is increasing as people discard the early 90s vogue for drinking
According to Spence, the bottom line is that ’consumers have moved on
but brands haven’t’. And she expects to put that right very soon.
THE SPENCE FILE
1992 Polycell, marketing manager
1995 Whitbread, marketing manager for Hoegaarden and Merrydown
1997 Head of new product development
1998 Development brands director
1998 Launch of Vodka Source
1999 Launch of Stella embossed cans
2000 Launch of GB lager.