Can advertising win the beer war?

Beer brands may command big budgets and win awards, but can today’s clients still influence increasingly ad-literate consumers? Stephen Armstrong reports

Beer brands may command big budgets and win awards, but can today’s

clients still influence increasingly ad-literate consumers? Stephen

Armstrong reports

There are three things that unite the nation across most sexual, class,

creed and racial divides - Dr Marten’s, tea and beer.

Of these, only one fuels Britain’s soul. Dr Marten’s and tea are useful

and important, of course, but beer is the stuff of life itself. To

advertising agencies, beer has always meant high-profile work that

usually garners a healthy set of awards. For example, BMP DDB has won at

least one British Television Advertising Award every year since 1989 for

its work for Courage. It also means advertising with a stack of myths

attached to it. For instance, that people drink the advertising rather

than the beer, or that there are three rather than two men in most lager

ads to indicate they are not gay. But in the past five years beer has

also become one of the UK’s most intensely competitive markets at a time

when total consumption is falling by about 2 per cent a year.

‘I think that in the 20 years leading up to 1990 a lot of beer marketing

was performed by people with a background in running pubs,’ Jerry

Goldberg, marketing controller at Scottish Courage, comments. ‘Most of

the ads were about getting people down the pub and showing that beer

drinking was a bit of a laugh. The ads, especially for lager, became

indistinguishable, and one just had this feeling of lager generally

rather than clear brands. At that time, it didn’t really matter so much,

but you couldn’t get away with it now.’

This change is partly the result of the Beer Orders Act of 1992, which

followed a Monopolies and Mergers Commission investigation that

recommended separating brewers from the majority of their tied pubs. It

had the effect of making brewers into just beer makers rather than

retailers and fundamentally changed their attitude to marketing.

Brewers were no longer just keen to get people into the pub for a few

jars - now drinkers had to identify with a brand and ask for it by name

if they were to achieve healthy sales volumes. Add to this picture of

extreme fmcg-style brand marketing the fact that, if the pub is not

actually dying, it certainly isn’t feeling very well and you have

increased competition in a shrinking market.

Since 1990, the total turnover of the pub retail sector has declined in

real terms by 14 per cent. And 2,500 pubs have closed. According to the

market research company, Mintel, this decline can be attributed to

changing age profiles, the growth of the off-trade market, personal

imports from the Continent, the growth and improvements in home

entertainment, drug-taking, a decrease in available leisure time, a

reluctance to drink and drive and, of course, the National Lottery.

‘Alongside the social changes, what has happened is that consumers have

become more sophisticated, and they’ve become bored with here-today-

gone-tomorrow designer brands,’ Grant Duncan, managing director of GGT,

which handles Holsten Pils and John Smith’s Bitter, says. ‘People are

looking for more substance from their lives, and their beers, and for ad

agencies that means they want more from beer advertising. Brands such as

Carlsberg, Foster’s and Heineken have had to find product values rather

than the cheery, populist ads that Carling Black Label excels at.’

Increasing consumer sophistication has led to greater sophistication in

the way the market is structured. Tom Wright, research and development

director at Carlsberg-Tetley, says that in 1986 Carlsberg Pilsner used

to divide beers into lager - either standard or premium - and ale. Now

there are five different lager categories (with a sixth on the way),

five ale categories and three different kinds of new age beverage. This

fragmentation has had a direct impact on the division of adspend between

above and below the line, media buying policy and the type of creative

executions agencies are called upon to perform.

‘We find, for instance, that we are using TGI to buy media far more than

standard demographics,’ Wright says.

He continues: ‘The importance of fitting a brand to the relevant lager

group means we have moved more of our spend into above-the-line work. A

few years ago, we would divide our spend equally between above-the-line

and trade work. Now we are spending 75 per cent above the line and are

reducing our portfolio of brands to give our core beers, such as

Carlsberg, a greater spend. We probably spend about pounds 20 million

above the line, including our sponsorship deals with Euro 96 and

Liverpool FC. All of these different groups of drinkers we have defined

only have a few beers from each category at the top of their minds and

we have to make sure ours is there.’

For the uninitiated, the five kinds of lager, and therefore lager

drinker, that Carlsberg-Tetley has identified are: value, standard,

premium heritage, style heritage and super strength. Harp, Skol and

Kestrel Pilsner fall into the value category because they are drunk by

people who seek a widely available brand, without trendy pretensions,

and who care about price. Standard lagers include Carlsberg Pilsner,

Foster’s and Carling Black Label. Premium heritage lagers

include Kronenberg and Stella Artois, which are imported, widely

available, and have a certain quality and distinction associated with

them. The style heritage group, which includes lagers such as Miller

Pilsner and Budweiser, contains the remnants of the collapsed premium

price lager market, which offered fashionable, strong brands. Finally,

there is the super strength market, which includes Tennent’s Super and

Kestrel Super Strength.

There is a similar pattern for ales and the three non-beer alcohol

categories - which includes alcoholic pops (now worth an astonishing

pounds 400 million), premium packaged spirits such as Smirnoff’s Moscow

Mule and ready-to-drink spirits such as Barcardi Breeze - and you have

an almost over-sophisticated market segmentation.

As brewers begin to reduce their brand portfolios, they are also

emphasising brand qualities. Recently, Saatchi and Saatchi and

Castlemaine abandoned the 12-year-old catchline, ‘Australians wouldn’t

give a Castlemaine XXXX for anything else’, in favour of the line ‘As

fresh as XXXX’, indicating its supposedly fresher taste.

Boddingtons ads talk about its creamy texture, John Smith’s focus on the

widget and its new extra smooth flavour, while Worthington has adopted

the word ‘velvety’. Despite the fact that my thesaurus fails to

acknowledge these words’ potential to describe flavour, observers of

beer ads can expect similar descriptions for the launch of Beamish Red,

announced last month, Carlsberg-Tetley’s Calder, which is currently

being tested in Scotland, Guinness’s Kilkenny and the new range of US

Red lagers that are sure to follow Anheuser Busch’s latest UK release,

Roscoe Red.

‘In the late 70s and early 80s beer advertising was just a gag and the

brief was to write a funnier ad than the competition,’ Guy Murphy, the

planning director on the Boddingtons account at Bartle Bogle Hegarty,


‘Then, with the introduction of Arkwright for John Smith’s and Chas and

Dave for Courage Best, you saw people identifying themselves with the

brand spokesman. Now you have to have a product truth in the ad,’ Jon

Eggleton, marketing controller at Guinness, says.

He adds: ‘Advertising and brands are now about people who stand up for

their own opinion. Our campaign urges people to think again about the

brand, drawing on its roots but involving them in pub conversations and

inviting them to take sides. We want to get on to people’s respect for

strong opinions.’

It certainly seems to be working. In February and March this year,

Guinness achieved its highest ever brand share with 5.1 per cent of the

total UK beer market.

The classic casestudy for the current UK beer market, though, is Bass’s

Caffrey’s Irish Ale. The launch ads were targeted at a sophisticated

market. It played on certain product truths but pushed a strong image,

and, within two years of its launch, Bass was selling almost 500,000

barrels and the brand ranked next to Boddingtons in terms of sales.

Caffrey’s is a triumph of beer marketing. The brand was invented two

years ago to meet a specific market development - the ageing lager

drinker who was looking for a mature pint - and yet the advertising

campaign has managed to claim the brand values of having a deep-seated

Irish heritage.

Dan Vivian, the account manager for Caffrey’s at WCRS, links the ad to a

so-called ‘new Ireland’ concept: ‘We want to combine sentimentality

about one’s roots with a gregarious contemporary optimism. We use the

New York bar to underline the optimistic present day and the drinker

returns to the bar from his ‘old Ireland’ thoughts with a new

perspective. It’s not an image British drinkers will associate with

their own beers, but it is possible to attach emotional imagery to


When pushed, Vivian explains that this mixture of nostalgia and optimism

is what most beer drinkers experience when they have just started to get

happily drunk and tell their mates that they are the best pals they’ve

ever had. The Caffrey’s commercial has codified the most pleasurable

part of getting a bit drunk and somehow given it the dignity of a

traditional culture.

With all the Caffrey’s wannabes trying to get in on the act, brewers

preparing for the expected surge in Red lagers and most drinks makers

searching for new non-beer alcoholic products, the market can only

become more confusing.

‘It’s true that things are getting a bit crazy at the moment,’ Vivian

comments. ‘It will all shake itself out in time - a few brands will bite

the dust and we will all settle down. At that point, I don’t think

anyone knows what direction the advertising will take, but it will still

be as essential as it ever was to building a beer brand successfully.’

Vivian is right. Consumers will continue to drink, no matter how

confusing the array of drinks or how sophisticated the advertising

message. The consumer will carry on drinking because, deep down inside,

the main reason that Britons of all ages and classes drink beer is that

they quite like getting a bit drunk.


Top ten beers by volume


1985                           1995

Carling Black Label            Carling Black Label

Heineken                       Foster’s

Carlsberg                      Heineken

Tetley                         John Smith’s

Skol                           Carlsberg

McEwan’s Lager                 Tetley

Worthington Best               Worthington Best

John Smith’s                   Tennent’s Lager

Stones                         Stella Artois

Harp                           McEwan’s Lager

Source: Nielsen Marketing Research



Top ten beers by adspend 1995


Brand                        Spend pounds m

Budweiser                         7.4

Holsten Pils                      4.9

Guinness Enigma Lager             4.3

Kronenbourg 1664                  4.2

Heineken Export                   4.1

Carling Black Label               3.9

Boddingtons                       3.7

Carlsberg Pilsner                 3.3

John Smith’s Bitter               2.9

Foster’s Lager                    2.7

Source: Register-MEAL