British drinkers are migrating away from ales and stouts toward lager - premium lager in particular. This has helped brands such as Stella Artois, Carlsberg Export and Kronenbourg 1664 enjoy healthy growth. But according to Marketing's
Biggest Brands survey (Marketing, 25 August) Beck's is the only top 10 beer brand to have experienced a significant drop in sales this year - 14% year on year.
When the German beer brand launched in the UK in 1984, it was marketed as a premium product with an image to match. Initially, it was stocked in style bars and drunk at influential parties. Through word of mouth it established itself as a quality imported beer. It was an image enhanced by the brand's decision to become heavily involved in the sponsorship of the arts in the UK.
Beck's has supported 'Brit Art' through sponsorship of various exhibitions and displays, and today it has a partnership with the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) - but whether consumers know - or care - about it is questionable.
The beer is brewed in strict accordance to Reinheitsgebot, a German purity law of 1516 that permits only barley malt, hops, yeast and water to be used in the brewing process. Every bottle of Beck's in the UK is brewed in Bremen and imported, all of which gives it a unique heritage.
But unlike Grolsch and Stella Artois , this continental lager advertises on TV infrequently, and recent press ads have tended to ignore its provenance.
Beck's is currently being managed by Scottish Courage in the UK, but with Inbev due to take over next year, is it being neglected?
We asked Pete Brown, who runs beer marketing consultancy Storm Lantern and is the author of Man walks into a pub, A sociable history of beer, and Rooney Anand, managing director of Greene King Brewing Company, for their opinions.
Top Ten Beer and Lager brands
Rank Brand Value % change
1 Stella Artois 305-310 11
2 Carling 145-150 22
3 Grolsch 95-100 -1
4 Foster's 90-95 30
5 Budweiser 75-80 36
6 Carlsberg 70-75 33
7 Carlsberg Export 70-75 27
8 Kronenbourg 1664 65-70 6
9 Guinness 40-45 27
10 Beck's 35-40 -14
Source: Marketing's Biggest Brands, 25 August
DIAGNOSIS 1 - PETE BROWN OWNER, STORM LANTERN
If Beck's was a football club, it would be one of those big Premiership sides that occasionally finds itself inexplicably close to the bottom of the table in March. The pundits say it's 'too good to go down', yet it could. There's lots of talent, but the parts don't gel.
Beck's is a great-tasting beer in an iconic bottle, with a visible ad campaign and a distinctive, multi-faceted association with the arts. It simply shouldn't be haemorrhaging sales.
But the ad campaign is showing its limitations. Current executions have moved beyond the original idea of analysing your mates by how they deface the label, and has lost the insight the campaign was based on.
Before this campaign, the advertising was so inconsistent that there's little heritage to fall back on. The arts deal remains firmly inside the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and so is irrelevant to most drinkers.
Like fellow German player Holsten, its bottle is 58ml smaller than its rivals, yet we're expected to pay the same price. Inbev must be itching to rebuild the squad.
- Get the ad campaign back to being based on a real drinker or brand insight, or ditch it.
- Keep the sponsorship. It's unique. Look at what Stella has done with film. But broaden out and become more visible - think what can be done to push modern art to a wider audience.
- Shout about being genuinely imported.
- Give us a 33cl bottle.
DIAGNOSIS 2 - ROONEY ANAND, MANAGING DIRECTOR, GREEN KING BREWING COMPANY
Beck's looks as though it has lost its way in a challenging market where image, quality and distribution all have to be integrated to achieve success.
In pubs, where it sells in bottles, competition for fridge space is fierce, and other drinks categories - such as alcopops and wine - are stalling the growth of premium bottled lager. Brands doing well in this channel, such as Foster's and Stella Artois, have draught as their key format.
In grocery, lager is becoming commoditised, with bigger packs selling for lower prices, and Beck's sells at a 20% price premium to Stella, but with no obvious or compelling reason to be more expensive.
The key battleground for the brand is in image and communication.
Beck's tends to follow the standard formula of a nice bottle shot plus some witty copy. Unfortunately, this fails to tap into the brand's heritage and provenance , leaving it with a weak brand personality.
The split brand ownership in the UK can't be helping the brand's cause either.
- Define the portfolio role the brand should be fulfilling and ensure all the key stakeholders support it.
- Use quality and its German purity pedigree to support the price premium with intelligent, humourous ads, as Grolsch has done.
- Prioritise the draught format for pubs, to reinforce its beer credentials
- Develop the Beck's beer experience through branded glassware, sampling and interesting off-trade packaging.