CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - BULMER'S. Bulmer's consolidation of creative could be good for Strongbow

Last week, Bulmer's gave its £8 million creative account to Leo Burnett, following a four-way shoot-out against M&C Saatchi, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners and TBWA/London.

It was a significant appointment for two reasons - it marked the first Burnett win in recent memory, but more importantly it indicated that perhaps Bulmer's was seeking another new strategy for its flagship Strongbow brand.

The review also marked a centralisation of the Bulmer's account, which includes San Miguel, Woodpecker and Amstel, and no doubt associated cost savings.

While no-one at Burnett or Bulmer's was willing to discuss any changes that are planned for the creative account, if recent history is anything to go by it would not be surprising if a wholesale change of approach was on the cards.

Strongbow is the market leader in the cider sector but, along with its competitors, has suffered a downturn in its fortunes.

This culminated in the £278 million sale of the family owned Hereford-based Bulmer's brewery to Scottish & Newcastle last month. The pitch was called by Bulmer's before the sale, but clearly S&N agreed that the brands' communications need a kick start.

The reasons for its problems are both structural and social - Bulmer's built up debts of £107 million last year, caused partly by heavy discounting and promotions in the off-trade. It has also suffered from a downturn in sales, as consumers have turned to other drinks.

According to Nielsen Media Research figures for November and December last year, off-trade volume sales were down 7 per cent, compared with the same period in 2001. This was set against a 5 per cent downturn across the year as a whole, prompting fears that cider could disappear as a category.

However, the client has committed £13 million to promote Strongbow - a 68 per cent increase in the brand's advertising budget.

Strongbow is best known for its iconic thudding arrows that were introduced in the 60s. Uncompromisingly macho and aggressive, they remained a feature until the end of the 90s when Bulmer's made a concerted effort to soften the image of the brand to attract a new type of drinker.

In 1998, the account moved from J. Walter Thompson to GGT. One of the first tasks the agency undertook was to review the future of the thudding arrows. The agency concluded that they were too macho and aggressive and, although they remained in the campaigns, their presence was toned down.

GGT shifted the focus away from bravado and introduced a brand spokesman in the TV presenter Johnny Vaughan. Vaughan, in various guises including a gorilla and as the model Jerry Hall, introduced the concept of "living to loaf". The intention was to introduce cider as a lifestyle drink. The campaign captured the headlines and was well-liked, but four years later Vaughan and the "live to loaf" theme were shown the door.

TBWA/London then came up with a cast of lads going to extreme lengths to work up a thirst for the cider to quench. The concept of Strongbow had changed again - no longer associated with inactivity, it was now a drink to refresh you.

Because of its premium strength, low price and sweet taste, cider is frequently the first alcoholic drink that consumers try and it therefore has an image problem.

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO tried to dispel this with a campaign in 2000 for Woodpecker that featured a man disrobing in a pub to get dry, to get consumers to identify the drink with free spirits who weren't embarrassed about ordering it.

Now Burnett must devise a new positioning for Strongbow. With lager advertising so ably occupying the "lad" theme, the agency has a difficult task identifying a gap in consumers' tastes.