There are sound reasons behind Anheuser-Busch InBev's foray into the cider market with Stella Cidre, but the brand needs to be clear about what it's trying to do if it's going to survive as a latecomer to a very competitive sector.

Upon hearing of plans for a 'Stella Artois cider' today (2 February), I was, for some reason, reminded of a recent advert for Trebor, which sees a junior company employee shock the media audience by announcing the mint maker's plans to leave its mainstay market and launch a gum.

I don't think many people saw Stella Cidre coming. I mean, why would you? C&C Group's Magners brand has been dragged through the mud here in the UK since the heady days of its launch in 2006, while Heineken's Bulmers has hardly fared much better. With both of these brands only just beginning to stabilise, and with Heineken's Strongbow also hanging around in the background, can the UK stomach another mainstream cider brand? And, won't this move dilute the Stella Artois brand, which has finally started to put all those nasty nicknames behind it?

There are, to my mind, two main reasons why Stella Cidre has a decent chance of succeeding.

Firstly, Stella Artois is, according to A-B InBev, the biggest selling alcoholic drinks brand in the UK. That means that, if anyone has the distribution scale and branding muscle to make the jump into a new product category, then Stella does. Plus, A-B InBev is loaded and we can expect multi-million pound marketing support for the launch, which will take place at Easter.

Secondly, despite the travails of Magners and Bulmers, premium cider is doing well in the UK. In November last year, Nielsen said that strong demand for high-end cider had helped the category to grow value "twice as strongly as the total beer, wine and spirits market" during the previous 12 months.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Cider Makers estimates that cider accounts for 9% of the UK's alcoholic drinks market by volume. The trade body also says that 50% of those who drink alcohol claim never to drink cider. If you're feeling optimistic, then, that represents a significant untapped consumer base.

One of A-B InBev's main challenges is to attract new cider drinkers to the category. That's something that the group's UK president, Stuart MacFarlane, is confident the new brand can do. "We will bring in more premium drinkers into cider than any other brands can do, because they don't transcend other categories like Stella does," MacFarlane told just-drinks today.

He says that the company has spent a year on development in order to make sure the liquid is better than the likes of Bulmers and Magners. Certainly, Stella Cidre tastes as though it has a high juice content, and is less sweet than some of its mainstream rivals. Could this be a mainstream, premium cider for discerning drinkers? 

One issue might be whether Stella Artois Cidre knows what it wants to be. The company is not targeting a specific demographic, aside from "premium drinkers above 20 years of age", and says that it is not going to push the brand either way on the 'over-ice' question. According to Nielsen, most cider consumers in the on-trade drink 'over-ice', but the majority of the category growth is coming from pear cider and so-called niche brands, such as Aspalls and Westons, who have distanced themselves from the over-ice phenomenon.

At the same time, will consumers understand the brand's Belgian credentials? Most people know that Belgium knocks out some pretty tasty beers, but not so many will be aware of the country's cider-making heritage.

MacFarlane's watchwords are "premium" and "accessible". He said: "Premium brands like Aspalls and Weston's are never going to be totally accessible, but we can do that."

No-one doubts A-B InBev's ability to put Stella Cidre in front of consumers, but gaining traction in a crowded corner of the UK drinks market is going to be tough. It will be an interesting battle to watch in 2011.