As one of the world's best known beer brands, Stella Artois has a new challenge on its hands: the US market. Simon Warburton talks to the beer's global brand director, Jorn Socquet, and looks at the challenges and opportunities for the product following the mega-merger in 2008 of InBev and Anheuser-Busch.

Creating one of the world's top five consumer products behemoths last year, the eye-watering US$52bn merger of brewers Anheuser-Busch and InBev is still bedding in, but is slated to yield a colossal $1.5bn saving in synergies by 2011.

Part of the challenge clearly lies with integrating such proud individual companies - massive in their own right - into the not-so-snappily named Anheuser-Busch InBev. But the lure of global brand building on a massive scale, and a powerful new route to market - coupled with underlying profit growth - has been too attractive to resist.

Speaking to just-drinks in New York recently on the occasion of the Stella Artois World Draught Master 2009 global final, Stella Artois' global brand director, Jorn Socquet, is confident the fusion will succeed, particularly with his product in the US.

"From a brand perspective, if you look at how we combined the two companies, we had Stella and Beck's as global brands; with Anheuser-Busch we had Bud and Bud Light - together we saw we had huge potential," says Socquet, also the former Beck's global brand director. "It [Budweiser] is not as big as Stella Artois, but the latent awareness is huge."

Of course the traffic is not one way. Socquet is convinced access to "the most powerful marketing and distribution system in the US" will drive Stella and Beck's into the enormously diverse series of markets that make up the US.

Socquet is acutely aware of the disparate nature of the US market as a whole, where Stella has been in Manhattan since 1999 for example, but is he concerned the giant merger will lead to a dilution of flagship brand power and even cannibalisation, particularly in the US?

"We [Stella Artois] used to be on our own, but the [new] route to market is impressive," he says. "If you make your strategy right, cannibalisation should be fairly low as different segments will be right for different sectors."

And jumping on A-B's marketing and distribution coat tails throws up an interesting point. The usual beer powerhouses of Holland and Mexico for example, are well-known through Heineken and Sol of course, but Belgium?

"Belgium has an extremely strong quality of premium beers such as Hoegaarden and Leffe," [Socquet is a company man after all] he says. "Look at what our competition is doing; some say they are Belgian-style, [while] local beer brands say they are Belgian beer style."

But how does Stella in particular get its message across, especially in markets such as the US where it is not the dominant brand or where different cultures react in unpredictable ways? "We are very careful about how we build Stella's image," says Socquet. "We want people to discover us and we are one of the only beers in this [US] market that has the same level of sophistication as wine.

"Stella Artois is a superior beer experience and different cultures have different interpretations about that."

And it appears that, with a few notable exceptions, the Stella global brand director will stick to his core brand - witness the withdrawal of the Artois range in the UK last year, for example. While Socquet insists the range illustrated a "high quality of craft beer", it simply did not deliver in volume terms. And there are very few multinationals who will tolerate niche brands for the sake of it.

There's no getting away from the elephant in the room of course when it comes to Stella Artois in the UK. For whatever reason, now perhaps mired in folklore, Stella's image amongst UK consumers and nickname - the beer has been jokingly referred to in recent years as 'wifebeater' - has been unfortunate to say the least.

Jorn Socquet, global brand director for Stella Artois at Anheuser-Busch InBev

But A-B InBev is not a daft company and so, taking a deep breath, launched Stella Artois 4% in the UK and has enjoyed healthy - incremental - sales as a result. This, coupled with some retro advertising, tapping into a south of France sixties vibe as well as setting the 4% variant firmly apart from its stronger cousin, has delivered results.

In tandem with A-B InBev UK's Beck's Vier extension, the development has firmly established the lower strength segment as one to be reckoned with.

One potentially extraordinary move from Stella is its positioning in Russia - but in the non-alcoholic segment through the Stella Artois No Alcohol brand. Traditionally a market famous for its love of super-strength brands, there appears to be a health-driven move to lower strength options in the country. "There is a growing segment in the Russian market for non-alcoholic beers," notes Socquet. "We could tap into [this] emerging trend - we want responsible consumption.

"The target consumer is the right one for the specific occasion - we promote it [No Alcohol] in Russian petrol stations [for example]".

Of course the powerhouses of the BRIC markets offer rich potential and Socquet has his attention firmly focused on them. "We [Stella] are in Brazil and are extremely premium and expensive," he says. "We are growing very fast and are doing the right thing for the brand, while we recently [also] signed a partnership in India to distribute Stella Artois.

Socquet also confirms Stella's determination to enter the Chinese market "eventually."

The global brand director concedes he "worries about the competition every day - it gets us out of bed in the morning" - but he remains confident of his brand's inherent robustness.

He also remains resolutely tight-lipped when discussing the future plans A-B InBev has for Stella or even to list any markets by volume. His mantra is to repeat loyally: "We already have a superior beer in Stella Artois."

This is a relationship that is still settling down, a shotgun marriage between brands some might say, but former competitors now have to co-exist in the same stable. What is undeniably true, apart from the beancounters' dream of synergy delivery, is that the creation of A-B InBev has presented Stella Artois with unprecedented new routes to market, particularly in the US, but also in emerging regional powerhouses.

The sky could be the limit, then.