UK Brewer Shepherd Neame has announced strong sales of Spitfire ale. The news reflects the fact that it can be easier to grow in niche markets rather than more mature mass markets.
Real ale can no longer hope to compete equally basis with lager; instead, ale brewers are targeting small but loyal consumer bases. Spitfire now plans to release television adverts, but even this will not help real ale compete with lager.

Sales of Spitfire real ale from Shepherd Neame have increased 29% by volume.

The news is indicative of the evolution of the UK beer market. Real ale has given up any pretence at being part of the mass market, and settled into a potentially profitable niche, while lager has become dominant in the key male 18-25 year old market and beyond.

Real ale has lagged behind lager in terms of sales, popularity and fashionabilty for some time. One of the main obstacles it has faced is the absence of a concerted marketing strategy. Not only do major lager brewers such as Carling or Heineken have much larger advertising budgets than real ale breweries, which tend to be small, local businesses, they have considerably more coordinated marketing campaigns.

No matter which particular lager was being advertised, the same core audience was targeted, which led to a very similar look and feel for lager advertising. As a result, a core message of "Drink lager" was constantly being broadcast.

By contrast, there was no coordinated marketing strategy for real ale, despite the efforts of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Brewers also suffered because they lacked bargaining power with pub chains, and because it was difficult to introduce product innovation without alienating core customers. As a result, real ale is increasingly settling for exploiting niche markets. CAMRA has recently begun to target young women in an attempt to find a new niche.

Spitfire's increased sales have been due to Shepherd Neame investing in its brand equity, giving it higher recognition among the small proportion of beer consumers likely to choose real ale. Shepherd Neame plan to extend this strategy by running television adverts. But although these adverts will increase awareness of the brand, they're unlikely to increase the potential consumer base for real ale.

Related research: Datamonitor, "Going Out" (DMCM0082)