Wells & Youngs launches Cobra baiter

Wells & Young's launches Cobra baiter

In what can easily be termed 'cheeky' marketing, British brewer Wells & Young’s is launching Mongoose, a premium lager the firm says is more like original Cobra lager than Cobra is itself today, Brewers' Guardian reports today (5 July).

Mongoose’s recipe is that of Cobra from when what was then Charles Wells first brewed the beer under contract in the mid-1990s. While the brand is not being marketed as Cobra under another name, the beer’s label features a snake-hunting mongoose holding a dead Cobra in its mouth.

Cobra’s recipe, says Wells & Young’s, was never assigned to Cobra Beer founder Lord Karan Bilimoria and as such it remains their property. Production director Jim Robertson recalls working with Lord Bilimoria from the outset in the mid-1990s, when production was being shifted from Mysore Breweries in India to the Eagle Brewery in Bedford.

“Karan brought some specifications but it was very limited,” says Robertson. “It was not a brewery manual specification or anything like that. From that, I designed a recipe and we brewed with that recipe and made tweaks and changes to it. Eventually Karan was happy that it met his vision of what Cobra Beer should be.

“Because I designed the recipe it was Charles Wells’ intellectual property and it was never signed over to Cobra.”

Robertson added that the recipe was never referred to as Cobra within the brewery, but as EXL – Export Lager – and that this recipe is used still as a base in other brands, such as its John Bull lager.

Cobra’s recipe changed when brewing began in Poland, Robertson noted, with the creation of a more yeast-efficient recipe. This was also introduced at other Cobra contract brewers but not at the Eagle Brewery.

“We were asked to look at it but we never did [use the recipe],” Robertson said. The reluctance concerned the addition and handling of a fifth brewing yeast to those already in use at the brewery.

At the time, the relationship between an increasingly cash-strapped Cobra Beer and Wells & Young’s was fracturing. On the advice of its insurers, Wells & Young’s opposed a bid by Cobra Beer at the end of May 2009 to enter into a Company Voluntary Agreement, which would have offered unsecured creditors some but not all of the money they were owed. Cobra had debts estimated at GBP75m (US$113.4m), with Wells & Young’s owed GBP1.5m.

A subsequent pre-pack administration agreement resulted in Molson Coors creating the Cobra Beer Partnership Ltd, taking a 51% stake while a group of investors fronted by Lord Bilimoria retained the minority 49%. Brewing of Cobra began at Molson Coors’ Burton brewery last month.

Partnering for route to market

Wells & Young’s has entered into a joint venture, Mongoose Brewing Company Ltd, with Indian restaurant supplier Gandhi Wine Suppliers Ltd to bring the new beer to market. Mongoose is available in draught already in a handful of Indian restaurants; today sees the first shipments from the brewery of 330ml and 670ml bottles.

According to Wells & Young’s director of marketing Chris Lewis, it was Gandhi’s desire to launch a lager that led to the discussions around Cobra. “That’s why we’re so confident that Mongoose will be successful,” he said. “We have the right people working with customers to make it a success.”

With Cobra and Kingfisher the established brand leaders in Indian restaurants, Gandhi’s sales force will look to cultivate restaurant owners and bar staff as brand champions. Lewis notes that blind taste tests have confirmed a consumer preference for Mongoose over both Cobra and Kingfisher, yet the obstacle will be to overcome consumers’ call for the established brands. “The important thing is that this is a long-term aim, not a short-term launch,” said Lewis.

Mongoose, the only animal able to take on a cobra head-to-head and survive, will not be marketed simply as Cobra in new packaging. Yet according to Lewis, social marketing should play a big part in the brand’s development, especially Facebook and Twitter.

Those in the know will spread the word, undoubtedly, of a highly unusual competitive twist in the brand marketing wars.

“Mongoose is quite cheeky,” Lewis says. “We’re having a bit of fun with this brand. It’s a cheeky, challenging brand.”

This story originally appeared on the Brewers' Guardian website.