For all the big growth aspirations of major drinks companies, a surprising number seem prone to forgetting the basics, including most crucially looking after their brands. David Robertson looks at some recent cases of neglect among large brewers and what the companies are doing to put things right.

A great deal of lip service is paid to the importance of brand investment in the drinks industry, but time and again companies are shocked to discover that their products have lost relevance to consumers. How companies look after their brands, and particularly how they correct underinvestment, is one of the most important tasks facing management.

For drinks companies to admit when their brands have lost focus is relatively rare, but sometimes they have no choice other than to come clean and concede that they have taken their eye off the ball and their brands have become out of touch with rapidly moving consumer tastes. One of the latest to admit such a mistake is Australia's Lion Nathan.

Lion Nathan has spent much of the last five years buying wineries and pubs and, somewhat unsuccessfully, moving into new territories such as China. Meanwhile, its core beer brands, Tooheys New and Castlemaine XXXX, have largely been taken for granted and left to get on with business.

Last November, chief executive Rob Murray confessed that the situation needed to be addressed and immediate investment was needed in the beer brands to prevent sales declines and to fend off competition from arch-rival Foster's, which itself has upped beer brand investment after its own forays into the wine business.

Lion's plan is to increase its brand marketing spend from 7% of sales to between 8% and 10%, adding an additional A$11m to A$22m according to JP Morgan.

This correction will have a significant impact on the company's 2006 financial figures with underlying earnings growth expected to halve to 5%. Analysts have cut their forecasts for Lion this year and Murray admitted euphemistically that 2006 would be a "transitional" year.

Murray added that this reinvestment was the right thing to do for "the long-term health of the business", which shareholders accepted with surprisingly good grace considering the same argument was used to justify the company's wine, pub and foreign adventures.

But Lion Nathan is by no means unique in suddenly realising that its core brands need attention. Molson and Coors said last year that one of the reasons they were merging was to make more money available for brand investment with both of these beer brands struggling in their domestic markets. Scottish & Newcastle admitted a couple of years ago that it was spending about "half of what it should be" on brand investment and increased brand investment by 15%.

Meanwhile, Miller Brewing's brands were so neglected by previous owner Philip Morris that SABMiller, four years after the US$5.6bn takeover, is still rebuilding. Graham Mackay, the SABMiller chief executive, told investors last October that he inherited a situation at Miller where "major brands were in decline", brand positionings were "unclear" and "consumers were confused or indifferent as to what we stood for".

Since the merger, SABMiller has invested heavily in the Miller Lite brand with new packaging, on-premise promotions and more advertising. The message has also changed with Miller Lite now emphasising its taste and low-carbohydrate benefits rather than continuing to plug the "drink beer, have fun" message that most of its rivals use.

Peter Marino, a spokesman for Miller Brewing, said: "In the US beer industry, there used to be a formula for advertising the brands that was driven by the 30- second ad. The concept was one of entertainment but nobody said much about what their brands actually delivered. Since the merger, we've tried to differentiate ourselves more and emphasise why consumers will get more from our brand, and that investment has worked very well."

The strategy has led to an increase in Miller Lite's market share and sales that grew nearly three times faster than A-B's Bud Lite during the past two years. Miller Brewing is now turning its attention to Miller Genuine Draft, another brand that has been somewhat left in the wilderness. The brand will be officially relaunched during the Academy Awards on 5 March with a new tag-line: "Beer. Grown Up."

The product itself is not changing, but if the relaunch is successful, consumers will look at it differently. If consumers want competitively-priced sophistication (which the success of the US discount retailer Target suggests may be the case) then Miller's brand investment should produce good bottom-line results.

Of course, how long these benefits will last depends on Miller executives maintaining their focus and keeping the brand relevant, which, as so many other companies have demonstrated, is harder than it sounds.