Comment - Kronenbourg 1664: A French Beer (*But Not From France)

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A ruling on Kronenbourg 1664 by the UK's advertising watchdog has the potential to set a precedent for marketeers of home-brewed 'foreign' beers.

Consumers in the UK have been misled by Heineken, the UK's Advertising Standards Authority said today (31 August). By talking up Kronenbourg 1664's French heritage, Heineken wrongly implied that the lager on sale in the UK is brewed in France, the ASA said.

While the watchdog only received one single complaint about Heineken's advert, which appeared in the national press, its final decision could have significant consequences. From now on, brewers in the UK may have to be even more careful about how they position their brands.   

Beers don't travel well. I'm not talking about the failings or otherwise of global brands, I'm talking about cost. It simply isn't cost effective to ship lots of beer long distances and this basic tenet of brewing life has fostered a tangled web of licensing deals worldwide. This year, India's United Breweries began brewing Heineken lager, while SABMiller already brews Foster's in the country. In the UK, Heineken brews Foster's and Kronenbourg 1664, the latter of which is owned by Carlsberg in France.

Where possible, of course, multinational brewers keep their own brands in-house. This, however, still results in America's most well-known beer, Budweiser, being brewed by Anheuser-Busch InBev in South London. Diageo, meanwhile, brews Guinness in Nigeria, which is now a bigger market for the 'black stuff' than its native Ireland. 

All of these beers are brewed in their 'home' markets alongside additional brewing in other key countries. In addition, all brand owners swear on their beers' longevity that the original recipes are used at all times - down to the decimal point - everywhere in the world. 

Brewmasters are often dispatched from the mother brewery to make sure satellite breweries are doing it properly - which is not as hard as it used to be, given advances in automation technology. Some beers also contain ingredients from back home: Diageo exports Guinness Essence, a vital mystery ingredient, from Ireland. In short, brewers extend a huge amount of effort to make sure their beers retain a high level of consistency all around the world.  

For all this effort, brewers' practical needs threaten to conflict with the current marketing industry thirst for heritage and provenance. 

Part of Heineken's defence in the recent ASA case was that it brews Kronenbourg 1664 using imported Strisselspalt hops, which the firm said are unique to the brand's native Alsace in Eastern France. It wasn't enough, though, to offset Heineken's wording in the advert, which read: "The French are famous for many things, hurrying isn't one of them. So naturally a beer from Strasbourg, Eastern France is made rather slowly." 

Heineken appears to have stumbled upon a grey area that could also affect other brands. There are other beers for which Heineken's predicament might be particularly relevant. Look at Stella Artois: conjured up in Belgium many moons ago, the beer uses Saaz hops commonly associated with the Czech Pilsner style, has recently been promoted in the UK using images of France's glitzy Cote d'Azur and is, meanwhile, brewed within UK shores.

Another example is Foster's lager, which plays strongly on its no-nonsense Australian character but is very much an expat.

I'm not saying that there's necessarily anything wrong in these examples; in any case, it's not for me to decide. But, given the ASA's tough stance on Kronenbourg 1664, beer marketeers in the UK might do well to heed the watchdog's shot across their bows.

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