Comment - Beer - It IS About Where You're From
Pete Brown has been lied to. This has rattled his cage somewhat. He doesn't like being lied to, and nor, he suggests, do beer consumers. Especially when it comes to the small matter of provenance.
I have a collection of marketing-themed books on my bookshelf that have broken out of their genre to gain popular currency. From The Tipping Point, and Made to Stick, to The Long Tail, In Praise of Slow and Authenticity, many of them have words and concepts that have entered common parlance.
Why so many? Well, they’re a bit like diet books: we keep buying them in the hope that one will have a miracle cure, and then realise that, however persuasive the idea, it requires us to do a bit of work to reach our goal.
I think I know what the next big one will be. It hasn’t been written yet, but it’s the meme I’m picking up everywhere I look. It will be called something like 'Integrity: Why Saying What We Mean and Sticking to it is a Formula for Success'.
The central argument will be that, in today’s hyper-connected age, bullshit is instantly sniffed out. It will talk about how, at the end of the 20th century, trust in traditional institutions declined and was replaced by trust in brands instead. And, how then, as we heard about spiralling bonuses for executives who presided over crashing economies and found out that our iPhone 5s were made in Chinese sweatshops, we lost trust in brands too. And, how the novel idea of simply saying what you mean and meaning what you say could therefore become a serious source of competitive advantage in the twenty-first century global economy.
Brands have long traded on emotional relationships rather than physical USPs. And successful relationships of any kind are based on bonds of trust.
So how is beer doing on that score?
Last month, Kronenbourg launched a new advertising campaign in the UK based on flavour - and the idea that the beer actually has some. I rather like the campaign and its attempt to reinvest the brand - and premium lager generally - with some much-needed quality cues. It looks good, and I hope it works.
Of course, in any campaign, there needs to be a ‘reason to believe’ the claim being made: With this one, it’s that Kronenbourg is brewed with Strisselspält hops. I can buy that, in so far as imparting flavour to beer is the role of any hop.
But, the bit that made me wince was the line in the press release, duly repeated in trade press stories about the launch, claiming that Strisselspält was known in the brewing world as “the caviar of hops”.
Not outside Kronenbourg’s PR agency, it’s not. This claim is not ‘spin’ – it’s a bare-faced lie. And the people saying it know it is.
No one in the brewing world thinks that Strisselspält is the caviar of hops. I checked. For one thing, no one who cares about brewing would draw an association between beer and something fishy. For another, while Strisselspält is a perfectly nice hop, it imparts a very delicate flavour, and is not regarded with the same reverence as Saaz or Hallertau.
After reading this lie in a press release, I now think less of a campaign I wanted to like.
This kind of thing happens a lot, and it’s simply unnecessary.
Something that elicits anguished cries rather than a mere wince is the behaviour of certain brands around the whole area of ‘world beer’.
This might take some explaining to any readers in the US, where there has always been a very clear distinction between domestic and import brands. If a beer is brewed in the US, it’s a domestic brand. If it’s imported, it’s an import. What could be simpler?
In the UK, however, we’ve had decades of brands that are ‘imports’ in terms of provenance and positioning, but are brewed under licence in the UK. From a business economics view, it makes perfect sense – why transport something as heavy as beer when technology allows you to brew the same beer much closer to the point of purchase?
From an integrity point of view, it makes no sense at all: when you tell people a beer is foreign, when your entire positioning and reason to purchase is based on its exoticness, and buyers subsequently discover you’ve been misleading them, they get upset. Foolish sentimentality I know, but beer drinkers can get like that.
And so, as people became disillusioned with brands like Kronenbourg and Stella Artois selling their foreignness in ads that have ‘Brewed under licence in the UK’ in tiny letters at the end (or that beautifully misleading legalese, ‘Brewed in the EU’) beers that are genuinely imported to the UK declare themselves part of a new sub-category – world beers. These are beers that come from the place they say they come from, beers that are different from the mainstream.
Drinkers love them for it. In a UK beer market down 5% over the last 12 months, world beers grew by 17%.
Any brewer would want a piece of that action. Which is why the integrity of this new category is being shattered faster than you can down a pint of San Miguel (one of the most successful ‘world beers’, now brewed under licence in the UK since it was acquired by Carlsberg.)
No one has the right to create the ‘official’ definition of world beers. Subsequently, the goal posts are being moved, and some now define it in woolly terms about provenance and heritage – anything that allows them to include their beer in this exciting category without them actually having to conform to what it is the consumer likes about the category in the first place.
Not all brewers do this. It was heartening to see SABMiller recently commit themselves to the world beer category in the UK. The brewer has gone on record saying that its world beer brand, Peroni Nastro Azzuro, will only ever be brewed in its country of origin. One of its other leading brands, Pilsner Urquell, is brewed in Poland, but again the model relies on import to the UK rather than brewing under licence. I hope they thrive.
This is not sentimental adherence to beer romance on my part – it’s also sound business sense. We’ve already been through one cycle in British beer where we sold people an ideal of European lager provenance, then let them down. Now we’ve set a new standard, and if the industry betrays people’s trust again - as large sections seem intent on doing - they will find out. And, they will become increasingly disillusioned not just with the dishonest brewer, but with the whole beer category.
I’m sure there’s a lot of research showing that many drinkers don’t care where their beer comes from. And, a press release to the industry is different from what actually goes in an ad.
But I bet you’d struggle to find any research that shows people are more likely to favour brands that mislead them over those that are honest.
If you can’t say something good about your brand that’s true, then don’t say anything at all. Or change your brand.
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