Is there a future for the global beer brand? - Comment

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Can you think of a global beer brand? One that is not hamstrung by being limited to certain regions? It's not easy. Indeed, Stephen Beaumont found it equally difficult, until about two weeks ago.

How many truly global beer brands are there?

How many truly global beer brands are there?

Following Heineken's announcement earlier this month of its multi-year partnership with Formula One World Championship motor racing, Societe Generale analyst Andrew Holland issued a quiet endorsement that contained a rather surprising statement. The Dutch brewer, declared Holland, boasts the "only truly global beer brand, with a high profile and wide availability around the world".

On the surface, this seems an extraordinary assertion. The globalisation of the brewing industry has been so constant and ubiquitous over the past several decades that the names of the biggest brands from the largest breweries virtually trip off the tongue - labels like Budweiser, Carlsberg, Corona, Coors Light, among others. Pause for a moment of reflection, however, and a different story begins to reveal itself.

Budweiser comes closest to qualifying for the club: After all, the brand is still regularly cited among the world's most valuable - not just in beer specifically, but in consumer goods in general. But, much as Bud has been posted rising volumes globally since 2010, the technicality that trips it up is the notable sales declines in its home market of the US for the best part of a decade. Carlsberg, meanwhile, like Corona and Coors Light, might be strong in some parts of the world - Western Europe in particular for the Danish beer and principally North America for the latter duo - but not in others, such as Africa, Asia and Australasia. Meanwhile, Snow, which is by far the world's number one selling beer brand, is virtually unknown outside of China.

Dig more deeply into the world's top-selling brands and the results change little. Global number two beer, Tsingtao, is likely China's most exported brand, but has a rather muted presence outside of Asia nonetheless. Skol might be the world's number five best-seller, but its division among three companies – Anheuser-Busch InBev in South America, Unibra in Africa and Carlsberg in the rest of the world – has resulted in a limited influence globally for the brand.The Chinese brands Yangjing and Harbin, respectively numbers six and eight, are, like Snow, largely domestic stars, while global number nine, Anheuser-Busch InBev's Brahma, is essentially a South American exclusive, despite the company's aborted attempts to expand its presence globally back in 2005.

All of which brings us back to Heineken as the lone top-selling beer with a truly international presence, and begs the question of whether the age of the global beer brand, short and impactful though it was, is already fading slowly in the rear-view mirror of history.

There is certainly an argument that suggests it is, and it centres not just on the declining global presence of the top ten labels. As I noted in my last column, the challenges facing so-called 'world beers' these days are similar to those the North American regional brewers were forced to address three or so decades ago. What was left unstated, however, was that many of the regionals that did survive the hyper-local shake-out, such as Pennsylvania's DG Yuengling & Son, have since thrived, becoming in effect what Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller once were – national brands with strong local and regional roots.

These days, roots would appear to count for a lot in the beer business. The proliferation of local craft breweries around the world offers ample evidence of this, of course, but, even on a macro level, local identification is seen as important, hence Budweiser's current rebranding as America in the US, expected to last until November. Consider also a study released in May that showed "consumers are looking for more than great packaging and celebrity endorsements when it comes to choosing brands."

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A case could be made that the very reason Heineken has managed to survive as an international beer is due at least in part to the company's long history of identifying itself as a Dutch family brewer, which has for over a generation been the underlying message behind the brand. Anheuser-Busch was also able to go down this path so long as the Busch family remained involved, but not so much as AB InBev, just as each half of the Molson Coors partnership could evoke family and provenance more effectively when those elements were a larger part of the brewer's personality. Carlsberg's 'Probably' campaign seems to have dulled its national identification in favour of a more international appeal, leaving it caught somewhere between the two personalities.

In the end, though, even Heineken may need to abandon its internationalism in favour of global diversification through brand launches or, more likely, brewery takeovers. Because, when market leaders are losing ground on a more-or-less weekly basis to breweries and brands with a strong sense of place, one has to wonder if the days of the international beer truly are numbered.

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