The static lager market has been awakened by a number of relaunches, repositions and the rising popularity of a new imported beer category. Ben McFarland reports.
Premium brands are becoming mass market, mass market brands are becoming more premium, bottled lagers are down but not out, out go value lagers, people are spending more for less rather than less for more, and that's even before you start talking about lagers of the super nucleated variety!
The Publican's Brands Report 2001 made confusing reading for publicans unsure of what lager brands to put on and behind their bar. It revealed that while a handful of major brands cemented or bettered their position in the upper reaches of the top 200 brands, no fewer than 17 lagers experienced a downturn in fortunes.
One of the most surprising fallers was the ubiquitous Budweiser from Anheuser Busch. Despite its hugely successful, albeit rather grating, "Whassup" campaign, Budweiser has dropped out of the top 10 list and its decline is symptomatic of an under-performing premium packaged lager (PPL) category.
The seemingly unstoppable growth of the premium packaged spirits market, spearheaded by the likes of Bacardi Breezer and Smirnoff Ice, has been primarily at the expense of PPLs and the category is only just beginning to stabilise.
However, a spate of recent relaunches (Holsten Pils, Budvar and Pilsner Urquell and the previously neglected Löwenbräu have all been given a new lease of life) suggests that the biggest comeback since Dallas's Bobby Ewing may be on.
According to Andrew Edge, marketing director at Holsten UK, following a relatively long period of inactivity, the PPL brands are beginning to fight back in the struggle for precious fridge space.
"During the early 1990s, players in the lager category became complacent and there was no real innovation or understanding of different drinking occasions," said Mr Edge. "The spirit companies looked at the market, saw that lots of people who didn't like beer had no feasible alternative to bottled lager, and were extremely innovative in filling that gap. However, we understand our consumer like never before and the challenge for us is to keep innovating."
When Holsten UK first introduced its premium bottled lager into the UK market in the 1970s it was marketed as the Odd Lager and positioned as a quirky and self-assured brand aimed at discerning lager drinkers.
Holsten Pils continued the leftfield theme right the way through the 1990s using adverts starring Griff Rhys Jones, Dennis Leary, Jeff Goldblum and, more recently, the Fast Show characters.
However, the latest "It's the Daddy" advertising campaign featuring Ray Winstone marks a significant repositioning away from the bizarre towards the more reliable and mainstream "laddy" lager market traditionally occupied by the likes of Carling.
Chris Williamson, partner at TBWA, the advertising agency responsible for the new campaign, said: "Ray Winstone's strength and kudos made him a perfect match for everything that Holsten stands for in terms of a credible, down-to-earth and real lager. The ads capture the national appeal of 'bloke in a pub' humour and Holsten is certainly set for a heavyweight comeback."
In a concerted attempt to install "It's the Daddy" into the national vocabulary and appeal to the legions of boys about town, Holsten has gone to the unprecedented lengths of producing Holsten Pils branded kebab wrappers, takeaway lids, dartboards and even a talking urinal.
Holsten's change of tactics follows Carling's recent decision to vacate the "standard" lager category, in which it was a major player, in favour of becoming a more premium brand.
Just before Christmas, Carling unveiled a state-of-the-art font, slick packaging and launched a new quirky advertising campaign in an attempt to compete with the likes of its Interbrew stablemate Stella Artois.
Launched as a "Reassuringly Expensive" alternative to the plethora of self-styled "value" lagers such as Harp, Skol and Hofmeister, Stella Artois was quick to exploit the lucrative distribution opportunities that arose from the Beer Order legislation in the early 1990s.
The Belgian import has been instrumental in not only persuading the consumer to trade-up in both ABV and price, but also in blurring the dividing lines between the standard and premium sectors.
Interbrew UK's decision to launch another Belgian beer, Hoegaarden, several years ago heralded the arrival of a new speciality and genuinely imported beer category that is enjoying significant growth at the moment.
The capitulation of value-for-money and standard lagers such as Lamot Pils and Skol in The Publican Newspaper Brands Report 2001 suggests that the days of quantity over quality are well and truly over. The arrival of Hoegaarden in the top 200 listings could open the way for more speciality premium lagers from overseas.
With its oversized hexagonal glass and eye-catching ceramic bar font, Hoegaarden has managed to become the ultimate premium lager in city centre outlets - even if it is, strictly speaking, an ale and also succeeded in getting the consumer to transcend the £3-a-pint barrier.
Consumer trends revealed recently in a DataMonitor report show that the British pub-goer is drinking less but is willing to pay more for it. According to AC Nielsen, the specialist imported sector of the lager market has grown by a massive 22 per cent during the last year, while the "commodity" market has fallen by 25 per cent.
Having anticipated the growing popularity of imported speciality brands, chief executive of marketing company Refresh UK, Rupert Thompson decided to replace Löwenbräu Premium, brewed in the UK, with the stronger Löwenbräu Original imported direct from Munich and relaunch the brand to compete with the likes of Budvar and Pilsner Urquell.
"There is a new group of more discriminating and discerning consumers looking for an authentic, quality alternative to the leading premium brands that are becoming more mass market and mainstream," said Rupert. "People want to be seen as a bit different."
Rupert predicted that by 2010 the imported/speciality category will have increased its market share to seven per cent at the expense of the standard lager category, while the mass market premiums will have cemented their position.
By stocking a speciality or imported beer, publicans can distinguish themselves from their competitors and enjoy the higher profit margins that accompany more affluent drinkers. Furthermore, while the price of mass market premiums is dictated by rival outlets, licensees can enjoy a lot more autonomy when setting prices.
At a time when the major players are swapping places and new categories are emerging, licensees could easily be forgiven for listing anything up to a dozen different lager brands.
Make sure you point that out next time someone asks for just a lager.