Andrew Pring enters the magic kingdom of Wadworthshire, where Wiltshire brewer Wadworth combines old and new to promote its core values with modern marketing savvy
Shire horses, pub-sign painters and a cooper crafting wooden ale barrels may not seem cutting edge in these whizzy days of viral marketing and Web2.0 social networks. But for Devizes-based family brewer Wadworth, the traditions that have served it well since 1885
are still highly effective in
pushing messages of character and individuality.
And it's not just Prince, Royal, Max and Tom, the magnificent shires delivering beer every day to 16 pubs in a two-and-a-half mile radius, who are projecting the company's characterful image.
The new visitor centre, fashioned from under-used warehouse space at a cost of £600,000, is Wadworth's latest and most ambitious attempt to use its history as a way of standing out from the crowd.
Up to 20,000 visitors a year, many of them families, are expected at the elegantly-designed centre with its interactive models, attractive displays and third-of-a-pint sampling opportunities. Few will leave without appreciating the vital role of pubs and brewing — including Wadworth, naturally — in the history of the community.
Building on the centre's success, Wadworth will also give visitors access to part of its brewery when it opens a new copperhouse, which should be fully functioning by the middle of next year.
Playing the history card could seem overly backward looking, but as Wadworth marketing manager Paul Sullivan points out: "There's a big difference between preserving heritage and being old fashioned."
Quite so. Indeed, the values em-braced by Wadworth and its people are as contemporary as any moderncompanies'. What could be more of the moment than provenance and local sourcing, environmental awareness, recycling and community rootedness. On all these counts the company stands in the forefront of progressive thinking.
This combination of the best of the old and new coalesced into a new marketing proposition currently being gently rolled out — Wadworthshire. As sales director Fred West told Morning Advertiser beer writer Roger Protz recently: "We put together the fact that our county is the shire of Wiltshire and we still run shire horses, and came up with Wadworthshire."
As Protz remarked in his column at the time, the composite term builds on all that's best about Wadworth — thatched or timbered pubs serving cask ale in a predominantly rural setting. The mat at the new visitor centre now has the greeting, "Welcome to Wadworthshire."
Clearly in tune with the consumer on issues such as provenance and hand-crafted beer, Wadworth is also abreast of the latest trade initiatives. Licensee support is on the increase, with lots of licensee training. There's also a property hotline for tenants to report problems direct, freeing up the BDM for more pressing concerns.
On the managed side, a food manager was appointed in 2006 to im-prove standards. Despite the "challenging times," managed food is up 4%. The latest report shows strong progress, with 2007 turnover up £1m, to £50m, and pre-tax profits up £1.3m to just over £10m.
The 259-strong Wadworth estate (39 managed), with its many magnificent pubs and locations (often with high-class accommodation), is its own recruiting sergeant. But the company is looking at new ways to bring in fresh licensee talent, working in separate ventures with the Independent Family Brewers of Britain and consultant Anne Elliott.
It's also constantly reviewing the thorny issue of leases. Handing over control of the family silver to a lessee still goes against the grain for Wadworth MD Charles Bartholomew (fourth generation). "We've looked at going down the lease route," he says. "But unlike lessees, we're here for the very long term."
Pragmatically, he acknowledges that Fred West is right in saying: "We've not written it off all together. Some of our pubs need investment soon and we don't have the budget." Maybe one day, but not yet, is the clear message.
Bartholomew remains convinced that his pubs can perform better under present ownership methods. "I believe our licensees can raise their game. You certainly can't just sit there these days — you've got to try out different things.
"In some ways, it comes down to lots of small initiatives — such as having a specials board, which allows you to talk to customers about what you're doing — or putting on lower abv beers, which can encourage people to drive out to our pubs in midweek and enjoy the banter and conviviality.
"Alternatively, in our managed estate, you can offer a free bottle of wine if customers book a table for four midweek. We've got to be looking at new and better ways to make pubs stand out — and they can't all be done on the cheap. All in all, we've got to make sure that going out is not just a more expensive form of staying in."
Ultimately, Bartholomew believes that investment in licensee training is paying off. "We're presenting the beer to the customer much better these days - the quality of our ale has definitely improved," he says.
The flagship ale, 6X, continues to flourish. However, Paul Sullivan, who joined Wadworth from Western Wine last au-tumn, replacing Dick Stafford, is repositioning the brand in a new marketing campaign that kicks off in spring/summer. "Our long-running '6X appeal' has been very successful, but latterly has shown a little fatigue," he says. "The new 6X campaign will have the strapline 'the thoroughly decent pint'. It'll play to our 'thoroughly decent' drinking customers, and the 'thoroughly decent' brewing team behind the pint."
Sullivan has also been busy with the launch last year of Horizon, a 4% abv pale golden beer with zesty, citrus hop aromas. This has proved popular with tenants and is in most guest-brewer programmes.
The beer was former head brewer Trevor Holmes' parting gift to his employer: he brewed it as a one-off for his leaving party, but it was too good not to share with the world.
Sullivan says: "Golden ale is the crossover category between lager and real ale, and particularly appeals to women." He is hopeful of doubling Horizon sales this year.
Interestingly, given his background, Sullivan thinks that wine is on the wane. "Wine is nearing the end of a cycle - many people are getting a bit bored with it. It'll always be the main accompaniment to a meal, but as a pub drink, beer has the edge, with its flavour and provenance."
Horizon's label features an oldfashioned hot-air balloon, again highlighting the personality at the heart of the company. Henry Wadworth was a Bransonesque figure in Victorian times who cycled across Australia on one of the first Peugeot bikes and flew balloons regularly.
Times are tough, but if an established, successful brewer can't have fun, how can it expect its customers to? As Fred West says: "We've got
the confidence to deliver profitable growth, and have fun in the process."