New product development in lager is focusing more and more on creating range extensions, allowing fresh products to boost interest in the core brand. Nigel Huddleston reports
The marketing ethos of the lager category used to be: make 'em laugh. Competition to make the funniest ads was on a par with open-mic night down at the local comedy club.
Lager drinkers liked a laugh, the received wisdom went, so what better way to get them on your side than with a slapstick version of The Dambusters or a few talking frogs.
But recent developments in lager suggest that brewers may finally be cottoning on to the fact that consumers get as turned on by the stuff in their glass as they do by the cleverness of the ad campaign.
Budweiser is among those rejecting humour in favour of talking about the product in its new "True Dedication" campaign.
Alistair Kemp, UK sales director for Anheuser-Busch, says: "We're trying to get back to the core of what the brand is about - the true dedication that we put into the look and taste.
"Consumers are looking increasingly for the inherent truth about the product, that it's natural and that it's been made the same way for years."
Kemp doesn't think knockabout advertising has gone away for good, though. "We still see some different advertising executions out there," he says. "But for our core target, this seems to work better. I don't know if it's the start of a trend, but from our perception, people want to know what goes into Bud."
One competitor said of the new Bud advertising: "They've obviously been aware from the past that it's quite easy to get someone to giggle at an ad, but if you're building a brand for the long-term, you've got to talk about the taste and the provenance. Humour can focus some brands, but damage others."
New product development has shifted from an emphasis on flashy imagery to the liquid in the bottle, with Kronenbourg, Stella Artois
and Grolsch heading into speciality territory with brand extensions.
Scottish & Newcastle UK (S&N UK) has added Premier Cru and Blanc to the Kronenbourg stable and Coors has expanded the Grolsch range with Weizen, a German-style beer and a 4% abv version, Premium Blond.
But do such launches mark a sea change in big brewers' attitudes to their products, or are they merely attempts to prop up the image and sales of their main brands at a time when both have taken a knock?
Shaun Heyes, head of category marketing at Kronenbourg firm Scottish & Newcastle UK (S&NUK), says: "New products that build the portfolio of an existing brand are there to create further interest in the lager category and encourage new drinkers to the sector, rather than being developed purely to create a halo for a brand.
"The key reason for the development of new products within an existing brand is to provide customers with a range to meet every occasion, thereby attracting new and lapsed drinkers to the sector.
"Delivering products linked to brands that are already well recognised and successful also helps to reassure drinkers when they are choosing alcohol.
"Lager is an extremely competitive market and new product development must meet consumer needs if it's to play a meaningful role in supporting the growth of the category in the long term."
Arguably, the biggest investment in brand extensions has come from InBev UK. As well as championing speciality beer through Leffe and Hoegaarden, it's established an Artois family of beers, with a 4% abv wheat beer in Peeterman Artois and oak-aged Eiken Artois, which replaced Artois Bock.
It's also brought out Beck's Vier, a 4% abv version of its premium German lager, which has made significant distribution gains and been heavily supported by the brewer.
Steve Kitching, managing director for commercial and field operations at InBev UK, argues that Eiken Artois beer will benefit as much from the halo effect of the main brand as the other way round. He adds: "Eiken Artois will have a positive effect on the way consumers relate to Stella Artois by reinforcing key measures of brand equity, including its Continental heritage and the craftsmanship involved in its brewing."
Opinion is divided elsewhere in the trade about the strategy behind the Artois line extensions.
One rival brewer says: "I see this it as an attempt to create a halo effect, but the probable result will be to dilute the equity of the main brand — it can be confusing for the consumer if they're suddenly faced with a lot of very similar brands.
"We've even seen a variant re-placed by another beer and that adds to the confusion. I'm not saying it won't work, but it's not the most efficient use of marketing money.
"As for Beck's Vier, it's added a lot of volume to the overall business, but at what cost to the Beck's 5% abv brand equity? You've got extra distribution in the short term, but how much damage is it doing?"
Others are more supportive of InBev UK's move. One said: "Stella suffered a bruising from the supermarkets over price and their trashing of a brand that was worth paying more for. But if you asked 1,000 consumers to name a high-quality and expensive lager, a lot of them would still say Stella Artois. You've always got to be wary that a lot of people in the trade would like to see a brand such as Stella take a knock."
Chris Lewis, director of marketing at Wells & Young's, said it would be misguided of any major brand to imagine that entering a niche category could help rescue its image anyway.
"If you're trying to give the consumer something different, then it's fine, but if it's a way of propping up the core brand, it's not going to work. If, for example, you've got a £400m brand and it's declining by 5% or 10%, you've got to sell an awful lot of your new niche brand to make up the shortfall."