In an economic downturn, when local sourcing and quality of service are vital, a freetrade rep has to think outside the discount box. Phil Mellows looks at how Marston's tackles the job.
Brewery freetrade reps used to enjoy a predictable life. Call at a pub, introduce yourself to the licensee, have a chat over cup of coffee (or possibly something stronger) and drop into the conversation the very reasonable price of your company's beer. Chances were that, after a bit of negotiation, if your beer was a penny cheaper than the pub's existing supplier you closed the sale. Job done.
These days, though, licensees demand a lot more from their brewer than the best price. Service, "localness" and added value have risen up the agenda. In a survey among freetraders by CGA Strategy, commissioned by Marston's, 75% of the brewer's existing customers said that while price was important they wouldn't move to a competitor just because of an extra discount.
"There's a point where they will, of course," says the director of freetrade at Marston's, Phil Barnett. "But with the way the market is going in these difficult economic times, and the deals offered by brewers over the past year or so, you have to ask whether there's any discount left.
"When there's a recession on and discounts are high, it's time to look for other ways to add a few thousand pounds to a pub's bottom line. We have to look at different ways of helping our freetrade customers."
The result is a "business solutions" approach to working with the thousands of freehouses already trading with Marston's, and potential new customers.
Fifty brewery sales reps, now elevated to business development managers, are trained in business development workshops to gain the expertise needed to give each individual pub the kind of help it needs. That conversation with the licensee digs more deeply into the business, going so far as inviting them to open the books to find ways in which Marston's might help.
The brewer's expertise and purchasing power are then brought to bear in a range of solutions for that particular pub. They might include financial tools, skills analysis and training, online printshop and payroll services, energy-saving tips, legal advice, cellar management, games machine optimisation, insurance and web design.
Freetrade customers can also have access to the My Marston's intranet site where tenants have, for several years, sourced discounted supplies and services, and a third have already signed up for that.
The gains made can be significant, especially for multiple operators.
One small pubco in the north of England has saved £30,000 in a year by doing its payroll online through Marston's, and another, in Cumbria, has similarly saved a five-figure sum by using the brewer's buying power for LP gas.
It's this ability to improve a business's bottom line without necessarily resorting to deeper discounts that Barnett believes can differentiate Marston's in a competitive freetrade marketplace. Surprisingly, according to the survey, only 7% of freetraders with other brewers got similar support and help with costs.
For Marston's the added services build on a portfolio of cask beers developed over the past few years with the takeovers of Jennings, Ringwood and Refresh's Wychwood brewery. Added to the existing Marston's and Banks's plants, they mean the brewer can now offer 16 permanent and 48 guest ales.
"We have the depth and range of brands to do a job anywhere in the UK," says Barnett. "When you look at those five breweries and the way cask ale is increasing its share of the on-trade beer market, it has to be a big opportunity for us."
In the freetrade that translates into what he calls "a localness agenda". While Marston's bestsellers — Banks's, Pedigree, Jennings Bitter and Mansfield Bitter — continue to be brands with deep local roots and a loyal following, their success is, again to use Barnett's word, "historical".
The importance of local sourcing
There is a different potential, a different kind of "localness" in brands such as Jennings Cumberland Ale and Ringwood Fortyniner. "That a beer is local means a lot to consumers," he explains. "For instance, people who visit the Lake District get to know Cumberland Ale and that gives it a resonance throughout the UK.
"Localness is incredibly powerful. It suggests that the beer is crafted, it gives the brand a clear provenance that people can identify. There is more emotion involved."
And, arguably, more substance, too. Marston's surprised some by keeping production going at the breweries they took over. Consumers appreciate a company that continues to employ local people, and licensees like the idea that their supplier is nearby - something the CGA Strategy survey confirmed.
"A local brewery with local draymen who understand the pub and the locality is very important to licensees," says Barnett. "It means they can have extra deliveries at short notice, that they can call on the brewer's own tech services.
"At Ringwood we have a van that goes around the local pubs sweeping up the odd jobs. It's a full local service, and that's something the bigger brewers are not that good at doing."
One final stat from the survey shows that a third of the freetraders who had changed brewer had done it following recommendation.
"So word of mouth is important. Do a good job and word gets around."
The famous five
The Marston's Beer Company runs five breweries around the country producing a range of highly regarded beers.
• The Marston's Brewery In Burton-upon-Trent, where flagship national brand Marston's Pedigree is made, along with the likes of Old Empire IPA, Burton Bitter and the low-carb Resolution
• The Park Brewery in Wolverhampton, where West Midlands favourites such as Banks's Bitter and Banks's Original are produced
• The Jennings Brewery at Cockermouth in the Lake District, which produces beers such as Cumberland Ale, Cockerhoop and 1828
• The Wychwood Brewery in Witney, home of Wychwood and Brakspear beers
• The Ringwood Brewery in Ringwood, Hampshire, where Ringwood Best Bitter, Old Thumper and Fortyniner are produced