Salvation through beer innovation

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Innovation Stella artois

Brown: "By the middle of the afternoon, I felt like the Innovation Word Police"
Brown: "By the middle of the afternoon, I felt like the Innovation Word Police"
Claiming a new idea is revolutionary when it’s not ultimately stifles true innovation — which is something that beer badly needs, argues Pete Brown.

Last week I was asked to present at the Publican’s Morning Advertiser’s​ Beer Innovation Summit.

In my marketing days, innovation was a very loaded word. Everybody in big business, as well as every guru writing the kinds of business books you see in train station branches of WH Smith, agrees that innovation is absolutely essential for any manufacturer that wants to succeed in the long term.

The only snag is, 90% of innovation ideas never make it onto the shelves, and of those that do, 90% fail. Innovation is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Some deserve to fail — our brainstorm ideas for product extensions of Mr Brain’s faggots at the first agency I worked for were probably a bad idea from the start. Whereas others such as Artois Bock (remember that?), for which I wrote the first strategy presentation, deserved to succeed and were let down by poor management.

In my current career, I receive press releases with the word ‘innovation’ in the headline on a weekly basis. I have now developed a nervous twitch when I see it. Because when I read on, as I’m compelled to do, I invariably discover that ‘innovation’ is in fact being used not to describe some revolutionary product or delivery system that might genuinely excite drinkers and rekindle their interest in beer and pubs, but is instead referring to a new can size, a bigger logo or a light-weighted bottle.

Time after time, I’m astonished that the PR person expects me to get excited enough about this to summon the energy to write about it, and staggered that they expect anyone to read about it if I did.

Embarrassed silence
So I thought it would be fun to use my presentation to stir things up. I pulled together extracts from these press releases — for example, “the biggest innovation to hit cask beer ever!” — and pictures of what they referred to — for example, a handpump with a fancy metal surround — and name and shame the companies that wrote this rubbish.

Many of them were in the room. I was expecting laughter. Instead I got embarrassed silence. And one person who started applauding while I was mid-flow, and stopped quickly when they realised they were on their own.

I was on quite early in the day, and in almost every presentation that followed people apologised for using the ‘I’ word, sometimes looking nervously at me when they did so. More than one brewery swore they would never use the word again. By the middle of the afternoon, I felt like the Innovation Word Police.

I was happy that I’d struck a chord, but wondered if it was the right one.

There were two points that I didn’t make explicitly, but really should have. The first is that I have nothing against successful brand extensions and competitor-blocking product launches. One of the ‘innovations’ I ridiculed was Stella Artois Cidre, unaware that I was being followed directly by a speaker from AB InBev, the company responsible for it.

Before a very interesting speech about digital media, he pointed out that the brand I mocked for directly copying another brand five years after it had a good idea and claiming that this copying was innovative is now worth £42m.

Stella Cidre was undoubtedly a brilliant launch — a total success. But it was not new to the consumer or to the market. It’s ludicrous to even think of calling it innovation.

The same goes for the various regional brewers across the country attempting to create a product of their own that’s so close to Guinness as to be indistinguishable. A great marketing and business idea? Absolutely, and congratulations to everyone who has clawed a piece of that market away from the global giant for themselves. But ‘innovation’? Don’t make me laugh.

The second point I should have made but didn’t was that my guarding the correct use of the ‘I’ word like a dog with a box of discarded KFC bones is not just the usual beer writer’s semantic pedantry about correct usage.

Like I said at the beginning, every company agrees that innovation is essential. Every market needs it, but in beer, which is now struggling to engage a new generation of drinkers who would rather drink wine, we need it desperately.

And if you use the word ‘innovation’ in relation to launching your product in cans or copying a true innovation one of your competitors brought to market six years ago, you can then start to believe your own hype and think that you’re innovating when you are not. And that stops you from working harder to achieve true innovation.

And then you’re dead.

There were plenty of examples of real innovation presented to the room last week. It’s not impossible. So let’s see more of it.

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