Monster Energy’s Alan Clark is incredulous. “When I started in the trade 30 years ago, you’d go into a pub and there’d be a lemonade, a cola, a tonic water and a few orange juices on offer and that would be it for soft drinks. And I walk in today... and it’s still like that.”
He points to the wine offering you get in pubs now, “and it’s brilliant compared to 20 years ago; when I look at the beer range, it’s absolutely superb. I can now go into a country pub and choose from five flavours of vodka, but soft drinks? The pub trade really needs to up its game”.
From selling Tio Pepe sherry and fancy fizz in his early days with Gonzalez Byass, and running his own nightclubs in London, to setting up the UK arm of Red Bull, and subsequently launching rival brand Monster Energy, Clark gives the impression he’s pretty much seen it all where the on-trade is concerned.
However, even Clark admits he has been surprised by the “incredible” growth of Monster, not just in the UK, but across the EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) region he looks after for the American brand.
Since its launch here in 2008 — Monster’s first market outside the US — it is now listed in some 11,000 venues and is a one million-case brand in the on-trade alone.
It has also entered 48 countries across EMEA. The highlights include Spain, Germany and — more recently — South Africa. All of this is masterminded by Clark from his modest offices in Uxbridge, west London, with a team of less than 10 people.
“Our business model from the start was about staying lean. Monster is, on average, 25% cheaper than Red Bull for operators and we’d rather keep that in the retailers’ margin than have fleets of sales reps driving round in BMWs and warehouses full of PoS.”
It’s a brave strategy when faced with the lavish budgets of rival Red Bull (a brand that was launched more than a decade before Monster in the UK) with its F1 team and extreme sports and music tie-ups.
“We are very smart in the way we market. If you take rugby and football out of it, then most people follow individual athletes rather than teams, so we build direct relationships with athletes such as [motorcycle racer] Valentino Rossi, who loves our brand, even though we don’t sponsor the bike he rides. Obviously that’s much more commercially efficient and still allows us to be present at all the major sports activities.”
The company also uses social media to great effect, with 22 million fans on Facebook alone, and is cited by the website as one of its most successful marketing stories, “which is very flattering but we don’t spend a penny on advertising with them”.
The brand has never advertised on TV and that isn’t a decision based solely on finances: Clark believes that Monster would lose its credibility if it turned to more traditional forms of marketing.
“We’re about grassroots stuff. We look at the local scene in any market and see what will work for us and our consumers. Our ethos has always been to build the brand, one fan at a time, one store at a time and we’ll keep doing that by sending in our MAD Crew (Monster After Dark) in their big monster trucks to get the party started.”
Monster’s partnership with Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) also helps keep HQ costs and body count down. It’s a crucial relationship, and one that has helped Monster achieve size and reach “fairly quickly” in the majority of its newer markets. Only where it isn’t possible to join forces with CCE, or its local equivalent, will Clark turn to an independent distributor.
“The relationship with CCE is quite intrinsic and that applies to the US as well,” he maintains.
The US model is otherwise very different to the one employed in EMEA. For a start, Monster is the number-one drink in an energy category that is much more developed than in the UK — despite the sector not really existing before 2001 (Red Bull created the category in the UK in 1997).
Clark says: “They give much more retail space to it and there are a number of competing brands, with none being particularly dominant, although we are brand leader and the brand is colossal there.”
Indeed there are more than 50 variants of Monster in the US market. Just six of those are currently available here: Monster Green; Monster Export (the original blend with added citrus, exclusively for the on-trade); Monster Ripper (30% juice); the sugar-free, calorie-free Monster Absolutely Zero; Monster Rehab — a green tea-based variant — and the coffee-flavoured Monster X-presso.
The tea and coffee-based variants are a clear attempt to move the brand into the daytime and appeal to an older audience — two of the key challenges facing the company as it tries to stretch the brand out of its late-night heartland.
General estimates suggest that some 90% of energy drinks are consumed with a mixer and the lion’s share of them will be as part of a “bomb serve” with a spirit like Jägermeister, despite the serve being neither encouraged nor promoted by spirits or energy brands.
“We don’t endorse it and we don’t condone it. It’s great that if people are going to drink a bomb that Monster is part of it, and probably Red Bull would say the same, but would any energy drink particularly support consumption of alcohol with their brand? Probably not, we are a functional soft drink, as opposed to merely a mixer.
“I think we have a portfolio that is broad enough to stick with our consumers as they mature but also, because we are constantly innovating, to appeal to those new to the category. We are proud of the fact that the drinkers we bring in are new to energy, so — for example — we see an increase of 21%, on average, in sales of energy drinks in national accounts that have introduced Monster.
“We are growing business for everyone by bringing new drinkers into the sector, not just cannibalising sales from others.”
Future growth will also come from further distribution gains. In its partnership with CCE the company began by targeting national managed groups, gaining listings with the likes of JD Wetherspoon, Mitchells & Butlers, and Novus, followed by key regional players such as Brains and Ministry of Sound. Now Clark is turning his attention to the freetrade.
“That’s our biggest challenge for the next two to three years: how can we get to 80,000 venues without a massive sales force? We are developing strong wholesale programmes to reach people we can’t necessarily call on. We are looking at a combination of activity, anything from PoS to value promotions, to sales force incentives and we are looking to work even more closely with partners like Carlsberg via its We Deliver More programme.”
There is also a new variant in the pipeline, a cherry-flavoured version of Monster called Assault, with which the company is currently running trials. Although Clark declines to comment in any detail, the early signs look good.
“Clearly my biggest ambition is to get the Monster brand to number one here. Five years in, we can see that Monster has already significantly disrupted the UK energy drinks market, but we still have a whole lot more to aim for.”