David Cunningham is a man with a big job.
The former Guinness marketing chief is eight months into the post of programme director for the pan-industry initiative aiming to revive the fortunes of our national drink.
Funded by the five biggest global brewers, the move is inspired by a decade-long campaign in Spain, which saw the category return to growth.
The size of the task is immense. While total UK beer volumes last year came in flat after seven years of steady decline, the on-trade continued to suffer with volumes down 3.6%. Yes, there have been a couple of jumps in recent quarters, fuelled by consecutive beer duty cuts and the World Cup, but the fear is that these are no more than dead cat bounces and the category remains on a permanent downward trend.
The campaign — known until this point as Let There Be Beer — is being renamed and repositioned. And not before time, some would say.
While its intentions when launched last summer were seen as noble, critics argued that the campaign execution was flawed and slipped into the worst habits of big brewer advertising. In an embarrassing blow, the first iteration of the TV ad was banned by the advertising watchdog for implying that alcohol could boost popularity and, among other things, had therapeutic qualities.
So it was against this backdrop that beer enthusiast Cunningham took up his role in February this year. He admits reaction to last year’s campaign activity was mixed and some things “weren’t perfect”.
“When I came on board, one of the first things we did was ask consumers what they thought about beer and the previous campaign. We needed some insight into what some of the barriers to drinking beer were,” he says. “There were some positive words associated with beer, such as refreshment, sociability, conviviality. But what also came through is that beer is still perceived as being quite narrow in terms of its appeal.”
The link between beer and certain occasions — watching sport or drinking with your mates in the pub — reinforces the laddish stereotype and, according to Cunningham, lacks inspiration or aspiration. “Beer has been telling that same sort of story for many years.”
So it’s time for a change in narrative. Cunningham wants to address three big themes where he thinks beer falls down in comparison to other drinks categories: quality, diversity and versatility.
“Beer is perceived as lower quality than other drinks chiefly because, I think, the industry hasn’t been very good at talking to consumers about its qualities. They aren’t aware of the variety and styles of beer available and, as a result, its appeal is much narrower than it should be,” he says.
The rise of craft beer and the increasing popularity of cask ale suggests there is an increasing understanding that there’s more to beer, but Cunningham insists there’s a huge job to do to take that message mainstream. “We need to give people genuinely new reasons to reappraise and think differently about beer. So that means we need to present it in a new and surprising way.”
Watching last year’s TV ad again, it’s easy to understand the criticism it received. It’s difficult to know who is behind the campaign and what it is trying to achieve. The message is unclear and it plays out like a big mainstream lager ad (mainly because all the beers featured are lagers).
Cunningham would rather look to the future and accentuate the positives. “What we found is that it’s motivating for consumers if you tell them the beer industry is coming together, putting its differences aside and promoting a category they love,” he says. “So we are launching a new campaign name and promoting who is behind it,” he says.
The new name for this collective of brewers, trade bodies and campaigners is Britain’s Beer Alliance. “Our communication will make clear who the people behind the alliance are, and we’re using it as a call to action to ask others to join us. I don’t want to create a new bureaucracy or rival to the BBPA (British Beer & Pub Association) — we’re saying let’s join forces for the good of the category.”
We meet on the first day of filming for the new TV advert, debuting this Sunday (2 November) and directed by acclaimed film-maker Michael Winterbottom, whose credits include 24 Hour Party People and The Trip. It marks the beginning of a £10m marketing push that runs through into 2015, taking in television, trade and digital communication.
“The idea we have come up with is saying to people that whatever the occasion — big, small, formal, informal — there’s a beer for that. Whatever the food, flavour or meal that you’re having, there’s a beer to go with that too. Whatever the weather, whatever the season — there’s a perfect beer for you. So we’re trying to show people that because there is this huge array of styles and varieties, there’s a perfect beer to suit any occasion,” he says.
For the purposes of a 60-second TV advert, the message has been intentionally narrowed to food-driven occasions taking in a number of different beers being enjoyed in different scenarios. And yes, pubs do feature in the ad.
His ideal outcome is that the campaign slogan ‘There’s a Beer for That’ is used in the vernacular, starts to gain traction with drinkers and attitudes toward beer start to shift. But Cunningham is approaching the task with lots of pragmatism.
“The theory is that from attitude it starts to shift to behaviour, you then see a rise in consumption. Our bet is, if we can get people drinking a wider range of beer on more occasions, then the penetration of beer will start to increase. But to be realistic I think we’re talking about a three to four-year time-frame,” he says.
Funding from the global brewers is initially for a three-year period, but Cunningham is confident that as the campaign gains momentum, investment will continue. Similar initiatives in other European countries have run for much longer.
He admits to having learnt a lot from conversations with representatives of the Spanish campaign, which focused heavily on the quality message, as well an extensive gastronomy and beer programme. “In the trade we’ve been talking about food and beer for a while, but from our research, the consumer thinks it’s still quite new and different.
"It’s appealing as a message because it almost gives permission to have a beer when you want a beer. I’m sure a lot of people out there will quite enjoy that,” he says.
So why should the trade care about this?
“They should care because we are putting millions of pounds into a campaign that aims to change consumer attitudes and is telling people to go back into the pub and explore a wider range of beers. So operators can expect to have motivated consumers coming into their pubs with a different attitude and looking to try something new.”
He insists he wants to engage with the beer and pub industry on working out what the best way forward might be; on-trade training initiatives, beer and food menu ideas, marketing support, for example.
“People will judge us by what we do, not what we say. I’m confident that we are back on track with the right message and have something that the industry can unite behind,” he adds.
If Cunningham achieves the campaign’s objectives then we can all raise a glass to that.
Cunningham joins Coca-Cola Enterprises as brands marketing manager
Becomes brands marketing manager for Cadbury Schweppes Bottling Group
Moves to Diageo as global brand director for Jose Cuervo and Guinness, eventually becoming global innovations director
Marketing director for Moët Hennessy
Joins Constellation Brands as business development director
Becomes chief marketing officer at Accolade Wines
Appointed programme director of Let There Be Beer campaign