'It’s in our interest to have a really vibrant sector' – Heineken's on-trade director

By Ed Bedington

- Last updated on GMT

Cheerleading: Heineken's Chris Jowsey is a great supporter of Britain's pubs and bars
Cheerleading: Heineken's Chris Jowsey is a great supporter of Britain's pubs and bars

Related tags Heineken Public house

While beer brands are the bread and butter for Chris Jowsey, he believes it is the pub where memories are made and the connection between brands and good times are a crucial combination.

When it comes to Heineken, it’s not just about the beer, it’s about the pub as well, according to the company’s Chris Jowsey.

Of course, having recently moved from heading up the company’s pub operation, Star Pubs & Bars, to becoming director of on-trade at Heineken, it’s no surprise that Jowsey is a firm supporter, but with a role focused on growing the sales of Heineken’s brand portfolio, he’s determined not to lose sight of the importance the pub plays in fulfilling that role.

When it comes to boosting his brands, he says it’s important that Heineken takes a partnership approach. “One of the challenges for us is you have to think about the pub as well. We can do a campaign that’s great for Foster’s, but unless it’s good for the pub as well, all it does is switch brand within the pub, and you have to question whether that’s great for the pub – it’s got to be great for both of us.”

However, while Jowsey is keen to paint a supportive picture for the pub sector, his company has come under fire from operators for its regular, annual beer increases. But Jowsey remains bullish: “As we said at the time, we fully appreciate increasing prices is never popular, but there is only so much cost pressure we can absorb. And as we know from other headlines, beer and brewing is not alone in suffering these pressures.”

He says this means the company has to look for further ways to add value: “What this does mean is a redoubling of our effort to deliver support to our customers through category insight, innovation, investment in brands that bring people through the door, and added value so we can grow together. This is evident by virtue of the fact our licensees recognise our commitment and capability to help develop their business. We are determined to continue to add value to our customers and grow together.”

On-trade brand building

He remains a firm believer in the concept that brands are built in the on-trade, and says the bonus for Heineken is having its own pub estate in which to experiment and play with brands first. He points to Strongbow Dark Fruits as a case in point. “That’s been a runaway success, and is now the second biggest cider in the UK. We made a decision to roll that into the wider on-trade after a trial at Star.

“If we’re honest we ummed and ahhed. We weren’t sure if it was the right thing to do, to go for a draught Dark Fruit, but thank God we did! We trialled it at a 10% premium, and it just flew.”

He revealed that every week last year, Heineken installed more than 100 pubs with Dark Fruits across the UK. “It’s really tapped a chord, but we would not have gone for it if we hadn’t done it in our pub estate first.”

And with Heineken poised to gobble a further 1,900 pubs from Punch into the Star estate, the scope for more trials is certainly something that is going to grow. Unfortunately, with the Heineken-Patron bid due to go before Punch shareholders on 20 Feb, Jowsey is unable to comment on what the estate expansion will mean for his operation – but it’s clearly going to have an impact.

While Jowsey has been in his current role for just over a year now, he’s no stranger to the on-trade sales environment, having run breweries and was Heineken’s commercial director prior to moving across to head up Star. “There was a sense of going back to where I’d come from, but obviously in a bigger role on the leadership team.”

Embracing the opportunity

And a lot can happen in three years, he smiles: “It’s constantly changing – when I went into Star, Birra Morretti was just a twinkle in someone’s eye, and craft beer was only just getting going in the UK.”

For a large multinational brewer like Heineken, that movement might be seen as something of a nuisance, with craft beer aficionados shunning their products as too mainstream, but Jowsey embraces the opportunity it brings.

“It’s in our interest to have a really vibrant sector, to have people talking about beers. Craft beer is a really interesting phenomenon, you can either take the view of it as a threat, or you can see it as a great opportunity for beer – I see it as a great opportunity for beer and cider. Anything that gets people talking about beer, and interested in beer and wanting to sample beer is a good thing and they do it in the on-trade.

“People don’t talk about the great beer they had at home. It’s about the experience that’s gone with it – it’s really social.”

Of course, the emphasis on the new often comes at the expense of the old, and with mature brands like Foster’s and John Smith’s on its books, Heineken certainly has its work cut out. But while Jowsey admits those products are facing challenges, he says the size and scale of them remain strong. “You ignore them at your peril. The classics are Foster’s and John Smith’s, and yeah, they’re under pressure, but they’re still huge and an awful lot of consumers want to drink them.”

He says that brands like those, and Strongbow as well, accounted for 85% of the company’s volume five years ago. They are nearer to 50% now, but part of that is down to Heineken’s diversification of its brand portfolio. “We’ve developed a whole series of other products to meet the various consumer occasions,” Jowsey points out.

Key trends

However, he says the key trends – premiumisation, quality and providing a great experience – had stayed the same, albeit those trends have accelerated while the investment in pubs to meet those trends has really stepped up. “Clearly, there’s a lot more confidence in the on-trade now than there was three years ago.”

And he says change is in the air across the country. “I live in the north-east, and if I look at Newcastle, there’s so much investment going on there, it’s untrue. It’s breaking out of the south-east, and places like Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow are really exciting. There’s a lot of innovation, investment and, incidentally, a lot of change in the drinking culture.

“We’re seeing a move away from that kind of old-fashioned, purely vertical drinking, to a wider experience – more food, more events, more experience!”

Innovation and experience is key, he says: “The guys that are doing it well, succeeding and winning, are generally pretty innovative. They’re trying to create an experience and event that’s more than just about drinking – they have service standards that are first class, and make you feel as though you want to go back and stay.”

Creating the experience

Ultimately, when it comes to brands, beer and pubs that experience is vital in the fight against the off-trade and in-home market. “Beer is a very so-ciable product,” says Jowsey. “We all like drinking beer, but the reason is the craic that goes with it. So, when you’re in the pub, with your mates or your family, it’s the memories that go with the beer that count.

“I’m going to sound really romantic, but that’s incredibly important – the joy of the on-trade is a great night out, and when you have a great night out, you remember what you were drinking and all those positive memories go with the brand. If I’m really honest, I’ve yet to have a really great afternoon out in the supermarket. And I don’t think that’s going to change!”

Related topics Beer

Related news

Show more