A few years ago, I was on holiday in Majorca. I drank a lot of beer.
Beer brands in Spain are fiercely regional: if you’re in Madrid and you ask for a beer, you’ll get Mahou. In Barcelona, you’ll get Estrella. And in Majorca, it’s Cruzcampo. For the first four days, in every single café, bar and restaurant we went to, I politely asked what beers they stocked, and was told, simply, “Cruzcampo”.
Like its counterparts in other Spanish regions, Cruzcampo is clean, crisp and uncomplicated, but it has some integrity to it – just enough malty body to register its presence and do something when paired with a plate of grilled prawns, and the ghost of a lemony hop character to make it even more refreshing.
By the Thursday night, I realised how ridiculous I sounded and simply ordered ‘a beer’. I took a deep swig – and spat it straight back out again. It wasn’t clean and crisp – it was watery. And instead of faint malt and hops, it tasted of something bad, something rough, almost chemical. I walked from the terrace into the bar, and saw that for the first time in any of the bars we’d been in, there were two beers on: a large Cruzcampo font, and next to it, a font for one of the leading UK mainstream lager brands. When I’d ordered my beer with a heavy English accent, the waiter had simply assumed I’d want the ‘English’ beer. (Of course, none of our top mainstream brands lager brands are English in origin – a quirk that makes us unique among beer-drinking nations.)
I was reminded of this last week when I read about Mark Bentley, on-trade category controller at Molson Coors, defending mainstream lager and rightly acknowledging that decades of ‘lads and banter’ advertising has given brands such as Carling and Foster’s a lairy image.
But mainstream lager has bigger problems.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to work in advertising because the beer ads were the funniest things on TV. In the mid-1990s, when I was helping make those ads, I found beer drinkers to be fiercely tribal about their brands: you were either a Foster’s drinker, a Carlsberg drinker or a Carling drinker. While you might tolerate a rival brand at a push, your loyalties were clear.
Part of this was a hangover from the old tied brewery pub model, where different groups of pubs stocked different brands. Our drinking was moving to the off-trade, but preferences were still formed in pubs. But these brand preferences were created by that laddish advertising.
I’m sure it’s coincidence, but when I finally got to work on lager ads, those famous campaigns faded and disappeared. The mass audience that used to watch them began to fragment into hundreds of different channels, and tighter regulations stifled the humorous creativity that once made people love them.
The difference is cost
By the mid-2000s, most mainstream lager was being sold in supermarkets. Rather than spending money on flashy TV ads, the budget was transferred to funding steep price promotions and discounts. Brand loyalty vanished: now, if you drink mainstream lager, any of the big ones is fine – you just go for the one on the best deal.
From a marketing point of view, this is probably the biggest act of self-harm ever committed by a group of brands: what marketers refer to as ‘brand equity’ was eroded at astonishing speed, as brands actively encouraged their drinkers to forget loyalty and just buy beer as a commodity, like loo roll or dog food.
This action comes at a cost: if you have to constantly reduce the price, the only way to keep making money is to reduce how much the beer costs to make. Which is why now, if you taste a leading UK lager brand against international competition that’s just as mainstream but not subject to the same economics, they’re dramatically different.
It’s an astonishing situation to be in: one of the greatest brewing nations in the world, producing beers that are vastly inferior to their international counterparts. That’s why craft, premium and global beers are eating into mainstream lager’s share: you don’t have to be a connoisseur to prefer these alternatives, just someone looking for a decent, crisp pint.
Come on lads, the game’s up. The time for birds and bantz may be over, but these once-iconic brands need some new thinking.