This week Young’s pubs announced that they were delisting Stella Artois because it was no longer premium enough. All Bar One also recently delisted the brand on the same grounds.
I’m enormously sad about this, because however unlikely it seems, it was Stella that caused me to become a beer writer.
Ten years ago I was a strategic planner working on the “Reassuringly Expensive” TV campaign. The ads were set in Provence, filmed as cinematic epics, and widely considered to be among the best stuff on TV, ads or programmes. Polls revealed that it was the brand more desired by Publicans than any other. Research among drinkers showed that the brand was seen as authentic, ‘genuinely continental’, and above all, premium. That was its cachet. The nineties was a decade when people who couldn’t afford flash cars or designer clothes started to trade up to premium versions of everyday goods – freshly squeezed orange juice, Haagen Dazs ice cream, and Stella instead of ‘standard’ lager. No other mainstream beer brand – with the exception of Guinness – came anywhere close to it in terms of image and desirability. In one or two research groups I did, one or two people told me it was nicknamed ‘wifebeater’ because of its strength, but I never heard this on a day-to-day basis.
We hadn’t intended for it to become so popular. We didn’t know how it had happened. It was the right brand in the right place at the right time, and we knew that somehow, it had managed to be a mainstream brand that was simultaneously perceived as special. Millions of people were drinking it, but each one of them believed they were making a more discerning choice than everyone else in doing so.
To some extent Stella is a victim if its own success. Most beer in the off-trade now is sold at steep price discounts that brewers are powerless to control. As the most desirable brand, Stella ended up being featured in promotions more than most, and this damaged its ‘expensive’ positioning.
But it was walking a tightrope. If retailers were pulling it towards the mainstream and the everyday, the brand’s owners needed to counter this by doing a whole lot more to increase its premium image. Instead, following the merger that created Inbev, the brand’s new owners chased volume.
For a short time, they got it, but the brand was starting to rot. Kronenbourg sold a fraction of Stella’s volume, but started to innovate – a wheat beer, a stronger beer called Grand Cru, a new ultra-premium font, extra-cold serve, beautiful large bottles to be shared over a meal… Stella did nothing.
In 1999 I was asked to write the first positioning presentation for Artois Bock. The truth about Bock is that it is the first beer ever brewed by Sebastien Artois, thirty years before Stella. It was a great story – a TRUE story (which is more than can be said for the recent campaign claiming Stella has been brewed by the Artois family for 600 years, which has just been banned for being a big fat lie).
Reviving Bock would have increased the sense that the brand was different, premium and continental, at a time when people already loved it. The idea was shelved, even while the market for imported Belgian speciality beers was growing by 30-40% a year.
Bock was finally launched in 2005, when Stella had already started to decline. Launching a new variant from a position of strength is completely different than doing it when you’re in trouble, when it’s often seen as an act of desperation. Every student of marketing knows that – it seems Inbev didn’t.
Likewise, Peeterman Artois is a decent enough beer if you’re looking for something cold at no more than 4%. It should have been premium – within weeks of launch it was on special offer on massive displays in Sainsbury’s.
Instead of investing in image, they chased volume. Every bar owner who wanted Stella got it, so it started to appear in dives, product quality began to vary, and drinker image changed. I’ve often said that the main thing preventing many British men from drinking cask ale is the fear they would be lumped in with the socks-and-sandals ticker stereotype. By the mid-noughties there was an equally repellent drinker image at the other end of the scale – the binge drinking lad who made ‘Stella-ed’ into a verb shortly before trying to pick a fight with a policeman. Inbev did nothing – certainly nothing that was visible to the average lager drinker – to counter this.
I last worked on Stella in 2000, but it was a great brand for several years after that. Then Inbev simply seemed to ignore everything we had learned about the brand and managed to turn 19% growth into double-digit decline in the space of three years. Of course, the people who wrecked the brand will have worked on it for two years before being transferred to something else, picking up their bonus for achieving short-term sales volumes and leaving someone else to clear up the mess they created.
There are good people inside big brewers, even good people inside Inbev, people who are as passionate about beer as any beer blogger. I wish the people they answer to would realise that this is what happens when you ignore the good people. But I doubt it.
… to this, in five short years.