Yep, the innovation that is Stella Artois Black is, in fact – golden! Just like all their other beers!! Hey, that squirrel just talked to me!!!
According to the press release: “Matured for longer, Stella Artois Black is a golden beer, offering a rounded, full-bodied flavour and a refreshing aftertaste at 4.9% abv. Brewed in and imported from Belgium, the home of Stella Artois, Stella Artois Black will be available in limited distribution and is perfect for those special occasions when consumers want to try something new and different.”
Yes, Stella Black is in fact a 4.9% premium golden lager for when consumers – not beer fans mind, not even beer drinkers, but consumers – fancy “something new and different” from Stella Artois a 5% ‘premium’ golden lager.
It’s all rather wonderful, like when someone explains to you their absolute firm belief that fairies exist, or the Matrix is real.
The reason I’m late with this is because I replied to the PR agency who sent me the release, asking why it was called Black, when it wasn’t, and why it was any different from Stella.
I just got a reply – here’s what they said.
“The name Stella Artois Black denotes premium quality to our customers and consumers – as opposed to being a descriptor in terms of the beer’s colour.”
and on the second point:
“Stella Artois Black is matured for longer, to develop a rounded, full-bodied flavour, and has a rich, golden colour.”
Now I’ve got the sarkiness out of my system, when you stare at it for a bit, it becomes clear what A-B Inbev are trying to do with this launch. Stella has lost its premiumness. Black does indeed connote premiumness in a general branding sense. People think (not necessarily accurately) that imported lagers are better than those brewed here. And more discerning drinkers value flavour a little more.
But here’s why this is in fact a disastrous brand extension.
Black may denote quality in a general sense. But in beer, it denotes colour. That’s been established by previous brands. I’m sure someone somewhere has produced focus group evidence suggesting that this isn’t an issue. But it is. This will cause huge confusion, upsetting people who want a black lager, driving away those who don’t like the idea.
The problem with the product specifics of this beer is that, by launching it, A-B Inbev have drawn attention to all the flaws in the parent brand:
- Ten years ago there wouldn’t have been a need to launch a richer, fuller flavoured version of Stella, because Stella itself was richer and more fully flavoured than other lagers.
- For much of its history there was no need to mature Stella for longer, because Stella was matured longer than other lagers. I’m trying to find out how long ‘longer’ is, but it would be temporally impossible to mature Black for any shorter length of time if rumours of Stella Artois’ current maturation time are to be believed.
- Even back when it was good, ‘proper imported Stella’ was seen as superior to the stuff brewed here (even though blind taste tests proved this was not the case). Black is reminding us that the main Stella brand is brewed in a shed just off the M4.
As they list each selling point of Stella Artois Black, they remind the drinker of what Stella used to be, and how inferior the present version is. That’s why a brand launch intended to raise the premium credentials of the Artois ‘family’ overall will in fact do the direct opposite, actively making it painfully clear how un-premium the parent brand – the most important member in that family – has become.
Stella Black also falls between two stools in targeting terms. The premium beer drinker who has moved on from Stella has already found other brands that are fully flavoured and genuinely imported. The worrying lack of any product information surrounding this release – I even had to write and ask if it was an ale or a lager – shows a desire to remain vague about specifics that will not satisfy the discerning drinker. What reason would a Budvar drinker, for example, have to switch to this? And the silent majority who like Stella how it is now – why would they be interested in this? It’s lower in alcohol, looks expensive, and sounds like it tastes too strong.
It’s fascinating to watch, like a slow motion car crash.
I once summarised the expert thinking on brand extensions for a brand manager on Stella. That brand manager is now president of A-B Inbev UK. I wish he’d kept hold of my powerpoint presentation – he’d have saved his company several million pounds. Because anyone who knows the first thing about brand extensions can see that in this case, black is most appropriate as a colour of mourning.