As anyone who has read Man Walks into a Pub will know, my entry into the world of beer was via Big Lager.
I loved lager ads when I was growing up as a teenager.
Later, once I was helping make those ads, I was fascinated by the tribal loyalty people had to their favourite beer brands. If you were a group of mates in your twenties, Carling or Heineken or Carlsberg was like another one of your gang, always there when all the best times happened. In research groups you sometimes do an exercise where you ask people to imagine what brands would be like if they were people at a party. Beer brands were always characterised as confident, friendly guys, witty and popular without being an arse, enjoying a drink but never getting too drunk. This guy was never the pack leader, not necessarily the most popular or pushy guy in the room, but everyone liked him.
Things started go go wrong around 1997. Advertising regulations grew ever tighter and the funny campaigns of the eighties were no longer possible. And beer started to take itself seriously. It wanted to provide a bit of substance behind the good-natured banter. Fair enough. But the picture started to blur.
As sales of Big Lager shifted from pubs to supermarkets, price became a more decisive factor than brand image. It was widely believed that all these brands tasted the same. Not true, but if you’re drinking your lager ice-cold straight from the can, you’d have to have a delicate palate indeed to spot the difference in flavour.
With very similar products, preference had been shaped from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties by who had the best ads, the most likeable personality. (I once looked at thirty years worth of image research, and perceptions of which lager was the most ‘refreshing’ tracked the brand that had the funniest ads, rather than the brand that was banging on about refreshment specifically).
By the mid-noughties, that differentiation was based on price.
Incredibly, most shopping is still done by the wife/mother in a family. The person who buys Big Lager is usually not the person who drinks it. As the distinct personalities created by ‘Reassuringly Expensive’, ‘This Bud’s For You’, ‘I Bet He Drinks Carling Black Label’, ‘Follow The Bear’ and all the rest receded, the lager buyer knew her fella had a set of big brands that were all OK – nothing special but fine, all as good as each other – and she knew she could buy the one that was on the best deal and he’d be happy enough. Brewers hate offering these deals. Headlines like ‘lager is cheaper than bottled water’, whether they’re true or not, don’t do anyone any favours. Margins shrank to almost nothing. If any big brand could get away with not doing supermarket deals, they’d jump at the chance.
So it’s completely understandable that in the last few years Big Lager has started trying to build a sense of value and worth back into brands. Beer is cheap and commoditised, so how can we make it special again?
The strategy of putting some premiumness back into mainstream beer is a good one. The execution of that strategy, however, is starting to look pretty horrible.
I haven’t worked on any of these brands for a long time, but I know exactly the kind of language that’s being used in meetings. I’d bet my house on the fact that most Big Lager brands have a creative brief in the system that’s about ‘creating differentiation’, ‘making lager special again,’ by ‘making the brand more iconic’ and ‘improving perceptions of premiumness’. I’ll bet they also all have research that shows you don’t do this by banging on about the quality of ingredients and provenance. These might be mildly interesting copy points, but as Kronenbourg has demonstrated recently, it doesn’t wash as your main message to a typical mainstream lager drinker, especially when the substantiation behind your claim is paper-thin.
So what do you do?
You create an iconic, premium image. High production values. Brand fame. And before you know it, you turn your brand from the genial bloke at the party into an arrogant, preening narcissist.
From Psychology Today: “Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves arrogant behaviour, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration-all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships… Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g. fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment.”
You demand to be revered, claiming outrageous titles for yourself with no justification.
You start telling your drinkers they’re drinking the product wrong, or using the wrong terminology. You demand they start showing some respect.
You imagine that you are some kind of treasured prize, rather than a simple, straightforward beer.
You start to think you embody and represent something much bigger than yourself.
And lose all sense of perspective.
On the bar, you make your fonts ever bigger – sorry, more ‘iconic’ – until punters can no longer see the people serving them and bar staff have trouble passing the drinks across the bar.
Who do you think you are helping here? How exactly do you think you are ‘enhancing the consumer experience at the point of purchase?’
My aim here is not to slag off any individual campaign – some of them have merits, and like I said, I understand where they’re coming from up to a point.
My aim is to demonstrate the aggregation of so many big brands taking this approach at the same time. Brands demanding to be worshipped and respected, rather than liked and tolerated. The cumulative effect is dreadfully cold and alienating, aloof. This, for a drink that is supposedly all about the good times, about kicking back and relaxing with your mates. Big Lager has lost its way and forgotten its place. This collective arrogance is not credible, and it’s certainly not appealing. Where’s the warmth gone? Where’s the sociability?
Premiumness in beer is not about this kind of cock-waving, and it never was. It’s about the premiumness of the experience the beer creates – the experience for which the beer is the catalyst, not the central focus.
Big Lager should be reclaiming its territory as the catalyst for the perfect occasion with friends. Ale is more for savouring, more introverted. Craft beer is more exploratory, adventurous and product-focused, and cider is more refreshing, but has a limit on how much of it you can drink in a session.
Yet all these drinks are stealing share from lager. All are looking more interesting, engaging and appealing than that big lager at the moment. Mainstream lager should be solid, dependable, and reliable, and I’m sorry if that’s not sexy enough for career marketers.
As the Beer Marketing Awards demonstrated, in some areas – particularly social media and trade marketing, where you actually have to talk to people and deal with them on a one-to-one basis – Big Lager is doing some brilliant stuff.
But in advertising and branding, it has collectively lost the plot. If you think your brand should be revered and worshipped by its drinkers, you need to get out of beer as soon as possible and into therapy. Or maybe Scientology. They’ll love you guys.