A new press release about the rejuvenation of Britain’s most famous ever beer brand causes more problems than it solves.
I don’t go out of my way to drip withering scorn on Anheuser Busch-InBev, but they always seem to be able to trigger me when they announce the launch of a new beer. A few years ago I did a conference presentation on how (and how not) to do innovation, and when I illustrated this with numerous examples of rubbish launches, it started to look like a vendetta against the world’s biggest brewery. It wasn’t meant to be. They just gave me more instances of all that was wrong with marketing hype, more consistently, than any other brewer.
And so we come to last week’s announcement that Bass Ale is returning to the UK, and a launch which is pretty much a perfect case study in corporate bullshit being sprayed over something the corporation in question neither knows nor cares about.
A bit of background: Bass found fame in the early 19th century as the quintessential IPA (when IPAs tended just to be called ‘pale ales’.) Brewed in Burton on Trent, it superseded Allsopp’s, the town’s original big hitter in India, and went on to become the first ever global beer brand. Its distinctive red triangle was famous all across the British Empire and beyond, and became the UK’s first ever registered trademark, narrowly missing out to German brand Krupp’s in being the world’s first, in any product category. Bass was so admired that less talented, less scrupulous brewers would simply copy the label and pass off their own beers as Bass, necessitating the move.
By the mid-twentieth century the allure of IPA had faded, but Bass was still one of the biggest and most famous beer brands in the UK when a period of rapid consolidation began among breweries. The second wave of this consolidation in the late 1990s saw Inbev acquire Bass – by then a massive conglomerate still based in Burton on Trent – only to be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. They ended up having to sell most of Bass (the company) to what is now Molson Coors, but confusingly held on to Bass (the beer) and proceeded to largely ignore it in the UK for the next twenty years. When approached and asked if they didn’t want it, AB-InBev replied they would sell UK licensing rights (inaccurately reported as being for an outright sale of the brand) for £15 million – essentially a massive middle finger extended to anyone who thought the world’s most legendary beer deserved better than the neglect they were showing it.
So now, instead of selling or ignoring it, AB-InBev is apparently relaunching it. I should be happy about this. I don’t think I am. With reference to this article, here’s why.
1.The headline: AB-InBev announce they are ‘bringing back’ Bass ale to the UK on-trade.
No it isn’t, because Bass Ale never left the UK on-trade, despite appearances. It’s been brewed under licence by Marston’s for years. It’s simply been given no support by its owners. Where you occasionally found it, it wasn’t bad – if it had been treated right. So the headline is factually inaccurate, and merely draws attention to the fact that if it ever felt like Bass had disappeared from the UK, this was entirely AB-InBev’s fault.
2. The picture: ‘Imported Pale Ale’.
The same visual used at the top of this blog has accompanied every story about this launch in the UK drinks trade press, so it is obviously the image that was sent out by AB-InBev themselves with the release (or at least, I’m assuming it is – for some reason, they no longer send me their press releases directly. Can’t think why.) The reason they won’t sell Bass to anyone else is that even though they may not care about it in the UK, it makes a lot of money for them as an exported beer to markets such as the US and Japan. The image accompanying the story about relaunching Bass in the UK clearly shows a bottle of Bass saying that it is ‘imported’. So either:
(a) They’re planning on brewing UK Bass abroad, for some unfathomable reason, or
(b) They’re going to dishonestly sell beer brewed in Britain as a beer imported to the UK, for reasons, again, that I cannot possibly fathom, or
(c) They couldn’t even be bothered to find an image of what UK Bass will look like to accompany the announcement of its relaunch. If it’s launching in December as stated, the new label – if there is a different one – will have been signed off months ago. But they couldn’t even be arsed to find a reference to it.
3. AB-InBev is launching Bass is to ‘reinvigorate’ and ‘reignite’ the UK’s premium ale category.
The sheer, Trumpish arrogance of it. The UK’s premium ale category is doing just fine, thanks. The astonishing growth of craft beer means that nearly one in four pints in the UK on-trade is now cask ale or craft beer in other formats. Even when you take craft out, ‘premium’ ale is doing way better than ‘standard’. BBPA data shows ‘premium ale’ is more or less steady in volume terms in the on-trade. But here comes AB-InBev to the rescue of a category they haven’t cared about since they arrived in this country. The category doesn’t need ‘reigniting’! Its already on fire. Which is of course the real reason they’re now relaunching Bass after all this time, to exploit a healthy category rather than altruistically reigniting a struggling one.
The press release also reminds us that AB-InBev owns Stella Artois and Budweiser. Without disclosing the actual figures, the Marston’s On-Trade Beer Report shows that in the on-trade, Stella Artois is in single digit decline, Budweiser is in double-digit decline, and so is Stella 4%. Maybe ‘re-ignite’ your core brands first, eh guys?
4. ‘The beer will be made at AB-InBev’s brewery in Samlesbury, Lancashire.’
Because in a market where provenance, tradition and heritage are some of the key drivers, who gives toss where an iconic beer is brewed, am I right? Bass pale ale made Burton-on-Trent the most famous ale brewing town in the world. Across the planet today, pale ale brewers still ‘Burtonise’ their water to give it the unique mineral profile that made Bass so famous. Bass is being brewed right now under license in Burton, by Marston’s. But yeah, let’s relaunch this premium, iconic brand that’s indelibly associated with the world’s most beer town by making it in a factory in another county. While we’re at it, let’s make Cornish pasties in Croatia, Roquefort cheese in Slough, and vintage champagne in Barnsley. Because it doesn’t matter.
5. ‘Bass was the world’s first pale ale.’/’Bass is a pale ale pioneer’.
Oh fuck off. I’m sorry (I’m trying to rein in the bad language and anger on this blog and sounds more professional) but fuck the fuck off. Even the most cursory reading of the history of pale ale/IPA shows this simply isn’t true. Bass was not even Burton-on-Trent’s first pale ale, let alone the world’s. Readily available records of ‘pale ale’ go back at least 160 years before Bass was even founded. Allsopp’s were sending pale ale from Burton to India for almost a decade before Bass got in on the act. There are only two possibilities here: either AB-InBev haven’t even been bothered to read about the history of the brand they’re relaunching, or they are knowingly lying. The problem in this press release – as in any other by this company – is their clear display that all this stuff is just marketing copy to them, to be used in the moment as they see fit, whether it’s accurate or not.
6. ‘We can’t wait to reintroduce shoppers to this historic brand.’
Bear in mind that this is a story specifically about reintroducing Bass to pubs. They could have said ‘pub-goers’, ‘people’, drinkers’, even that lazy catch-all ‘consumers’ – given that beer is actually consumed – but they choose to describe punters at the bar in a pub as ‘shoppers’ instead. To my mind, this suggests that’s all AB-InBev see people as – entities that shop. All that matters is that you buy the beer and hand over your money. But even my assumption is true, it’s still a weird thing to say out loud. No one else describes pub-goers as ‘shoppers’ – it just sounds wrong. It makes it sound like you don’t understand what a pub is. A halfway competent PR might have said, “You know what? This may be typical of the eerily robotic language we use internally, but maybe we should change it to something that sounds more normal and human if we’re speaking publicly.”
I don’t mind that Bass ale is 5.1% ABV. That sounds good, in line with what the style should be. What I do mind is that this is the only detail they see fit to mention about the beer itself. We get stuff about its illustrious history (which AB-InBev had nothing to do with.) We get stuff about its success as an export beer. But true to form for the world’s largest brewery which in fact cares nothing whatsoever about beer, there are no details at all about what ‘shoppers’ can expect if they drink Bass pale ale as opposed to just buying it. Is it brewed to a traditional Bass recipe? Given the focus is on bottles, will it be bottle-conditioned or not? What hops are in it? Will it differ at all from the existing cask version? Is it brewed with traditional British barley or has it been re-worked? FOR GOD’S SAKE WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE? These are the things that people who are truly interested in the premium ale category care about. They seem not to have occurred to the company that thinks it is going to ‘reinvigorate’ that category.
I hope the relaunched Bass ale is a phenomenal beer. I truly do. I’ve probably written more about this brand than any other beer. In the history of food and drink, it is comparable to champagne or cognac in its significance. If it tastes great, I will buy it (can’t imagine there’ll be samples in the post) and I will publicly say that it tastes great. But when the most interesting thing they can say in the press release is that a beer with the same name (I doubt it’s actually the same beer) went down with the Titanic, I only get a sinking feeling.
*Update, 19th November*
I asked AB-InBev on Twitter about the ‘imported’ claim in point 2, above, and they had the courtesy to reply.
It turns out that the bottle featured here is the right bottle, and that AB-InBev do in fact plan on selling Bass dishonestly in the UK as an ‘imported beer’. Their exact response was ‘The name is a nod to its international popularity and to differentiate it from other Bass ales in the UK.’
As I pointed out in response, it’s great that they want to talk to British drinkers about the success of a British-brewed beer overseas. But the correct word to use here would be ‘exported’ – the precise opposite of the word they intend to use on the bottle. The fact that they are also selling the beer in the US-format 355ml bottle instead of the standard UK measures of 330ml or 500ml also leads me to conclude that this is a deliberate and knowing attempt to mislead British drinkers into thinking Bass Ale is an imported beer. That’s why I have now reported this to the Trading Standards Authority.