Category: Marketing

| Beer, IPA, Marketing

Bass Ale is back. I wish I were more delighted.

A new press release about the rejuvenation of Britain’s most famous ever beer brand causes more problems than it solves. 

Oh, you shouldn’t have! No, really. 

I don’t go out of my way to be pissed off by 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 presentation on how and how not to do innovation, and when I gave bad examples of crap 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 examples of all that was wrong about marketing hype, more consistently, than anyone else did.

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 Brewed in Burton on Trent, it superseded Allsopp’s, the town’s original big hitter in India, and went on to become the first ever global beer brand.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 steal 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, A-B Inbev replied they would sell UK licensing rights (inaccurately reported as being for an outright sale) for £15 million – essentially a massive ‘fuck you’ 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, they’re 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.

Bass Ale never left, 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 A-B Inbev’s fault.

2. The picture: ‘Imported Pale Ale’.

The same visual used above has accompanied every story about this launch in the UK drinks trade press, so it is obviously the image that was sent out by A-B Inbev themselves with the release (I’m assuming – 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 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, 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 A-B 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 A-B 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 A-B Inbev’s brewery in Samlesbury, Lancashire.’ 

Because in this market, who gives a toss about provenance and locality? 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 famous pale ale brewing 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, . 

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 and be 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. 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 A-B Inbev haven’t even been bothered to read about the history of the brand they are 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’. To my mind, this suggests that that’s all A-B Inbev see people as – things that shop. All that matters is that you buy the beer and hand over your money. But even if that’s true, it’s still a weird thing to say. 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 to something that sounds more normal and human if we’re speaking publicly.”

They didn’t.

7. “5.1%” 

I don’t mind that Bass ale is 5.1% ABV. That sounds good. 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 A-B 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.

| Beer, Beer Writing, Marketing

Under The Influencer

Exploring the tricky territory of free stuff and paid-for recommendations.

 

Last week, I was asked if I’d like to become an Amazon influencer. “The idea is pretty simple,” said the e-mail from the guy at Upfluence.com, “You’ll have your own page on Amazon.com where you can recommend your favorite products and earn money on qualifying purchases made through your page.”

This guy, Doug, approached me because he’d seen my Twitter profile and thought it made me a perfect candidate. I’m guessing he was looking simply at the number of followers I have rather than anything I actually tweet, because if he’d read my tweets he’d have realised pretty quickly that I live in the UK and therefore don’t have any dealings with the American Amazon.com. But that’s not the main reason I’ve ignored Doug’s emails.

Is its just me or is this a really odd concept? Is anyone reading this and thinking, “Ooh, I occasionally read Pete’s writing about beer or cider, I wonder what deodorant he’d recommend or what brand of toner refill cartridge he uses?”

I just find the whole idea of identifying as an ‘influencer’ really odd. I hope I am influential: I’ve spoken to several people who left their jobs and started working in beer or even opened their own breweries after reading something I’ve written. But it’s like being labelled a ‘consumer’ or ‘shopper’ – it’s something we do, not something we are.

I’m aware that some people make their money doing this, creating vlogs or Instagram feeds where they talk about the latest make up products they’ve been sent for free. It strikes me as a rather sad way of living, and I’m astonished that it works: if you know someone is recommending products purely because they are being paid to do so by the people selling them, why would you believe anything they say?

It reminds me of another disturbing trend in the beer world.

Each week, I get sent beer and cider for free by brewers or cider makers who are keen to hear what I think about it. I’m always grateful to receive it. If someone asks me for personal, private feedback, I always endeavour to give it, but sometimes fail if I’m too busy. I now review beers for Original Gravity magazine, and if I really like a beer, I’ll write it up for that. But I don’t do beer reviews on this blog: it’s not the aspect of beer writing that interests me personally, and there are a great many other people doing it perfectly well.

Increasingly, I’m getting e-mails from brewers – or more often, from junior PR execs working on their behalf – offering me free beer in exchange for a review. Sometimes, they offer free beer in exchange for a positive review. Each time I get an email like this, I write back thanking them, and explaining my approach as outlined above – I can’t promise a good review, or any review at all, but it might get one if it’s really good, so if that sounds OK, here’s my address. And every single time, I never hear from them again – no response to my email, and no beer in the mail.

I don’t do this job to try to get free beer, and I think there’s something dodgy about people for whom that’s a main motivation. But there’s also something dodgy about brewers or PRs who see this as a transactional relationship. I guess the reason they never write back is that they’d have to admit in writing that they’re only interested in sending beer out to people who promise to write something nice about it, and that really doesn’t look great on paper. If you know you’re only getting a positive review because that was the condition on which the beer was sent, how can you take any satisfaction from reading it? And how can anyone trust the person writing it?

Some of us draw the line in different places. I know some writers who refuse any free beer and will only review stuff they’ve paid for themselves. I respect that, even if I don’t go that far. I get a lot of free beer, and I only review a small fraction of it, so I know that the fact that I didn’t pay for it has not influenced my decision to review it. The few reviews I do write are always a mix of beer I’ve been sent and beer I’ve bought and paid for in a pub or bottle shop.

Next week, I’m off on a press trip to Catalonia. This is being fully paid for by the Catalan tourist board. I expect that at least some of us on the trip will receive some fairly sharp criticism on social media when we start tweeting about it, for accepting such hospitality. Again, I know writers who never accept such trips and respect them for it. I’m going because I’ve been keen to check out the explosion in Spanish craft beer for several years now and think there will be some genuinely interesting stories, but haven’t been able to afford to do it under my own steam. Will my reporting of the trip be influenced by the fact that I’m being given hospitality? I don’t believe so (beyond the fact that I’m actually there, of course.) But any story I write about it will carry a disclaimer explaining that it’s been paid for by someone else, so the reader can make up their own mind.

Communicators in any discipline who have a decent-sized following are in a privileged position. People put their trust in what we write. Especially when we write about our own personal experiences, there’s an unwritten contract with the reader that we will be open and honest. If I were to start recommending things purely because I was being paid or rewarded for making those recommendations, my integrity would be trashed. The trust of my readers would, quite rightly, evaporate.

We live at a time when big data is replacing creativity. The Upfluence guy only cared about the number of followers I have on Twitter, not the content or nature of my tweets, nor why those people have chosen to follow my account. The brewery’s PR firm isn’t really interested in what I think of the beer; they just want to submit a report boasting of how many pieces of coverage they achieved.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think true influence is harder earned, and much more precious than that.

| Advertising, BrewDog, Craft Beer, Marketing, The Business End

Why I can’t get too excited about BrewDog’s big ‘sell out’

The bad boys of brewing recently sold a 22% stake of their company to an investment firm. So?

First, I have a terrible confession to make. Remember when John Lydon made those butter ads? I’m afraid I was partly responsible for that.

It wasn’t my idea or anything like that, but in my role as a planner I was responsible for putting together the research among butter buyers to find out who the best celebrity would be to front the campaign. It was one of the last freelance planning jobs I did before being able to switch to writing and beer consultancy full time.

We tested Lydon against a bunch of other people, and he came out top among Britain’s housewives because they felt he was so uncompromising, he’d never just do an ad for the money – he’d only do it if he genuinely believed what he was saying.

In other words, he was the best person to do what we were paying him to do, because he would never do what we were paying him to do, so if he did that, it’s OK.

Predictably Lydon got some stick for ‘selling out’. Because this is Johnny Rotten we’re talking about, he didn’t give a shit. Where he deigned to give a response, he said that punk was always about grabbing the filthy lucre from the big guys, and that’s exactly what he was doing here.

(If you ever tire of arguing about the definition of craft beer, head over to music and have a go at defining punk. As I witnessed last year at an event to mark punk’s 40th anniversary, it makes craft beer look simple.)

So I’ve witnessed a similar situation before to the one this week where BrewDog announced they were selling a chunk of the company to TSG Investment Partners in San Francisco – the same people who also help finance Vitaminwater, popchips and US beer brand Pabst – and were greeted with cries of ‘sell out!’

I can’t get too excited one way or the other about this.

Firstly, it’s hardly surprising, is it? BrewDog has been on an astonishing growth spurt for ten years. It already has 44 bars around the world and exports to 55 countries, and has double or even triple digit growth every year. The company has always been about rapid expansion, and this is a logical next step, which, if it has any lesson at all, is that, as Martyn Cornell has written, crowdfunding can only get you so far.

Second, BrewDog is maturing. Being ‘punk’ makes perfect sense when you arrive and overturn all the tables in the temple of beer, but they’re ten years old now, and that’s ancient in craft beer years. Martin Dickie and James Watt are in their mid-thirties with young families, and they employ, at the last count, about 450 people. A couple of years ago they did a re-brand that ever so subtly made them look and feel more grown up, less brash.

Before
After

BrewDog stopped being ‘punk’ when they grew into a stable, successful business that supports hundreds of people’s livelihoods instead of putting their foot through the mash tun and throwing the fermenters into a swimming pool before overdosing on End of History in a seedy hotel room. Behind the image and the increasingly infrequent brash stunts, they employ marketers, PR people, accountants, HR managers as well as brewers who all know what they’re doing, because you can’t function as a large business if you don’t. That doesn’t sound very punk, does it?

Thirdly, James Watt individually still owns more of the company than the investment firm he’s sold a chunk of his business to. If you insist on going by the US definition of craft beer, the sold stake is less than the threshold that disqualifies BrewDog from being craft.

I doubt anyone can be truly surprised by this move. I’d be amazed if anyone was genuinely upset by it. I think any outcry is merely the satisfaction of being able to say, ‘I told you so.’

As this spoof makes clear, the one significant part of this is that BrewDog will find it increasingly difficult to get away with grandstanding ‘4 real’ behaviour. I’ve sensed a move away from this over the last few years anyway.

The punk attitude has helped BrewDog build an amazing brand that pays a lot of people’s wages and genuinely does encourage more people to enjoy great beer than would otherwise have been the case.

Punk is dead. But the punks won.

Okay, now you can tell me how the Sex Pistols were never really punk anyway.

| Anheuser-Busch, Beer, Budweiser Budvar, Lager, Marketing

Budweiser: You Can’t Rush Plagiarism

Seems like America’s beer just can’t stop stealing things from southern Bohemia…

I was shocked late Friday night to see a really good beer ad from Budweiser. No, stop laughing. I’ve seen plenty of good ads from Bud before – stuff about frogs and lizards and whazaaap, but this was a good beer ad: it’s true, it’s centred on the product, and it says something good about the broader beer category – good lager takes time to mature.

Last I heard, Budweiser is matured for twenty days. That’s not as long as the classic lagers of the Czech Republic and Germany are matured, but it’s a hell of a lot longer than the 72 hours some leading brands allegedly spend in the brewery between mashing in and packaging. You may not like the (lack of) taste in Budweiser, but even now they do some things right, and deserve some credit for that. So I was pleased to see an ad that had made lager maturation look cool.

I said as much on Twitter and Facebook, and very quickly Simon George of Budweiser Budvar UK shot back that his new strategy is to focus on the Czech beer’s astonishingly long lagering time – five times longer than the American beer. Budweiser Budvar has been running this copy for about nine months, albeit without the huge TV ad budgets US Bud can afford:

The dispute between American Budweiser and Czech Budweiser Budvar is decades old. Bud founder Adolphus Busch told a court of law, on record, in 1894: “The idea was simple,” he testified, “to produce a beer of the same quality, colour and taste as the beer produced in Budejovice [the Czech name for the town known as Budweis in German] or Bohemia.” Even though that record exists, the company has since flatly denied that this it stole the name Budweiser from the town of Budweis, or even took any inspiration from there. (There’s a lot more on this dispute in my book Three Sheets to the Wind.)

Budvar spent a long time capitalising on its David V Goliath relationship with Budweiser and has recently decided to move on and focus on its ageing process instead, as part of a new strategy to remain relevant in a market where craft beer means drinkers are more interested in product specifics. But it seems Budweiser are still hung up on their namesake. Nine months after Czech Budvar focused their marketing campaign on how long it takes to make their beer, American Budweiser focused their marketing campaign on how long it takes to make their beer:

 

Having stolen the idea, they’ve now gone the whole hog and even stolen the same copy. The Budvar headline above? ‘You can’t rush perfection.’ Spot the difference in the Facebook link to the ad below.

Come on, Budweiser. You’ve already stolen your name from the town in which Budweiser Budvar is brewed. You’ve copied their advertising idea (albiet in a fine execution) and now even their copy, word for word. You employ some of the best and most expensive advertising agencies in the world (even if you do try to shaft them on costs.) Is this the best those agencies can do?