Tag: Inbev

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Hurrah! Another new “innovation” from A-B Inbev!

Porter Tun House, Capability Green, Luton, Bedfordshire, yesterday.  (UK HQ of A-B Inbev.)
And I’m not even being snarky and ironic when I say ‘Hurrah’.
No, the thing is, I’m starting to look forward to the press releases announcing these new launches for their sheer entertainment value.  I’m a day late with this one – but with good reason, explained below.
You may remember that in April A-B Inbev announced an “innovation that would revolutionise the beer category”, which rather bizarrely turned out to be a 4% bottled Budweiser variant.  I took the piss over the hyperbole they used in announcing something that wasn’t only most definitely not an innovation in the market, but wasn’t new to A-B Inbev, and wasn’t even new to the Budweiser brand.  
I have to say, I’m still waiting for the shockwaves of innovation to rumble through my life, having yet to spot a bottle of Bud 66 in any bar, supermarket or off-licence.
But now they’ve gone better than mere hyperbole, and actually seem to be entering the realms of the surreal.  I guess if you believe your own hype 100 per cent you start to live in your own world. And if you’re completely immersed in your own fantasy world, I guess you can start to invent your own rules and laws of nature.  That’s what seems to be happening at A-B Inbev, and it’s becoming fascinating and really quite entertaining to watch.
The latest announcement is a new brand extension for Stella Artois.  After the illustrious success of Artois Bock, Eiken Artois and Peeterman Artois (remember them? Anyone? Come on, you must!  it says here that “AB InBev UK have a strong track record in successful innovations”!) A-B Inbev have announced their latest innovation: Stella Artois Black.
We all know what that must be, right?  After Budvar Dark and Asahi Black, it’s quite clear that this could only be a black lager. 
I actually think this is a really good line extension for Stella.  Its premium credentials have suffered of late – to say the least – and black lagers remain a very fashionable niche.  Wherever you see Asahi Black on sale it’s a priced a lot higher than the main brand, and it’s clearly working.  Admittedly it’s a shame Stella is not the first to market, but they’ll be the first to a mass market with something different yet accessible, something that truly is, for most people, an innovation, and demonstrates that as a premium brand, Stella is, if not quite back on track, certainly groping its way to the edge of the woods.
And look, here’s the font:

Nice, premium design.  It’s certainly black.  The beer that comes out of that tap will definitely be black, no doubt about it.  Why am I even going on about it so much?  Oh, hang on, here’s a shot of the product itself:

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.

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Monster Mash

So Inbev have made their bid to buy Anheuser-Busch – $46.3 billion.

Boy, is this one difficult.

If you’d asked my view on this five years ago I would be whooping for joy. Back then, Inbev was still a big old brute, but it styled itself as ‘the world’s local brewer’ and was the best of a bad bunch among the multinational brewing corporations. With its Belgian heritage and its acquisition of Bass, it did at least offer an alternative to characterless lagers. Most beer bloggers may turn their noses up at Leffe and Hoegaarden, but that’s because you know the delights of Westmalle, Orval, maybe even Westverleteren. If the only choice was between the Inbev brands and Bud, you’d hand the Belgians your money every time.

That was then. Since Interbrew’s merger with AmBev, the South Americans have taken the reins. Their number one global priority is Brahma, resplendent and sun-struck in its curvy, clear glass bottle. Bass – once the greatest beer the world has ever seen – is being subjected to a slow, wretched, undignified demise. When I worked with Interbrew they may have been a big corporation, but there were people who worked there because they were passionate about beer – even if that passion was frustrated. These guys have now been moved on, replaced by career marketers who believe beer can be sold by the same formulae and tick boxes as any other grocery brand. If they win in their bid for A-B, they will become even bigger, even more faceless and passionless, even less interested in beer itself.

So does that mean you say, as Roger Protz did recently, “Better the devil you know?” Hands off A-B?

I’m sorry, but no. Never. My last book, Three Sheets to the Wind, had to be read very carefully by libel lawyers before publication because of what I said about A-B in there, so I must choose my words carefully. The main reason I love the beer world is that beer attracts top people. It is the most sociable drink in the world and people who tend to spend most of their time around beer are decent, straightforward, unpretentious and above all, kind. Not A-B. In my humble opinion, based on having read detailed histories of the Busch family, they don’t just see other brewers as competitors – they seem to actively resent anyone else who has the audacity to brew beer, and desire to see them crushed. Most people know about their legal vendetta against Budvar – from whom they stole the Budweiser name. They also went to court to have Belgium’s wondeful Bush beer change its name to Scaldis, just because Bush sounded a bit like Busch. The brewer that churns out 93 million barrels of lager a year said that Dubuisson – who brew 21,000 barrels a year of a golden ale that weighs in at 12% ABV – was a threat to their business. You may well think “What mean-spirited bastards”. I couldn’t possibly comment. I’ve also heard unsubstantiated anecdotal stories of extraordinarily aggressive sale tactics, bordering on threatening. These activities go against everything that beer is about.

I know that business is business. I know that both Inbev and A-B are facing stagnating markets, with commodifying brands. I know it’s a good strategic fit because Inbev is weak in North America and China, where A-B is strong. There are plenty of arguments why this is a good move from Inbev’s point of view, and the markets are responding favourably.

But if there’s any argument as to how the drinker benefits from this is in any way, I’ve yet to hear it.