Tag: Stella

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The Death of a Thousand Cuts

Ever wondered why Stella Artois had the gall to call itself ‘Reassuringly Expensive’?

It goes back to the yuppie-tastic eighties, when the brand really was a cut above its rivals. At the time, most lagers in the UK were brewed to around 3.5%, pale imitations of the European brews they claimed to be. Stella never compromised in order to get into pubs – it was the full 5.2%, sat pretty much on its own in this category, and was therefore comparatively more expensive and premium than its rivals. But ABV wasn’t the only measure of worth.

Stella was celebrated in beautifully-written, long-copy press ads – the kind you don’t see any more in our attention-deficient age. This one’s my favourite:

I dug this ad out because I’ve been thinking about the campaign in the context of an apocryphal story in marketing that’s usually attributed to a leading soup brand. Every year, the story goes, the manufacturer cut the cost fractionally by saving money on ingredients. Every year, a bowl of soup made to the old recipe and one made to the newer, cheaper recipe is brought to the MD, who is challenged to taste the difference, and he can’t. One year a new MD comes in, can’t taste any difference, and says, ‘bring me a bowl made to the recipe from ten years ago’. This causes some consternation, but eventually they manage to find the recipe and recreate last decade’s product. When everyone tastes this compared to the latest version, the difference is incredible – they’re hawking a shadow of what the product used to be, and didn’t even know it.
Now let’s come back to the Stella press ad. Great advertising works in a very simple way. You make a bold and attention-grabbing claim, and then you give the consumer reasons to believe this claim.
The above ad is a beautiful gag about how expensive the beer is. But why is it so expensive? You might not be able to read the copy from the image (though you might be able to enlarge it if you click on it), so let me tell you:
  • Stella Artois is only brewed with the best female Saaz hops
  • The beer is malted only with Europe’s finest barley
  • Unlike other, cheaper lager beers, Stella is lagered for six weeks

Taking those in turn: Stella does still use Saaz hops. But it clearly uses far fewer of them than it once did. Stella used to perform poorly in blind taste tests because it had a distinctly more bitter character than the British lager-drinking palate was used to. Taste Stella side-by-side with Budvar, even Kronenbourg today, and this is no longer the case. At a recent seminar on lager organised by the British Guild of Beer Writers, former Stella head brewer Paul Buttrick diplomatically explained that large-scale brewers generally are using fewer hops than they once did, which means that “Many beers that became global brands have less distinctive character than they originally had”.Malted using only Europe’s finest barley? Stella now proudly advertises the fact that it is brewed with maize which, far from being reassuringly expensive, is a more economical source of fermentable sugar than barley, and produces a blander beer. Stella’s beautifully-produced website, which harks back to an entirely fictitious origin of the brand in 1366 (they word it very carefully, never actually claiming that Stella was first brewed in 1366, but leaving you with a very strong impression that it was) doesn’t address the issue that maize is indigenous to North America – which wasn’t discovered for another 126 years.Fermented for six weeks? Oh, my aching sides. To be fair, there is at least a basis for a debate here, one raging between brewing traditionalists and those who have to deal with the reality of the economics of modern brewing. The latter claim you simply don’t need to condition beer for as long as we used to, that modern fermenters and ingredients can achieve the same results over a shorter time period. That may well be so, but whatever the optimal period now is, Stella is lagered for a far shorter time than many of its rivals – a week is now standard in lager. I’ve heard from an authoritative source – but without being able to get confirmation I’d better leave it vague – that Stella is fermented for considerably less time even than that.On its website, Stella claims that it is still brewed “with the same process of mixing and fermentation as in the old days”. I suppose your view on whether or not this is a bare-faced lie that insults both the drinker and the brand itself depends on how closely you define the word ‘process’. I used to love this beer – both the brand and the product itself. I was proud to have my stint working on the ad campaign. I think the ad above demonstrates exactly why I no longer feel the same way. I suspect that if a batch of Stella was brewed to the spec it had ten or fifteen years ago, and if we were permitted to taste it side-by-side with the modern version, Inbev would be the proud inheritors of one of marketing’s most enduring and revealing fables.

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The slow death of a once wonderful brand

From this…
This week Young’s pubs announced that they were delisting Stella Artois because it was no longer premium enough. All Bar One also recently delisted the brand on the same grounds.
I’m enormously sad about this, because however unlikely it seems, it was Stella that caused me to become a beer writer.
Ten years ago I was a strategic planner working on the “Reassuringly Expensive” TV campaign. The ads were set in Provence, filmed as cinematic epics, and widely considered to be among the best stuff on TV, ads or programmes. Polls revealed that it was the brand more desired by Publicans than any other. Research among drinkers showed that the brand was seen as authentic, ‘genuinely continental’, and above all, premium. That was its cachet. The nineties was a decade when people who couldn’t afford flash cars or designer clothes started to trade up to premium versions of everyday goods – freshly squeezed orange juice, Haagen Dazs ice cream, and Stella instead of ‘standard’ lager. No other mainstream beer brand – with the exception of Guinness – came anywhere close to it in terms of image and desirability. In one or two research groups I did, one or two people told me it was nicknamed ‘wifebeater’ because of its strength, but I never heard this on a day-to-day basis.
We hadn’t intended for it to become so popular. We didn’t know how it had happened. It was the right brand in the right place at the right time, and we knew that somehow, it had managed to be a mainstream brand that was simultaneously perceived as special. Millions of people were drinking it, but each one of them believed they were making a more discerning choice than everyone else in doing so.
To some extent Stella is a victim if its own success. Most beer in the off-trade now is sold at steep price discounts that brewers are powerless to control. As the most desirable brand, Stella ended up being featured in promotions more than most, and this damaged its ‘expensive’ positioning.
But it was walking a tightrope. If retailers were pulling it towards the mainstream and the everyday, the brand’s owners needed to counter this by doing a whole lot more to increase its premium image. Instead, following the merger that created Inbev, the brand’s new owners chased volume.
For a short time, they got it, but the brand was starting to rot. Kronenbourg sold a fraction of Stella’s volume, but started to innovate – a wheat beer, a stronger beer called Grand Cru, a new ultra-premium font, extra-cold serve, beautiful large bottles to be shared over a meal… Stella did nothing.
In 1999 I was asked to write the first positioning presentation for Artois Bock. The truth about Bock is that it is the first beer ever brewed by Sebastien Artois, thirty years before Stella. It was a great story – a TRUE story (which is more than can be said for the recent campaign claiming Stella has been brewed by the Artois family for 600 years, which has just been banned for being a big fat lie).
Reviving Bock would have increased the sense that the brand was different, premium and continental, at a time when people already loved it. The idea was shelved, even while the market for imported Belgian speciality beers was growing by 30-40% a year.
Bock was finally launched in 2005, when Stella had already started to decline. Launching a new variant from a position of strength is completely different than doing it when you’re in trouble, when it’s often seen as an act of desperation. Every student of marketing knows that – it seems Inbev didn’t.
Likewise, Peeterman Artois is a decent enough beer if you’re looking for something cold at no more than 4%. It should have been premium – within weeks of launch it was on special offer on massive displays in Sainsbury’s.
Instead of investing in image, they chased volume. Every bar owner who wanted Stella got it, so it started to appear in dives, product quality began to vary, and drinker image changed. I’ve often said that the main thing preventing many British men from drinking cask ale is the fear they would be lumped in with the socks-and-sandals ticker stereotype. By the mid-noughties there was an equally repellent drinker image at the other end of the scale – the binge drinking lad who made ‘Stella-ed’ into a verb shortly before trying to pick a fight with a policeman. Inbev did nothing – certainly nothing that was visible to the average lager drinker – to counter this.
I last worked on Stella in 2000, but it was a great brand for several years after that. Then Inbev simply seemed to ignore everything we had learned about the brand and managed to turn 19% growth into double-digit decline in the space of three years. Of course, the people who wrecked the brand will have worked on it for two years before being transferred to something else, picking up their bonus for achieving short-term sales volumes and leaving someone else to clear up the mess they created.
There are good people inside big brewers, even good people inside Inbev, people who are as passionate about beer as any beer blogger. I wish the people they answer to would realise that this is what happens when you ignore the good people. But I doubt it.

… to this, in five short years.