NoFibs says there’s a difference between imported and brewed-under-licence beers. Claire Hu reports

In the battle to win share of the hearts and wallets of UK beer drinkers, authenticity is becoming an increasingly important marketing weapon. Hence we have commercials showing how much the Danes hate to see Carlsberg Export leave their shores, Budweiser as an all-American hero and Stella Artois as an artisan Belgian brew. The truth may be somewhat less glamorous (Carlsberg Export is brewed for the UK in Northampton, Stella Artois in south Wales and Budweiser in Mortlake, SW14), but that hasn’t stopped the ad men from dreaming up bigger and bolder ways of convincing consumers that they are not only buying a beer, but a slice of foreign brewing heritage.
Now a new trade group called NoFibs (National Organisation For Imported Beers) is determined to stop global players implying that their beers are brewed in areas where they are not. The group - comprising 18 importers of 36 brewed-at-origin brands, including Heineken, Budvar, Löwenbräu and Tiger Beer as well as companies representing smaller brands such as Bavaria Beer, Cervesa Cusquena, Clausthaler and Warsteiner Brauerei - wants to pull the wool away from consumers’ eyes about the difference between genuinely imported beers and those produced under licence in the UK.
NoFibs aims to tap into what it believes is a growing consumer taste for authenticity to boost sales of imported beer. Research has been commissioned looking at the perceptions of 1,000 people about genuinely imported beers, as well as exploring what the group claims is an increasing backlash against anonymous global brands. The research will form the basis of a marketing campaign that could eventually see NoFibs logos stamped across bottles of beer on supermarket shelves.
According to its passionate chairman and founder John Harley, an outspoken figure who recently resigned as chief executive of Budweiser Budvar UK because of differences with the deeply conservative state-run head office in the Czech Republic, the group was born out of a growing frustration over the way some brewed-under-licence brands were jumping on the authenticity bandwagon. “There were certain brands that were stealing our clothes and deceiving the consumer. We hope to raise awareness of the fact that some brands are more equal than others,” he says.
That the campaign has been able to bring together such disparate businesses, ranging from Heineken UK to a tiny Nigerian stout importer, and actually convince them to stump up £75,000 to start a project they may never see translated into sales, is testament to how serious the issue of authenticity is becoming.
Retailers are reporting steep growth for imported beers such as Corona Extra, Tiger Beer, Budvar, Pilsner Urquell and Nastro Azzurro in a total bottled category that grew sales 8% last year [ACNielsen, w/e October 2, 2004]. Producers such as Interbrew, Carlsberg-Tetley and Scottish Courage are investing heavily in their specialist portfolio and bottled English ale is also performing well, reflecting a growing consumer taste for beers with a story to tell about their origins. NoFibs hopes to cash in on this expanding base of affluent consumers who, it claims, are turning away from mainstream brands.
Even Interbrew - which has long been the butt of jokes inside the industry for its French-spoken Reassuringly Expensive ads for Stella Artois - has got in on the act and signed up its imported brands such as Leffe and Hoegaarden to the NoFibs campaign. Some jaws dropped at that news, but Harley insists it’s the brand and not the company that becomes a member.
“We are not saying brewed-at-source is better than brewed-under-licence,” he insists. “You are bound to have some anomalies with such a big organisation such as Interbrew, but we are accepting people by brand. Brewed-at-source beers have different qualities to brewed under licence and should be communicated differently. It’s about a product being true to its origins and allowing the drinker to invest emotionally in the beer through contact with its source.”
While the NoFibs campaign has the potential to annoy the bigger players, many of which are routes to market for NoFibs members, the value added to brands will more than outweigh any bad PR, Harley believes. “The concern of the supermarket buyer is one of margin and if we can add value to the perception of NoFibs beers then we can command a better rsp.”
But at what price does ‘genuine’ authenticity come? Brewers such as Charles Wells, Coors and Carlsberg-Tetley argue that strict quality controls mean they can exactly reproduce the flavour of a beer and save money on needlessly transporting products thousands of miles.
Beer is fresher the less distance it travels, they argue. What the consumer is buying into is an image and lifestyle, and most do not care about the exact provenance of what they are drinking.
Bedford brewer Charles Wells is stuck firmly in the middle of the debate, as it produces curry beer Cobra, Japanese label Kirin Ichiban and Jamaican brand Red Stripe under licence in the UK, but also imports brewed-at-source Mexican lager Corona Extra.
For marketing manager Guy Shreeves, authenticity is about lifestyle and image rather than provenance. “We’ve never covered up the fact that Red Stripe is brewed in Bedford. Instead, we are asking people to buy into the whole Jamaican culture and vibe. Kirin Ichiban is presented as a Japanese beer because it is produced in exactly the same way as in Japan, to a very high specification. Authenticity is important, but people aren’t going to think it’s terrible if a beer is brewed under licence. Authenticity is about what a beer stands for.”
Drinks consultant Pete Brown helped devise the first Stella Artois adverts, which were spoken in French to music from the film Jean de Florette. Rather than creating a false impression of Stella’s provenance, the ads were groundbreaking attempts at presenting a classier image of beer at a time when promotions were dominated by gags about sex or fat blokes, he argues. “Our aim was to make Stella look classy and a lot more special than other beers. However, now that Stella is mainstream, people are asking what is next. Consumers want to show they are cutting-edge and cool, a step ahead of the average drinker, and they are exactly the kind of people this NoFibs campaign could tap into.”
Brown believes the average British drinker is more concerned about image than provenance. But he warns that the industry ignores a growing sector of powerful consumers, who care about authenticity, at its peril. “I would like to see NoFibs catch the public imagination and give exposure to smaller brands,” he says. “People are starting to care more about authenticity, and many are asking about where their beer is brewed.”
Let’s tell it like it really is: NoFibs chairman John Harley says some brewed-under-licence brands are jumping on the authenticity bandwagon, claiming the same prestige as genuine imported beers. Pictured here are, from left: Roger Gray (UBEVCO), Luke Wade (marketing manager for Budweiser Budvar), Harley, and Rob Marijnen (MD of Heineken UK).productCountryProduced