Tesco’s exclusive deal with Michelob Ultra could herald a revival of low-calorie beer. Rosie Davenport reports

A few years ago brewers launched into the “light” beer market thinking it was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the consumers disagreed. Now, after a raft of failed attempts to wean drinkers away from standard lagers to light beers, the market is set to be tested again.

Tesco has just signed an exclusive deal with Anheuser-Busch to stock newly launched Michelob Ultra, a premium strength beer that is low carb and has 25% fewer calories than a standard beer. And Coors will soon follow suit with the UK launch of Coors Light.

Their gameplan is to tap into the emerging market of health-conscious drinkers with a product that is as strong as conventional beers but lower calorie. But three years after Anheuser-Busch was forced to withdraw Bud Light, its first foray into the low calorie market in the UK, has the market really changed?

When the first light drinks were launched in the UK, buyers blamed their lack of success on consumer confusion over the term “light”. Was it supposed to denote low calorie or a lighter tasting product? And did lower calorie automatically mean lower alcoholic content?

With Ultra, Anheuser-Busch is trying to take a different tack. It has neatly sidestepped the first issue by ditching the “light” tag and addressed the second by producing a product with a higher alcoholic content.

This will help it compete far more effectively with standard lagers, argues Tesco product development manager Helen McGinn.

“Michelob Ultra is a 5% abv beer rather than 4%, which previous low calorie beers were. In addition there is more awareness of low calorie and low carbohydrate foods thanks to things such as the Atkins diet and we hope what we have seen on the food side will be emulated by beer,” she says.

Not everyone is as convinced by this new line of thought, however. Coors Light was launched in the Scottish market as an easy drinking alternative to standard brews, rather than trading on the fact it had fewer calories than sister beer Coors Extra Gold.

A similar tactic will be deployed in the autumn launch of Coors Light in the rest of the UK, says David Preston, director of marketing for premium beers at Coors.

Of Michelob Ultra, he comments: “We are surprised by the decision to launch a low carbohydrate, low calorie beer as we have seen no consumer insight to support it.”

Brand consultant Paul Cowper of Brandsmiths is equally dubious about Anheuser-Busch’s move. He believes the brewer’s decision to revisit light beer overlooks the differences between the drinking cultures in the UK and in the US.

“In America consumers have fully embraced the concept of low calorie beer. But our attitude to alcohol is still very different. For young males, who make up the majority of beer drinkers, it’s about hedonism and abandonment. I struggle to make the connection between people who are concerned about dieting and people who drink a lot of beer,”he says.

As would be expected of a company that has enjoyed such success with the Budweiser brand, Anheuser-Busch is unfazed by the marketing challenge, boasting that Ultra is “one of the most innovative beer brands the UK has ever seen”. But it is not going to be easy. As Cowper says: “The market has been static. Brands viewed as up and coming five years ago are still trying to get a foothold.”
Marketing challenge
Retailers argue that if the brand is going to make a dent in the notoriously competitive beer market, consumer perceptions need to change. One senior buyer says: “Success will depend on what is spent above-the-line to raise awareness of the brand.” Gavin Humphreys, client service manager for liquor at ACNielsen, adds. “There needs to be a lot of education about what it is and who it is positioned at because, in the past, brewers have failed in this market.”