Beer advertising on TV has long been entertaining the nation. But is the bubble about to burst, asks Tim Paler
Ask anyone to name their favourite TV ads and the chances are beer or lager brands will be high on the list. Some of the most memorable advertising on TV has come from the brewing industry, but are the campaigns as good as they used to be and do they work hard enough for the brands?
Most consumers will have no trouble recalling some of the best Heineken, Carlsberg, Foster's and Castlemaine XXXX ads. After all, their catch phrases often become part of popular culture for years after they have stopped being used. Most people know the line "Guinness is good for you" even though the stout brewer has not used it for years. Likewise "Probably the best", "Refreshes the parts­", "I bet he drinks­" and "Wouldn't give a XXXX" will be recognised by most of the adult population.
And there is good reason for this. The brewers have worked hard to pour millions of pounds into campaigns to ensure they stick in drinkers' collective psyche.
It's the fundamental aim of any advertising and is critical to the brewers because it creates product differentiation. Mass market lagers and ales are broadly similar and, as Simon McQuiggan, managing director of marketing strategy consultants LoweBrand, says: "People drink the advertising."
He adds: "The ads are more important than the product. If ever there was a market where people bought on perceptions this is it. Because the products are commodities the brewers understand that branding is critical to future sales. The market is image led and the advertising creates the product differentiation."
David Thomas, account director at Carling's ad agency Leith (London), agrees: "Most beers are pretty much the same. Very rarely is there something to highlight about the product and buyers know they have to have something other than the liquid to talk about. Advertising becomes the public face of the brand. Most of the time this is done through humour, which is why there has been a plethora of funny beer ads over the past 20 years."
He believes the advertising must create relevance and empathy for the brand in its target audience so drinkers will answer "yes" to the simple question "would you and your mates like to be seen drinking this product?"
One of the most successful exponents of this is Stella Artois which has been supported by one of the industry's longest running campaigns. It began as a niche premium imported lager in the 1980s and has become the leader in its category, and is Britain's fourth biggest fmcg brand.
It stands out as one of the few brands which has not made overt use of humour, rather favouring a more subtle approach which, according to Thomas, has become an isolated example of really great advertising. "It has been consistent and persuasive, even though the reassuringly expensive' line is complete nonsense. It is no more expensive than other beers, but they have managed to create a premium brand story. Beautifully shot, expensive looking ads has created the perception that the brand is absolutely premium, even though it is a fallacy."
A straw poll by The Grocer of leading buyers, brewers and ad agencies confirms that the industry believes the big brands cannot survive and continue to increase their sales without advertising. Most believe quality is still high but draw a line between good ads and truly great campaigns. There is a general consensus that the consistently high quality initiatives behind Stella Artois and Guinness have put both beers in a class of their own and the Guinness Surfers ad won the most votes for the best ad of all time in our survey.
Interbrew marketing director Richard Evans says: "The Guinness Good things come to those who wait' campaign is classic and aspirational. The stout is not an easy product to drink ­ the ads give the brand respect and they have built emotion and power behind it. They are also memorable, entertaining and have a message at their heart." He says the enjoyment and entertainment factors are a prerequisite in a crowded market. "The ads have to be stimulating in themselves or they will be ignored. But the difference between a good ad and a great one is the content. As well as being entertaining the best ads will tell you about the brand and make you want to drink it. Many beer ads have failed to do that.
"The Stella Artois campaign has run for 20 years and has always been different from the rest. Through the reassuringly expensive' theme we have put across the message that the brand is the best lager money can buy more persuasively than anyone else. The brand has sustained this message throughout price-cutting activity in the off-trade because consumers associate the pricing strategy with the retailers, not the brand."
But Guinness UDV brand director David Smith maintains the advertising rollercoaster will be a hard one to get off. "If we stop advertising sales will drop off," he admits, "although it might not be immediate."
Chris Phillips, customer development director at Carlsberg-Tetley, is equally frank. "There is still no better value way of reaching a large number of consumers at the best possible price than through mainstream TV. You have to do it and it's still cost effective."
But the cost of advertising is escalating at a time when audiences are falling away and Smith says they can't afford to be as reliant on ads as they used to: "Anyone who relies on them solely is making a mistake. We are putting more money into the medium for the same return but we also spend money to attract consumers in other ways." The company is spending £6m this year on event sponsorships and relationship and direct marketing.
Interbrew's Evans says the success of the lager market has been due in part to the quality of advertising from leading brands such as Foster's, Carlsberg, Carling and Heineken and the opposite effect has taken place in the ale market. "Ale advertising has been some of the least inspiring, with the exception of Boddingtons and the Jack Dee campaign for John Smith's. Part of the ale market's problem, which goes back 20 years, is that a lot of the ads seem to portray middle aged blokes with cloth caps from Yorkshire ­ a big turn off for some consumers."
But getting it right pays big dividends. Evans says: "For big brands, TV is still the only medium which enables you to reach just about everyone. However, a communication strategy that relies exclusively on TV is a risky one. Younger drinkers are not watching much TV so sponsorship plays a bigger role. You must recognise there is life beyond TV advertising."
One of the greatest exponents of diversifying the marketing mix was Bass (now Coors) which channelled a significant proportion of the support for Carling into sponsorship of football's premier league. McQuiggan says: "Carling reached its position of strength through advertising but in the last few years it was sponsorship led through its links with the premiership which it used well. It is the single example of a brand that has continued to succeed without being totally reliant on advertising."
Coors marketing director Mark Hunter says: "Advertising is not the be-all and end-all ­ it is an important part of building the brand. Turning a brand into a success is not about spending more, it is about getting the mix right." This view is reinforced by Adrian Sanger, of media analyst Millward Brown, who says: "In 2000 there were 65 new beer ads supporting about 30 brands, outspending categories like soft drinks, confectionery and cereals by some margin. In the light of this and the spiralling cost of buying TV time, most media agencies support a variety of channels to maximise contact points with the customer."
The industry's approach to TV advertising is also changing. The days of long running campaigns are numbered as cash is moved on to other strategies and multi-level approaches will be the future.
Anheuser-Busch has gone a step further by not only embarking on major sponsorships, such as the World Cup, but also adopting a dual strategy for its TV advertising. On one level it uses the humour of the Louie the Lizard and Whassup campaigns to appeal to consumers and, on another, it stresses the quality of the brand through its Real Men of Genius and Quality ads.
And multiple buyers recognise that TV ads are the best way to consumers' hearts. Sainsbury beer buyer Fraser Dunlop says: "The big beer brands have to have sustained advertising otherwise their share of voice declines. The ads increase both awareness and sales."
And Glenn Payne at Safeway adds: "Advertising is the best ingredient in beer. Everyone remembers how long it takes to pour a pint of Guinness and that Stella is reassuringly expensive. People always relate to the straplines that go with beer and if you take away the ads the beer disappears. You only have to look at the decline of Hofmeister after the advertising for that stopped. The ads are what swings the decision-making process for consumers." n