Inside Track by Mark Stretton
Like the plethora of super-chilled lager variants that the national brewers are currently pouring on to the market, the launch of Beautiful Beer left me a little cold. In case you missed it, the trade launch of this new all-conquering campaign was in a room above a pub a few days ago in London. At a time when beer sales in the on-trade are “tanking” - volumes were down 5.5% in December 2005 and down 4% in the 12 months to January 2006, the Beautiful Beer campaign is apparently going to be the saviour of beer. It is the far-reaching campaign that will unite brewers and pub operators into re-energising the beer category and re-capturing the ground lost to other drinks. At least that is what we were promised it would be. What we got was the launch of another plaque-on-the-wall beer accreditation scheme, which licensees have to pay £140 for the privilege to enter. The hope is that the Beautiful Beer award will be the pub's answer to the Michelin star. There is a gold award and a platinum award. To add to the confusion Beautiful Beer will sit alongside Cask Marque, the accreditation scheme that recognises pubs that serve good cask ale. So what are the brewers investing into this project? The princely sum of £1m, which is roughly equivalent to 2% of the annual marketing budget for Carling, Britain's biggest lager brand. But it's easy to be cynical. The defence of this perhaps less than auspicious start to the Beautiful Beer campaign is that this is just one strand of the project. The spin-doctors at the British Beer and Pub Association say that the campaign will focus on the opinion-shifting promotion of beer rather than advertising, with the aim of developing the beer agenda in mainstream media. As part of it, they will look to recruit key opinion formers to promote beer, lifestyle writers to pen positive columns and basically do a job on beer that the new world wine merchants would be proud of. The plan is to get beer into lifestyle magazines, the quality press, onto foodie programmes and ideally, in the hands of Gordon Ramsey, David Beckham and Kiera Knightley. The brewers argue that they cannot 'go large' on a visible campaign until the quality of beer in the on-trade has been addressed - if the promise of a company isn't backed up with a quality experience, the campaign will quickly fail. I'm not sure I buy it. Retailers have done an excellent job in aggressively gripping the issue of quality and a dodgy pint is not the common occurrence it used to be. Besides they could choose their pub partners carefully. And it just feels as though surely there must be more that can be done than this? It feels like the brewers should be investing significant figures into an above-the-line consumer campaign. As Mitchells & Butlers Tim Clarke told M&C recently: “The beer market is tanking. It is the elephant in the room for this industry.” Beer is still big and important to the eating and drinking-out market but huge social changes in Britain and the evolution of the pub is diminishing its relevance. Smoking legislation will hit on-trade volumes further. Food is one of the key growth stories, a wave that wine and soft drinks are riding, but not so much, beer. If brewers and pub operators want to stabilise sliding beer sales in the on-trade it may be time to raise the level of thinking - and action - beyond a plaque-on-a-wall accreditation scheme. The only sign of innovation from national brewers at the moment is to re-launch a beer brand, serving it two degrees colder than it once was. As Clarke says: “The question the brewers have to ask themselves is do they want to be contract canners for the dominant supermarket groups or do they want to be brand builders.”