Belgian brewing giant Interbrew is to close its UK office, prompting speculation about the future direction of its market-leading Stella Artois brand.
Industry sources claim Whitbread, which brews Stella, Labatts and Rolling Rock under licence for Interbrew and is responsible for marketing the brands in the UK, is unhappy about the move. The brewer has worked closely with Interbrew’s UK office since the company was set up ten years ago to build Stella into the UK’s number one premium lager.
The UK is Stella’s largest international market, accounting for 3.4 million hectolitres. Some believe this fact may have influenced the decision to close the UK office, which was responsible for liaising with Whitbread.
One industry insider says: “The UK office has become a victim of its own success. It was seen as a rival power base. Interbrew wants to centralise control of its brands in Belgium, but that goes against marketing logic. It is important to be close to your market.”
It is understood that Interbrew UK’s four employees will either be made redundant or redeployed within Interbrew.
Interbrew claims the closure is just a cost-cutting exercise and will not affect its commitment to Stella in the UK. A spokesman for Interbrew in Belgium says: “Why would we want to break up a winning team?”
Interbrew also re-affirmed its commitment to its separate UK marketing strategy, indicating that a new TV ad campaign breaking across Europe is unlikely to be aired here.
A Whitbread spokesman played down any hint of a rift with Interbrew, saying: “Any decision Interbrew makes is its own, and does not affect our contract to brew and sell Stella Artois under licence.”