Whitbread is attempting to rejuvenate the stagnant lager market with its “patriotic” new brand, GB. But can the brand – which it claims is the first draught lager launch for more than a decade – win over enough young drinkers to challenge market leader Carling?
The company is expected to spend more than &£20m over the next 18 months on the brand, which is marginally stronger than its main rival at 4.4 per cent alcohol by volume.
GB has been two years in the planning and Whitbread is confident its quirky, humorous take on the national identity will hit home with the all-important 18- to 24-year-old market.
Its main point of difference – the fact that it will be dispensed from a stainless steel bath tap – is certain to make it stand out on the nation’s bars. But if it is to succeed, Whitbread’s new baby must overcome the enemy of all lager marketers – the generic “pint of lager” bar call.
Despite the millions spent each year on marketing, most standard lager drinkers still don’t specify a brand when ordering a pint. This is in stark contrast to the premium lager market, where the Whitbread-marketed Stella Artois is king and is always asked for by name.
According to insiders, Whitbread has, at various times, considered producing a “Stella Light” for the standard lager market but has, perhaps wisely, decided not to tamper with a classic brand.
Instead, it has concentrated on producing a new product for younger drinkers, or “lager cadets”, as Whitbread’s jargon has it, with a taste closely related to Stella’s.
Whitbread brand development director Sophie Spence believes there is more than enough room for another standard lager in the market – if it is properly differentiated.
“GB has been designed to be more unisex than any other lager,” she says. “Our research shows most of the target market learn to drink in unisex groups.
“They are also extremely brand conscious and take pride in being British. They are impressed by the modern, entrepreneurial flair that has come to the fore in the dot-com boom.”
Whitbread’s name will be noticeably absent from GB’s packaging, in favour of the Get Brewing Company, a notional subsidiary set up to handle the new beer.
The branding is designed to give the impression that the new beer is the product of a young, entrepreneurial outfit, such as the Freedom brewing company, rather than a lumbering corporate monolith.
Whitbread is pinning its hopes on the rising popularity of lager among 18- to 24-year-olds and the continuing decline in ale sales. The company claims 60 per cent of beer sold is lager. It believes that figure will rise to 70 per cent by 2005.
GB is being launched next month in the Granada television region and is expected to be rolled-out nationally in the next three to six months.
Former Scottish Courage marketing director John Roberts will be watching the new lager’s progress closely. He is now beer and brands director of London brewer and pub chain Fuller’s, which has a long-standing contract with Whitbread.
Fuller’s recently abandoned its own nationalistic campaign for London Pride in favour of ads with broader appeal, but Roberts believes Whitbread could be on to a winner.
“I can see what it is trying to do and it has gone for it in a fairly direct way. I think there is every chance it could succeed – it will certainly stand out,” he says.
Brewing history is littered with expensive failures, such as Guinness’s Enigma, which was finally dropped from the on-trade in 1998, and Harp Irish lager, which was farmed out to regional brewer Wolverhampton & Dudley last year after faltering sales. Whitbread has also had its own flops, such as premium strength Boddington Export and super-strength lager Tungsten.
For some observers, its latest plan to tap into a new spirit of national self-confidence is just a stale re-tread of “Cool Britannia”.
Grant Duncan, managing director of Publicis, which last year prised Bass’s Worthington bitter account from WCRS, says: “My initial reaction is that GB is a bit contrived. It is trying too hard. Rover came in for a lot of stick for trying to capitalise on Cool Britannia and this seems to be in similar territory.
“The 18- to 24-year-old market doesn’t like to be targeted too obviously. They don’t want to be seen as the ones who fell for the marketing campaign.
“Also, I am not sure of the wisdom of launching a British lager at a time when people are beginning to separate out into their own national identities, such as Scots and Welsh.”
Whitbread has, perhaps wisely, decided to stay away from Union Jack-waving, jingoistic imagery, opting instead for a quirky, humorous take on national identity.
The initial advertising burst, by Mother, will focus on different interpretations of GB, such as “Greasy Batter”, alongside a picture of fish and chips, and “Gutsy Banger”, above a picture of a Mini. It is expected to emphasise GB’s “realness” and lack of pretension.
At 4.4 per cent proof, the new lager will slot between Heineken and top-selling premium lager Stella Artois in Whitbread’s portfolio, and will retail at 10p more than standard lager.
The initial on-trade launch is expected to be followed by a roll-out in the off-trade. But Whitbread has denied it is lining up GB to replace Heineken, which is understood to be unhappy with Whitbread’s handling of the brand.
Its current contract is up for renewal in 2002, but the Dutch giant is expected to make a bid for Bass’s brewing interests before then.
There is still a question mark over whether the public will take to the idea of a British lager, when “Britishness” has traditionally been reserved for ale brands. Even the UK’s best-selling lager, Carling, which originated in Canada, has never been overtly marketed as a British product. Bass spends more than &£30m a year maintaining Carling’s number one position in the standard lager market.
And Carling’s &£39m contract with the FA Premiership effectively shuts GB out of the football market, which would, arguably, be its most powerful weapon.
A Bass spokesman was predictably cool about GB’s prospects: “Our initial reaction was ‘why?’. There does not seem to be any commercial or consumer logic to what it is doing with GB. It is difficult to break into the market – does the consumer actually want another lager?”
Whitbread will clearly have its work cut out and it remains to be seen whether GB will become the chosen bar call of the nation’s youth or another casualty of the UK’s overcrowded beer market. But its arrival will at least breathe new life into a tired-looking sector.