Why they ought to give a XXXX

The promised revival of Castlemaine XXXX, backed by a £9m ad campaign through newly assigned Mother, promises plenty of froth. But how much ‘bottom’ is there in the suggestion that the relaunch marks a turning point in the fortunes of the beleaguered lager market?

At first sight, the reappearance of XXXX – all but invisible for some years – signals a return to the expensive, TV-led lager wars of the Eighties. Then, it may be recalled, XXXX led the six-pack with an engaging campaign whose gritty Aussie incorrectness contrived to make Foster’s rival attraction – comedian Paul Hogan – look like a tame accessory at a vicar’s tea party.

But those days are long gone – as is the industry which made these big budget fisticuffs such enjoyable viewing.

To begin with, beer (for which read lager) marketers do not have the freedom of yesteryear to develop eccentric but appealing ‘local’ UK themes, which were essentially propelled by TV advertising. This has a little to do with the state of commercial TV and the continuing trend towards audience fragmentation, but a lot more to do with the radically changed nature of the industry they serve. Whereas 15 years ago, the brewers operated a cosy, UK-focused oligopoly – meaning they could peddle their chosen amber fluids through an extensive tied estate of pubs, restaurants and in some cases off licences – today the climate of competition is much harsher.

Mainly as a result of the highly restrictive 1989 Beer Orders, traditional brewers – with the exception of Scottish Courage – have progressively abandoned their lager brands (along with all their other brewing interests) in favour of higher-margin estate management. Most of these brands have, one way or another, ended up in the hands of global, or quasi-global, players, whose instinctive reaction has been to severely prune the brand portfolio in pursuit of their very own ‘path to growth’ strategy.

The danger, from a branding point of view, is obvious. Much of the potency and quirkiness of UK brands will have been lost in the bid to make them internationally appealing. But what about Budweiser’s ‘Wassup’ campaign? What about Stella Artois’ ‘Reassuringly Expensive’ campaign? Surely these disprove the point? Not really. All ‘Wassup?’ actually proved is that a US agency can occasionally come up with an idea that captivates a UK audience. As for Stella, that is an old, old campaign developed in a kinder environment (though admittedly sustained brilliantly by Lowe) which would be difficult to replicate today.

Equally invidious as an enemy of branding promise is the retail environment. The counterweight to a declining on-trade – over which brewers have, in any case, a weakened grip – has been the rise of the supermarket off-trade. It is difficult to sustain a premium or even standard positioning when it is being continually undercut by capricious supermarket pricing policies.

There is, however, a ray of hope for beer marketers. The period of corporate consolidation appears to be over for now. Instead of pouring all their resources into expensive acquisitions, brewers like Interbrew are evidently readdressing brand investment. Whatever the results, that has to be good news for marketers.

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