Global ambitions aren’t small beer

Increasingly we are hearing of the global beer brand. Only recently, SABMiller announced ‘a global brand strategy’ for Italian lager Nastro Azzurro, with the UK serving as a launchpad. Similarly Inbev, the brewing giant formed by merging Interbrew and AmBev last year, is planning a worldwide launch for its Brazilian lager, Brahma.

If we are to take the marketing noise at face value, this is indeed pioneering stuff. For there is no global beer (or more specifically, lager) brand to provide a benchmark. Yet, it seems an entirely logical step for the brewers to take.

The interesting question, of course, is why they have been unprepared to take such a step in the past. After all, there are global brands in so many sectors, from Intel to Toyota; even in the apparently closely allied categories of soft drinks and spirits. It seems a strange anomaly, for instance, that despite a vast disparity in market size and value, the malt whisky Glenfiddich might claim to have a more truly global presence (in terms of distribution and universal acceptance) than, say, the lager brand Budweiser.

The reason partly lies in history. Brewers are latecomers to the global market. Their original product served intensely local markets, and indeed local heritage still plays an important part in the marketing of many an ale. If, as is true, lagers have been internationally marketed over the past years, the brand owners have mostly remained fixated by national interests. For example, Bud and Miller, the world’s biggest-selling beer brands, originally achieved their status not through international expansion but by penetration of the US domestic market.

The difference now is that, after massive consolidation, brand owners like Diageo, Inbev and SABMiller have global, or near-global, distribution and are itching to exploit it. But what makes sense on the supply side – an example of ‘push marketing’ if ever there was one – has yet to prove itself to consumers. Have they really got a taste for a ‘global’ beer?

We’ll soon find out with the launch of Brahma. In one sense, there is nothing new in the brewer’s approach: Inbev will use heritage as its starting point. Over the past 20 years we’ve seen brewers resort to just about every conceivable national or regional heritage: Australia, eastern Europe, Germany, Ireland and the US, This time round it’s increasingly fashionable Brazil and the Latin American heritage. But if it’s not to be a fad (remember Mexican brands Sol and Corona about 15 years ago?), Inbev will need something extra, and that something extra appears to be the scale of its ambition, its unprecedented international distribution and its pledge to deploy a massive marketing budget.

Will that be enough? There are some who doubt the light, crisp-tasting, lower-alcohol content, Latin American brew will slake the thirst, for instance, of fastidious northern Europeans, whose preferred top-end tipples are heavier lagers such as Beck’s. Of course, traditional tastes can change over time. But how quickly?

Stuart Smith, EditorNews Analysis, page 22

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