Widening the target

Already the cider market leader, Strongbow has unleashed a major ad drive and an ‘on-the-rocks’ makeover, to attract young drinkers. By David Benady

This summer, cider on the rocks will replace ready-mixed spirit drinks as the latest fad in alcoholic refreshment – if Strongbow has its way. Last week, the UK’s biggest-selling cider brand – which already dominates the cider market with a 60% share – launched a £15m advertising campaign through recently hired agency St Luke’s in preparation for the warmer months.

Meanwhile, newcomer Magners – known as Bulmers in Ireland – is gearing up for a significant marketing push as it extends distribution across the UK. Magners has gained a strong following since its London launch last year and the renewed interest in cider it has stimulated has enhanced the whole market.

Both brands are promoting cider poured over ice as a refreshing way to enjoy the drink, and hope this will become a summer drinking craze. Strongbow suggests the ice treatment for its bottled version, though for draught, owner Scottish & Newcastle (S&N) is introducing a chilled fount, dispensing Strongbow Extra Cold at 3ºC.

S&N paid £278m to get hold of Strongbow through its purchase of Hereford-based HP Bulmer in 2003; analysts thought it a hefty price tag. Even so, it has managed to boost sales. Over the past year, Strongbow sales have grown by 14% to about £580m (see tables), according to AC Nielsen, although S&N puts Strongbow’s value at £650m.

“Bulmers was a fantastically good purchase, which has paid for itself already,” says S&N UK consumer marketing director Paul Bartlett. “It was a strong brand with lots of potential that wasn’t being unleashed. We’ve got a £27m marketing investment this year, and it is delivering good growth of 15% in volume. The cider market grew 10% last year, while the total beer market declined 3%. It is a great time for cider at the moment,” he says. He believes cider has benefited from falling sales of flavoured alcoholic beverages such as Smirnoff Ice as drinkers switch to alternatives. However, Andrew McGuinness, founding partner of advertising agency BMB, who worked on Strongbow when it was handled by his former agency TBWA under Bulmer’s ownership, says: “Its growth has less to do with marketing and more to do with broader distribution, which over the past couple of years has increased dramatically under S&N.”

He points out that S&N has been able to bundle Strongbow into its distribution deals with pub groups that are already buying its beers. The number of pubs where Strongbow is available has increased from 67% of all UK on-trade outlets in 2003 to 76%.

Even so, just because it is on-tap at the bar doesn’t mean people will buy it. Strongbow is taking a two-pronged marketing approach. It is seeking to persuade younger drinkers to try out cider through its packaged sub-brand Strongbow Sirrus, which at 5% ABV (alcohol by volume) is slightly stronger than the 4.5% main brand. It also promotes “Strongbow rooms” at music festivals, where young drinkers can sample the product.

The other aim is to get its core drinkers – people aged 30 to 45 – to increase the number of times they order cider instead of lager (many of them will order cider once out of every ten pints). The St Luke’s ads highlight cider’s superior taste to lager with the line: “Taste that hits a little deeper”. The ads show the trademark Strongbow arrows thwacking into a mobile phone, a celebrity magazine and a cappuccino, to contrast the depth of Strongbow’s taste with the superficiality of these items, which are intended to symbolise tasteless lagers.

Bartlett says the weakness of previous Strongbow marketing positioned it as “just another lager”. “The strategy was all about refreshment, which is a lager generic. The ads did not focus on the taste benefits of cider,” he says. He believes the new campaign will promote a unique Strongbow feature: its taste.

While Strongbow is increasing distribution and sales, S&N has to ensure that it does not cannibalise sales of its lagers Foster’s and Kronenbourg, given that lager is its main competition. But Bartlett says Strongbow is “three times as likely to steal share from the competition as from ourselves,” given that S&N’s market share is 27%. Cider sales are about one-tenth those of lager. But as Strongbow distribution grows, it may hasten the overall decline in beer sales.

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