Alcohol-free beer gives marketers a headache

Should it be congratulations, or commiserations, to TBWA/London for winning the £25m European launch of Heineken’s non-alcoholic beer brand Fayrouz? The agency will no doubt earn every pound of the sizeable fee it has negotiated, and here’s why.

The history of non-alcoholic beer brands and their promotion is not a conspicuously happy one. Lesson number one, for example: however tempting, never ever use celebrity endorsement as part of your communications strategy. Bass’ Barbican, an early foray into the sector, may never have been destined for runaway success, but any prospects it had were summarily extinguished by brand spokesman Lawrie McMenemy (then manager of Southampton Football Club) being hauled in front of the beak for a drink/driving offence.

A more abiding problem has lain in the product itself. Not all the charisma of Billy Connolly could convince consumers that Guinness’ Kaliber was anything but a dull tipple when compared with the real thing. And the lacklustre performance of Kaliber’s rivals seems to indicate that insipid taste remains a problem.

Which raises the issue: why do brewers bother at all? Surely they would be better employed steering consumers towards alternatives rather than attempting to foist a dull replica upon them?This issue might seem all the more controversial when applied to a population, the Muslim one, that has no traditional associations with alcohol in the first place.

To be sure, some of Heineken’s thinking on the subject is clear and unexceptionable enough. There is a large – probably 12 million strong – Muslim community within the European Union, and its growing economic power has been reflected in a number of developments in the world of marketing.

Several “Muslim” colas have had success positioning themselves against the all-American Coke and Pepsi. The importance of conforming to Sharia law has been highlighted in financial services. And, last year, Glaxo SmithKline found itself obliged to obtain halal status (food and drink compliance) for Ribena and Lucozade following (false) rumours that they contained alcohol.

In Fayrouz, then, Heineken might be expecting to gain some brownie points with the Muslim community; it is halal-compliant since the production process avoids alcohol fermentation. What’s more Fayrouz is not, as may be supposed, a risky new concept but a brand already established in the Muslim world. Heineken acquired the brand from Egypt’s only brewer, Al Harham Beverages, in 2002. It is the European roll out – mainly France, Germany and the Netherlands, with the possibility of a UK launch further down the line – which is new. And here Heineken believes it will be minimising commercial risk by capitalising on its extensive existing distribution network.

So careful, rational segmentation of the market. But is cool logic all that is demanded here? Non-alcoholic lagers were originally founded on the notion that they were a “manly” alternative for the responsible driver who didn’t want to be ridiculed in the pub. But lager isn’t what it was, and nor are pubs. Soft drink alternatives, on the other hand, are increasingly acceptable – even in the pub. Indeed, it was on this perception that Britvic successfully developed its J2O brand.

Conceivably, then, Heineken is targeting an irrelevance – attitudes to alcohol consumption in Berlin and Paris are unlikely to mirror those in Cairo. And worse, its gesture to the Muslim population may come across as downright offensive and misguided.

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