The mainstream beer market is one of the most competitive sectors in the UK so the news that Cobra marketing director Simon Edwards has left the company after nine years to emigrate to Thailand with his family (MW last week) could be perceived as a blow to a brand that is attempting to boost its profile.
Cobra Beer was founded in 1989 by Karan Bilimoria, who spotted a gap in the market for a smoother, less-gassy beer that appealed to all drinkers. It has become a popular accompaniment to curry and is stocked in 6,000 restaurants around the UK, but found breaking into the mainstream market more difficult.
In 2004, Cobra appointed Joshua to handle its advertising with a brief to position it as premium mainstream lager using TV, press and outdoor activity. It also became the first sponsor of ITV4’s movie slot.
The mainstream beer market in the UK is made up of almost 2,000 brands and Mark Hastings from the British Beer and Pub Association says they are competing in a declining market. But he adds: "The critical thing is that companies who get their marketing and positioning right and are solid brands are proving to be hugely successful. People in the most successful companies have recognised the sector as a fast moving consumer good rather than just a brewer. I think Cobra is a hugely successful niche product and it is highly regarded within its sector."
But one of Cobra’s rivals says the brand has not made any significant inroads into its territory. A source says: "There are beers coming into the country from all over the world and there is competition from the cider industry. These things come into fashion and then go. I’m sure Cobra is making waves within its niche but it is not reaching our pond."
Business director at consultancy Drink Works Ian McLernon, who is a former Unwins marketing director, thinks Cobra has found a clever niche that has the potential to become more mainstream. "Cobra is a challenger brand and has been breaking the usual conventions," he says. "Its less gassy formula neatly fits in with today’s trend towards lighter drinks."
Working with the founder
Edwards was promoted to the new role of marketing director at Cobra in March 2001, having joined the company as marketing manager in 1998. But former chief executive of Team Saatchi Michael Parker, who worked with Cobra in 1997 and then again in 2002, says Bilimoria is still the driving force behind the brand. He says: "There’s no doubt that Bilimoria is the most influential marketer and he will need someone who complements him. The brand-owner and founder is alive and kicking and he won’t hand the brand inspiration to anyone else."
Joshua director Matthew Howells believes the new marketing director will have a wider remit than Edwards, adding: "The marketing department already encompasses 16 or so people and it is looking to grow."