Apples and pears

The success of Magners has shown that cider can be trendy. Now its main rival,Bulmers, is staging a fightback but will its old-fashioned image be a hindrance? asks Mattew Gorman

BulmersCider is swiftly shedding its cheap, student image with the launch of premium-packaged, over-ice variants from brands including Magners Original Irish and Bulmers Original.

Scottish & Newcastle (S&N) is planning to build on the success of Bulmers and develop the category with the launch of a pear variant – Bulmers Pear Cider – in November (MW last week). Bulmers Pear Cider, a 4.5% ABV cider, will be available in 568ml bottles.

The variant, backed by a heavyweight marketing campaign promoting both pear and the original cider, should help Bulmers continue its upwards trajectory although it may struggle to break Magners’ lead.

Cider has traditionally been associated with brands such as Strongbow and Blackthorn, which people started drinking because they were longer and sweeter than beer. This prompted S&N to plough £22m into Strongbow last year, which included the launch of Strongbow Sirrus, aimed at the younger, premium market.

Since Irish brewer C&C Group launched the Magners Irish Cider brand 18 months ago, the cider category has seen enormous growth. Backed by a £20m relaunch marketing campaign, sales of Magners by September 2006 had more then tripled since its UK launch seven months earlier.

It was launched in 1999 as C&C’s overseas version of its Bulmers brand. The Bulmers name outside Ireland has belonged to S&N following its acquisition of the Herefordshire cider maker HP Bulmer four years ago. Bulmers makes up part of a portfolio of cider brands that also includes market-leading Strongbow.

S&N reintroduced Bulmers Original last year, months after Magners swept in to stake a claim to the mid-range cider market.

However, Stephen Mosey, marketing manager for ciders at S&N, says the Bulmers revival was planned long before the Magners invasion. “It’s a brand with a long heritage; it has been around since 1887,” he says. “There’s a lot more room for growth.”

He further believes that the sector has moved on, with consumers looking and reacting to specific brands rather than to a generic “over ice” product.

Mosey says Bulmers’ heritage is a strong advantage, particularly as people move away from “synthetic”-looking alcopops to drinks with more “authenticity”.

Yet that strong UK heritage could hold the brand back, according to Graeme Mitchell, business director at strategic and design consultancy Drink Works. He says Bulmers comes with baggage because people remember it being served in uninspiring brown bottles years ago.

“Magners doesn’t have that baggage,” he says. Magners is seen as innovative and forward-thinking while Bulmers, although good quality, is not seen as so contemporary, an image S&N will hope to change with the launch of variants.

Mitchell says Magners is a very “intrinsic” brand, focusing on the product, while Bulmers has relied on its history and heritage as brand attributes.

Bulmers must move away from associating itself with the brand’s heritage and concentrate more on the actual product, adds Mitchell. He also believes the glassware needs to improve and be used as a marketing tool rather than a functional piece of equipment.

But he acknowledges a change in values is coming from Bulmers’ advertising – created by Glasgow-based Frame and featuring the 30-second commercial “Born for Ice” – and with the launch of the pear cider. “They are trying to advertise that they know about cider,” he says.

Bulmers may have started on the back foot but it has an important advantage in S&N, which dwarfs its rival in terms of size, budget and distribution.

The benefit of being part of a company like S&N is that Bulmers has been able to get to the market much quicker, unlike Magners, which has had distribution problems particularly in the take-home market, says Mitchell.

In Ireland, Magners has enjoyed 95% of the on-trade cider market. But this summer S&N was declared the winner in the cider wars by posting a 27.7% rise in cider sales in Britain days after C&C was forced to issue its second profits warning in two weeks.

Additionally, it brings strong competition to the sector. Mitchell says: “Most consumers in the UK don’t like a monopoly situation and Magners almost had that.”

To catch up with its main rival, S&N launched Bulmers Original Draught over ice in August. Branded oversized glassware and ice-scoops were also distributed to bars to help the brand’s visibility. Meanwhile, Magners intends to sell draught in 18 months’ time – a lifetime in a market governed by trends.

For Bulmers the focus should be on increased innovation and refreshing the brand further to make it “relevant to consumers”, according to Simon Russell, spokesman for the National Association of Cider Makers. He believes the sector could look at offering other variants such as low-carbohydrate, low-calorie versions. He also says brewers could experiment with different varieties of apples or pears to offer new variants.

Mitchell says in theory there is no reason why it could not be taken further with, for example, twists of pomegranate added to the cider as a variant. These are all things Bulmers, with the backing of S&N, should be able to do.

Mitchell issues a note of caution, however. Although there is room for growth the market remains limited compared with other sectors. He says: “Cider, at the end of the day, accounts for only 5% of the total alcohol market. People say how the sector has grown by 35% but it is 35% of a small sector.” Small sector aside, Bulmers will want a bigger slice of the pie. 

Facts and figures: Bulmers 

  • Bulmers Original was first launched in Britain in 1982 before being resurrected in May 2006. The Bulmers brand goes back to 1887 
  • It is produced by Hereford-based HP Bulmers Ltd, one of the largest cider makers in the world and now part of the brewer Scottish & Newcastle (S&N). In 2003 S&N paid £278m for HP Bulmers, predominately to get hold of the Strongbow brand 
  • In 2006 S&N launched its first advertising campaign for Bulmers Original following its relaunch earlier that year 
  • S&N used Bulmers Original to launch the first cider draught product to be served over ice in 2007 
  • According to Mintel, cider sales increased 16% between 2005 and 2006 to £1.5bn

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