Why Stella is not so reassuring as it was

They’ll be plenty who commiserate with Andreas Hilger, newly appointed marketing director of Inbev UK – and some few who will envy the challenge he faces.

For slap bang in the middle of his beer portfolio lies an inescapable and classic dilemma, with ramifications for the rest of the marketing industry. It’s called Stella Artois.

Over the best part of 30 years, skilful marketing has allowed this rather potent (5.2% ABV) but otherwise undistinguished lager to defy gravity. It has attained the status of a successful mass premium brand, as few others could. Look around and you won’t see many which have sustained the trick: BMW, the Telegraph, Burberry (with reservations) and one or two others. Certainly not Five, for example, which started out with a ‘modern mainstream’ credo.

The contradiction and tensions in such a positioning are obvious. How can something which is precious be simultaneously readily available? Yet marketing, intelligently employed, is surprisingly adroit at sustaining long term the illusion of exclusivity. Aspirational advertising, shrewd sponsorship, careful pricing and distribution kept Stella’s profits bubbling for years. Marketing is less capable of dealing with what comes with that success: corporate greed. Once a brand is a nice little earner, it becomes everyone’s property in the boardroom; sales graphs must be eternally optimistic because, like a drug, the company has become dependent on the profits that go with those increased sales. It’s a courageous marketing director who, in this fevered atmosphere, points out that the gold-plated goose is gradually turning into a knackered cash-cow.

Of course, Stella’s predicament is not that simple. The market itself has changed. On the one hand, beer drinking is in decline, creating a frantic and sometimes heedless drive for conquest among the strong brands that remain. On the other, a growing street culture of violent alcohol abuse has exposed Stella’s Achilles heel. A judge (of all people) summed it up when he noted that Stella was a word he heard all too often in his courtroom when dealing with drunken young men.

In this context, it’s not merely the high alcohol content that makes Stella attractive for all the wrong reasons. It’s also the discounted price. At face value, it looks as if the brewer is at the mercy of our overweening cut-price off trade. But industry commentators are wary of blaming the supermarkets entirely and suspect that Inbev has at some level been complicit in the discounting, owing to severe market difficulties. The problem has interesting parallels with Burberry when it flirted with Chav culture a while back. Burberry appears to have surmounted its difficulties. Can Stella?The brewer would argue it already is. Stella is now featuring as part of the Artois family, whose pedigree includes specialist Peetermans Artois and premium bottled Artois Bock (6.2% ABV) – exclusivity by association. Inbev has also been talking to Robin Wight, chairman of the agency which has handled BMW forever.

But this amounts to brand first aid. There are other decisions needing to be made that are less palatable. Hilger can refine distribution and risk losing sales, in order to bolster Stella’s image. Or he can admit defeat, run Stella as a cash-cow and switch resources behind, say, Beck’s Vier as a premium alternative.

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