Cider with a rosy outlook?

While it has always been a big seller, the reinvigoration of the cider market by ‘over-ice’ drinks means Strongbow will need to keep innovating if it is to maintain recent growth, says Sonoo Singh

Once the preserve of tramps and teenagers, cider has come a long way and is now a trendy tipple. And this fast-growing category is led by none other than Strongbow – once seen as cheap and ugly, yet still the biggest selling cider brand.

Strongbow has dominated the cider category for a long time, since the days it competed against the likes of Merrydown and Blackthorn, but it was not until Magners arrived on the scene to become a phenomenal success as a drink served over ice, in the summer of 2005, that this category gained respectability. Scottish & Newcastle-owned Strongbow, with its marketing might, has been busy ever since, using that halo effect to attract a huge market. According to the latest report from Nielsen, Strongbow’s sales surged by 23% to £165.2m last year.

However, Strongbow marketing manager Steve Mosey says it is a “misconception” that S&N cider brands Strongbow and Bulmers grew on the back of the success of Magners. “The acquisition of Bulmers by S&N five years ago was a key reason for this dramatic growth of cider that we are experiencing in the UK. Our increased investment in marketing the then newly acquired Strongbow brand gave it a much-needed boost,” he says. S&N has committed £27m to marketing and advertising Strongbow this year. It acquired Strongbow through its £278m purchase of Hereford-based HP Bulmer in April 2003.

A Mintel report adds that, though the cider market has been transformed from a mature market in decline into one that is innovative and reinvigorated, the innovation of Magners’s over-ice effect alone has not catapulted cider into growth.

“The premium end of the market is perfectly positioned to meet the consumer’s increasing demand for local, natural and premium products with interesting provenance,” says the report.

Since Strongbow’s acquisition, the brand has seen organic growth in both draught and can volume. According to Mintel, in terms of value (2002-2006), Strongbow grew by over 32%. “We have also been busy trying to reduce the extra baggage that initially came with the cider brand as a cheap drink for heavy drinkers,” adds Mosey.

To try and change the “head-banger” image of cider, it has since dropped all “extra free” offers on its cider plastic bottles. Mintel says that since 2002, cider drinking from plastic bottles has declined and now it is mostly drunk from cans, followed by draught – indicative of the premiumisation and specialisation of this market, as the consumer becomes aware that cider is “more than just a highly-alcoholic drink”.

And, to capture the soaring premium end of the market, it launched Strongbow Sirrus three years ago (MW July 7, 2005). The sub-brand, which at 5% ABV (alcohol by volume) is slightly stronger than the 4.5% main brand, was launched to persuade younger drinkers to try cider.

“What you have to remember is that the Strongbow brand is more universal, by nature of being the leader of the category,” says Mosey. “It is for 25- to 35-year-olds who are primarily blue-collar workers, as opposed to the ‘bright young professionals’ who prefer Bulmer cider.”

However, not many are convinced that Sirrus, a red cider similar to Magners, and launched as a premium over-ice drink, has been as successful as S&N had hoped. One observer says: “The reputation of the brand is still viewed as mass market, and it is far from being established as super premium. S&N is better off making that distinction between Bulmer as a premium quality cider and Strongbow as the popular choice.”

However, S&N says that its 2007 growth in operating profit and revenues growth – sales rising to £4.15bn, operating profit rising by 5.7% to £560m – was on the back of launches such as Sirrus.

Last year it launched a Gold over-ice variant called Strongbow Gold. Strongbow recently also launched Jacques, a fruit de bois blend, which comes in a curvaceous wine-sized bottle, designed for sharing. The sparkling 5.5% ABV blend is aimed at women (MW February 28).

These sub-brands have been trying to move away from cider’s hard-drink image to create a softer, more accessible side, to appeal to a wider market. Strongbow’s association with music festivals throughout the country, through Strongbow Cider House, also intends to attract new and lapsed cider drinkers. The brand has also signed a six-month sponsorship deal with TalkSport radio to make it the key sponsor of its drive-time programme (MW last week).

Mosey says sub-brands allow S&N to cater to different needs and tastes, creating a repertoire and increasing loyalty. The increased awareness of cider, brought about by brands like Sirrus, has stimulated interest in the category as a whole, says Mintel.

Branding expert Allan Solomon at Value Engineers says that cider has been filling the gap where alcopops and flavoured alcoholic beverages (FABs) once were, and that the drink “taps into the growing trend towards natural and refreshing alternatives, playing it against lagers.”

However, Solomon says that because the appeal of cider is connected to summer months, limiting all-year-round appeal, brands such as Strongbow will need to continue innovating before the category starts faltering. For the moment, Strongbow is not letting the proposed takeover from Carlsberg-Heineken distract it from creating lasting growth in this category.

Facts and figures

Strongbow

• First launched in 1960, Strongbow is named after the Norman knight Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, who was nicknamed Strongbow after his feats with the long-bow.
• It takes 11 apples to make one pint of Strongbow.
• Prince William has had an apple named after him, following his admission that cider is his favourite drink.
• Strongbow sells three out of every five pints bought in the on-trade, and a third of all cider sold in the off-trade.
• Celebrities that have appeared in Strongbow ad campaigns include the “Upstairs Downstairs” star Simon Williams, Johnny Vaughan and model Jerry Hall.

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