In 2013 the cider category was booming. Fuelled by sunny weather and the urge for a sweeter, more drinkable summer beverage, consumers couldn’t get enough of bottled fruit cider.
Kopparberg, Bulmers and Rekorderlig had all launched fruity mixes and as a result Strongbow, the traditional draught cider was suffering. The 51-year-old brand was in decline and its owner, Heineken, was desperately trying to compete.
“Our business objective was ‘how do you recruit people into mainstream cider when what they’re interested in is flavours and sticky sweet?’. That doesn’t really fit with the masculine Strongbow brand and ethos,” says Emma Sherwood-Smith, cider marketing director at Heineken.
“How do you bring people into the mainstream and if you are going to do a flavour how do you do it in a way that is true to what’s at the core – no pun intended – of Strongbow, which is masculine and refreshing?”
This brand had two jobs to do: we were looking to bring people into our flavoured cider but it also needed to rejuvenate the Strongbow master brand.
Emma Sherwood-Smith, Heineken
For years consumers have been putting blackcurrant in their cider to sweeten the taste so Strongbow decided to do the same.
Sherwood-Smith says: “Right from the start we reached out into culture and asked what are people doing. What is the current behaviour and how can you bring the [Strongbow] in the world effect to that?”
The result was Strongbow Dark Fruit, and five years on, one in every four pints of draught cider sold in now Strongbow’s fruity variety. In 2018, it accounted for 18% volume sales of the total cider market, according to the research company CGA, and is growing at 23% annually.
When the competition zigs you zag
From its inception, differentiating Strongbow Dark Fruit through marketing has been crucial. Flavoured ciders were offering sun-filled orchard settings for their campaigns in a bid to recruit women so Strongbow decided it was going to do the opposite.
“This brand had two jobs to do: we were looking to bring people into our flavoured cider but it also needed to rejuvenate the Strongbow master brand. It couldn’t dilute [Strongbow original’s] identity but it had to breathe new life into it for a new generation. It was quite tricky in getting that balance right in the early days,” Sherwood-Smith explains.
“When the competition zigs you zag and it was really juxtaposed to all the traditional summer blue sky images of cider at the time… [we had to be] true to the infrastructure of Strongbow and not be tempted to make it feminine.”
Despite this reluctance for feminine marketing the brand has worked hard to get more female drinkers and Sherwood-Smith now estimates that 45% of its clientele are women.
It also accounts for 24% of the total cider category which is worth £1.9bn in the UK.
The only mistake Sherwood-Smith believes the business made was not introducing more pack formats earlier; the Strongbow Dark Fruits keg was launched last year, for example.
If you want to achieve scale mass media remains an important part of the marketing mix.
Emma Sherwood-Smith, Heineken
The brand did struggle initially to drum up interest from on-trade.
She explains: “The plan had never been for it to be in the on-trade, the plan had been for it to sit in grocery [in cans] but we were really pushing the agenda internally and really challenging the management upstairs and saying ‘we really believe people would buy purple pints’ and we’ve got a Dutch beer company going ‘Are you sure? Are you really sure?’.
Finally Heineken allowed Strongbow to test it out in 2014. It launched Strongbow Dark Fruits in 10 pubs within its own estate and since then 270 million pints of Dark Fruit have been poured, according to CGA data commissioned by Heineken.
Sherwood-Smith still can’t quite believe it: “People went absolutely crazy. The success and speed at which it grew penetration and distribution completely took us by surprise so we are now in 26,000 pubs in the UK bearing in mind we started with 10.”
A ‘cultural phenomena’
Over time Strongbow Dark Fruit has become a firm favourite and the brand has learnt to lean into the love – including engaging with its most extreme fans.
“We set up our own tattoo pop-up in Shoreditch where you could get your own Strongbow tattoo and we thought what if no one showed? We had 20 places and they were gone within a couple of hours.”
Consumers competing for a brand’s attention is something Sherwood-Smith says is “unusual for a mainstream brand”. In more recent years Dark Fruit has been using social more heavily to capitalise on the love that has made it a ‘‘become a cultural phenomena” she says..
Despite the joy the team gets from engaging with super-fans on social and at events, Sherwood-Smith is adamant TV remains crucial.
“Always with brands, if you want to achieve scale mass media remains an important part of the marketing mix”, she says.
Since its launch in 2013, Strongbow Dark Fruit has become the second best-selling draught cider in the UK, behind Strongbow Original but Sherwood-Smith believes there will be a day that the fruit variant will overtake its parent brand.
She says: “The question is, if Dark Fruit continues on this trajectory there could be a time when it will be bigger than Strongbow original and that will present a whole new set of challenge which we’ll then have to deal with.”
For now the brand is feeling pretty smug about the anniversary and its success: “If we could bottle what we did with Dark Fruit we could probably sell it on to marketers around the world.”