Storm clouds gather for Bass

Can an 8m TV advertising campaign, a large amount invested below the line and an abundance of wishful thinking change a hybrid Irish ale into a mainstream premium lager? Bass believes it can, and as a result is staking its hard-earned reputation for innovation on one of its biggest gambles in many years: the reinvention of Caffrey’s.

Until recently, Bass’ position looked strong. Arguably, it emerged the strongest player in the new Beer Ordered universe a decade ago. It was certainly the biggest, in UK terms. In the mid-Nineties, it also created a reputation for product development – under the stewardship of Simon Macdonald and Seamus McBride – which was the envy not only of other brewers but the whole marketing industry, as numerous awards have justly attested.

Lately, however, something has gone wrong in the strategy department, although it is hard to pinpoint exactly what. It was not Bass’ fault that Scottish & Newcastle leapfrogged it into pole position with the acquisition of Courage. Nor that Bass’ attempted riposte, the marriage with Carlsberg-Tetley, foundered at the altar of the Monopolies & Mergers Commission. It just created an unfortunate impression, in the way that bad luck does.

Again, the sudden collapse of the alcopops market, in which Bass’ Hooper’s Hooch had become the only serious contender, should not really be held against the brewer. True, Bass accelerated the decline by its deliberately provocative packaging. But look at it this way: alcopops, as the brewer well knew, was always going to be a short-term proposition, a fashion brand that would fade. The clever thing was to have seized upon it in the first place and redeployed it in the front line against the great common enemy of all brewers, the declining beer market.

Caffrey’s, a more brilliant and successful brand innovation, was conceived in the same spirit. Indeed, it created a category all of its own, combining the hybrid qualities of a traditional ale with the smooth delivery of a lager.

The trouble is, while Bass remains undisputed market leader in the sector, premium ales are now stagnating. The action is elsewhere – in premium lagers with a continental flavour, represented by the likes of 1664, Beck’s and Stella. Here Bass is scarcely in the starting blocks. Indeed, its tardiness highlights two conspicuous strategic shortcomings: an inability to create a successful home-grown premium lager contender, and its failure to develop a desirable continental heritage, through a licensing agreement or by acquisition.

Instead we have new, improved Caffrey’s. A product which has relied on a laid-back Irish heritage as synthetic as the Ploughman’s Lunch is now being pitched as a dynamic entrant in a market where genuine brand heritage is, seemingly, essential. The ‘Storm brewing’ tagline Caffrey’s has adopted could be oddly prophetic. But not in a way Bass intended.v

Cover Story, page 26

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