Last Updated :31/10/04
The Power of Branding in the Beer market.
oday, whilst walking up to the Al Faisal for my regular Tuesday kofta egg curry, I saw three beer delivery vehicles. I was tempted to use the word "dray" here, but personally I donít think a 7.5 ton truck counts as a dray Ė call me an old traditionalist but I like my drays with open backs and lines of barrels visible. However, I digress. Between the Co-op and the curry house I was passed by three vehicles delivering beer with prominent branding on the side; Beer Seller, Moorhouses and Holts, all three using the tool of branding in three very different ways.
The Beer Sellerís vehicle was covered in images of pumpclips depicting the beers they sell Ė or more importantly, the brands they sell. It was like a list of whoís who in national beers Ė London Pride, Tiger, Greene King, Youngs, Sheps and the like. To me it was a list of beers to avoid, which made me think that branding wasnít necessarily a good thing; it values exposure of the product above quality, inoffensiveness over distinctiveness. The Holts dray was staunchly traditional as would be expected Ė an open truck in conservative blue with a restrained logo. It seemed to say, "If you like Holts, here it comes. If you donít know what Holts is, take a look onít back". The Moorhouses van was an example of the "new" style of brewery branding Ė strikingly painted in red with large pictures of their black cat and Pendle witch on the side. It was like a moving billboard for Moorhouseís products and was certainly eye-catching. This made me re-think my previous assumption, as I know that Moorhouses beers are of high quality Ė maybe the exposure they were after was aimed at a different market?
As I ate my curry and thought about these 3 vehicles, it gelled that there were 3 different methods at work here. Beer Seller were saying "Look at all these beers we sell that youíve heard of!" whilst Holts proclaimed "Hereís your Holts and weíll show you the barrels if you donít believe it" and Moorhouses shouted "Quality beers Ė with a modern twist!" All three undoubtedly work, but all three are aimed at totally different subsets of customers; Beer Seller at conservative beer drinkers who like the tried and tested, Holts at their loyal regulars, and Moorhouses at young people who may not have tried real ale before but are swayed by pretty packaging or maybe just like black cats and/or witches.
My definition of a brand.
For those who have lived under a secretive regime for the last 20 years, here is a brief explanation of what a "brand" is Ė in my view, of course!
A brand can be a concept used by unscrupulous companies to pass off something of low quality as something of higher or high quality by means of Quality association, although it can be a way to promote a quality (or otherwise distinctive product) to the masses. This is frequently done by a clever trick, using TV and other advertising, and aided by the gullibility of the average Joe Bloggs in the pub who will drink / buy / consume what heís told. Basically, a brand is a vehicle on which to promote sales of your product by building customer loyalty in some way, be it through promises of sexual prowess on TV adverts or a pledge of some unique advantage over the competitors.
The clever trick
The clever TV trick is remarkably easy to see through if you do some "thinking outside the box" and is basically this Ė "If a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes a fact". This is very easy to test out by asking a simple question Ė "Who won the 2000 American election?" If you read Michael Moore youíll know the answer Ė Al Gore technically won as he had the most votes, but by various dirty tricks the Bush junta assumed power in a bloodless coup and regime change is now overdue.
Alternately, ask "Have Germans got a sense of humour?" and most people will emphatically declare not. However, Iíd hazard a guess that around 99% of those people have never actually engaged a German in conversation so are not really in a position to answer the question Ė but since when did non-possession of the facts mean you canít answer a question, especially if youíre a brainless clone? I, however, have met quite a few Germans in my time and, whilst obviously not claiming every one had a sense of humour to rival Sanjeev Bhaskar, I donít think there is a lot of difference between Brits and Germans, itís just a different humour. To illustrate this a friend of a friend, Klaus, asked for a light for his cigarette at a party. A Petrol lighter was offered but he declined. When asked why, he declared "Iím a German, I prefer gasÖ" In Britain, this would be called sarcasm or bad-taste humour!
Anyway, back to the serious stuff. A "Brand" is therefore something that needs a lot of money spending on it to build itís stature up to a level where most ordinary people have heard of it Ė take Stella Artois or Guinness for example. Itís quality may or may not be the basis for itís reputation; some brands trade on their quality, such as BMW or Lindt chocolate whilst some donít. The money is therefore spent on building up what is called "customer awareness" that the brand in question is of superior quality to its rivals and should therefore be purchased instead. Some brands, however, try and preach this position when in fact the product is poor at best Ė Stella Artois springs to mind here which is, in my opinion, an average quality beer that claims to be "reassuringly expensive". This implies quality, whereas the high price at the bar simply pays for, allegedly, the advertising and extra profit rather than better ingredients as might be expected for a more expensive beerÖ talk about a scam!
Branding has also become big business in pubs nowadays. Not so many years ago, almost every pub in the UK was called something reassuringly English like "The Red Lion" or "The Kingís Head" and sold the beers of itís owning brewery. Nowadays, walk down any high street in any town in, increasingly, any country and all youíll see are branded bars Ė Australian bars, Oirish bars, Yatesís, Wetherspoons, Pitcher and Piano, Itís a Scream, All bar one and the like. Prospective customers walking down the road now know what to expect in each of the bars, as they are the same wherever you go Ė just like McDonalds or Coca-Cola, whereas previously you never knew what was behind the door unless you ventured inside. This rush to national and global identikit food, drink and outlets is great for the unadventurous but terrible for those who love the individuality of local bars and niche products which are being squeezed out by these mass-advertised global brands promoted by the multinational conglomerates with their massive advertising budgets.
The importance of Exposure
Exposure is key to brand building. Seeing the same product on billboards, on buses, on the train station, in the newspaper and on TV gradually subsumes the message into the average unthinking personís mind that the product in question is one to be seen buying. For an example of this, think of Manchester United. People like to be associated with winners or popular causes, so people who have never even been to Manchester will profess their support for the team hoping the success will rub off on them and there are lots of similar examples. Exposure can be local (in the case of Holts brewery in my dray example, Holts want exposure in Manchester but nowhere else really matters) or national (take Greene King promoting Abbott ale) or even International such as Interbrew (oops, InBev Ė Iím sure they changed the name as it keeps coming up as "interbred" on spellcheckers!) with Hoegaarden who would have brand exposure on Mars if there was a chance it would boost sales of their products.
Brands can be damaged, however. Take the case of Perrier, one of the original mineral waters. It sold more than probably every other water in the world, due to its massive brand exposure and customer loyalty, until traces of benzene were found in a routine test and sales collapsed Ė customers didnít trust the brand any more. Only now, with a re-invention and oodles of money being spent on exposure is it recovering but this shows that one incident can undo years of hard work in building exposure for the brand; customers are notoriously fickle!
So, thatís branding; a tool that can be misused by companies to persuade us to buy their products, sometimes by using allegedly funny adverts to make the consumer forget that the actual product is crap. Some companies use branding to promote their stuff very aggressively Ė as we have seen, exposure is the lifeblood of a brand and if itís not being seen, the masses with goldfish memory will forget about it and purchase whatever is being advertised at the time. Some companies use branding to create a local image of quality for the brand such as Holts, which has a very good name in Manchester but is barely known 50 miles away. Itís really a matter of burrowing through the veneer and discovering what the product is really like, not what they tell you itís like. Donít be a sheep, be a donkey Ė stubbornness and refusal to accept what youíre told can be a real virtue!
I think the lesson to be learnt is to treat brands, be they beer or washing powder, with a healthy degree of scepticism. Donít forget that the brands which can afford big-budget adverts and posters are usually the ones owned by huge multinational companies who, despite their best attempts to spin it otherwise, donít look past the balance sheet and only care about making money Ė the example of InBev closing Boddingtons brewery is a prime example in my opinion. To them, Boddies is simply a brand; it can be produced anywhere and itís still the same stuff. To a lot of people this is where branding becomes the insidious tool of big business; the axiom "the customer wants what the customer gets" conveys everything you need to know about the closure of Boddingtons. Boddies from Hydes is not Boddies Ė but to millions of people it will be just the same stuff even if it comes from a production unit on Pluto. This is the power of branding in todayís brand and media obsessed world; convenience and conformity at the expense of quality and authenticity.
Hopefully, a growing number of people with minds of their own will buy what they want and will swear no allegiance to any brand unless they know it to be beyond reproach. The small brewers canít afford the money to build a brand Ė donít kick them in the teeth by swallowing the bait of those who can afford millions for glossy TV campaigns. Drink what tastes best not what they tell you tastes best and, if enough of us stand up and make our own choices, maybe even the multinationals will have to take notice that not everyone is a slave to the all-consuming runaway train that is branding and give us what we want Ė local products for local people not international products for whoever the people just happen to be in the current "sales catchment area" - but I wouldn't hold your breath.
Right, whoís for a Scoopergen t-shirt and scooping book/pen set then?
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