Large brewers never seem refer to their product as beer, instead they routinely talk of their ‘portfolio of brands’.
The breweries imbue these brands with values and attributes that are designed to segment largely generic beers into target markets and create a perception of that particular beer label that will resonate with that target audience, one that the audience will either see as a reflection of the drinker’s self-image or will project how they want themselves to be seen. The brand values are aspirational statements about where the brewer is positioning the particular beer in the market place.
As one example, Kirin-owned Lion lists the brand values of their key brands in their sponsorship guidelines, a document that is designed to assist those seeking sponsorship to understand whether the sponsorship opportunity shares the values of Lions brands.
Among the brands listed are:
Tooheys NEW: Outgoing males, 33 years old plus, who champion the great Australian suburban lifestyle with their family, mates and community.
XXXX GOLD: Male, 25–39, blue/grey collar workers who are down to earth, sociable and love watching or playing sport with mates. This group lives the good life and loves recreational and social sports like fishing and cricket.
XXXX Summer Bright Lager: 18-29 summer loving Australians. The beer is bright filtered for pure refreshment and is perfect for drinking under the Australian sun. The brand is about energetic fun times with mates outdoors
James Boag’s Premium: Male, 30-49, married and potentially with children. These men have a grounded sense of confidence and value success. The best quality products are very important to them so James Boag’s Premium is a perfect choice.
Boag’s Draught: Male, 25–39, who are social and down-to-earth. This group appreciates quality in everything they do but don’t need to show off about it. Boag’s Draught is made with pure Tasmanian water and the finest ingredients to make a draught beer that’s just…better.
Kirin: Men and women, 24-28 years old, who consider themselves as trendy and upper middle class. This group is seeking a beer which will reflect their status and proudly show off his/her individuality. The pure refreshing taste is ensured by its unique first press method.
In blind tastings I find that the average beer drinker has a hard time telling the difference between the flavour profiles of beers such as Tooheys New, XXXX Gold and even Boag’s Premium, but the marketers are still able to present the beer in a vastly different manner. They put a lot of thought – and money – into what they want each brand to represent and how they want it seen by beer drinkers.
For all of this time and money, I wonder how much time and effort they put into considering what the brand values of their real product is, and by product I mean beer. Independent of individual brands and breweries, how is beer itself perceived? What sort of statement do they make about where they position beer itself in the market place.
A story in today’s Murdoch press gives us a pretty good clue…
The accompanying story looked at alcohol as a social lubricant and how a recent study confirms the perception that while we think we are sexier, smarter and funnier when we drink, others privately think we’re a turkey. Nowhere in the article is beer even mentioned and the study itself was conducted using cocktails, but whenever alcohol is presented in way that suggests boorishness, beer is the banner headline and it’s a fat slob clutching a giant mug of beer that is the representative image.
I can’t possibly imagine where this perception of beer came from. The brewing industry would never promote beer that way…
As beer sales have declined to their lowest point in more than 40 years, large brewers love to point to a number of factors driving this decline. In almost every discussion I have had with representatives of large breweries they see the primary factors driving beer’s decline as being out of their control.
Among the many reasons they cite are changing tastes, growing health consciousness and the fact that lobby groups seem to campaign more heavily against beer and beer occasions rather than wine. They despair that, despite being full of preservatives, wine is regarded as being a less fattening and healthier drink than beer.
It is undeniably true that tastes have changed, skewing away from bitter and towards sweeter, fruitier drinks. That will always be a challenge that beer must face. However other tastes have changed too. In the 1970s the image of beer drinking was an overweight bloke watching TV with a beer can on his protruding belly.
As seen from the XXXX campaign, to sell their beer Lion seem to have embraced an image of beer that was designed to shame people into changing their lifestyle, only updating it by taking the bloke outside and giving him some mates.
I’m not sure if Australians ever actually saw themselves as Barry McKenzie types walking around swigging beer and saying “stone the crows”, “sheila” and “pommy bastards”, but they certainly don’t now. In every aspect of our cultural life Australians have sought to move on from the ocker image, and largely cringe at the remembrance, and yet brewers seem to constantly draw on exactly that for inspiration.
I understand that beer can never become pretentious and the worst thing that could ever happen to beer would be that people look sideways at what others are ordering lest they choose the ‘wrong’ beer, but surely it’s possible to sell beer without reinforcing the worst elements of the negative perceptions that people have of it?
If you pander to the lowest common perceptions of beer for the sake of advertising and a short-term sales bump you drive the average perception of the whole category lower. This hurts beer in the long run by reinforcing its negative image and reducing the number of occasions at which it is acceptable to drink beer. It also reduces the number of people who see it as an acceptable expression of themselves as well.
It is impossible not to oversimply without writing a 10,000 word thesis – and we’re approaching 1000 already – but unless brewers are willingly blind to their own role in beer’s problems, it’s hard not to see how beer’s image has become so tarnished.
One brewer recently made the statement to me “wine on the other hand is healthy because of all those great polyphenols, despite the preservatives and high alcohol-concentration. If we brewers only knew how the wine industry pulled this off!?!”
My answer is that wine does not present itself as a drink for consuming in great quantities, presenting “sessionability” as its finest characteristic. That doesn’t stop people from drinking a lot of wine, even to excess, it just stops the perception of wine as a drink that is only for over-indulging.
I have never heard anyone say, “gee, I like that wine…but I couldn’t drink a lot of it” and yet, such is beer’s image as a weapon of mass consumption, I don’t think I have ever done an introductory beer tasting and not heard that said of a beer. The common perception of a ‘good’ beer is one that must be able to be consumed in volume.
Beer doesn’t present itself as a drink of moderation so it’s hardly surpring that it’s not seen as one. Brewery marketing should have a look at the role it has played in creating that perception and constantly reinforcing it, a perception that damages beer’s brand and draws precisely the attentions of alcohol authorities that they complain about.
Why does beer have a perception of being unhealthy and fattening? Again complex, but the above is one…as is the fact that more recently brewers have told actively told people it is.
The entire low-carb market has been built up by brewers telling drinkers, or at least confirming the erroneous belief, that beer is high in carbs and is therefore fattening. Rather than try and change this perception, brewers took the path of least resistance and pandered to it, running marketing lines such as this one from Lion New Zealand:
“It is not low-calorie beer but is all about low-carb because that is what we have found consumers to be concerned about. It has less carbs for people who are managing their weight.”
‘”Less carbs for people managing their weight”! They know that the amount of carbs in beer is not an issue in weight gain and yet, to sell just one of their brands, they are willing to reinforce erroneous perceptions about their entire product category.
As the low carb fad slows, the wider market continues on, now having had their suspicions that beer is fattening confirmed by the very people who make beer.
Are there easy answers to retrieve the perception of beer and to offer a proposition that will encourage more people to try it? Of course not. However, as with alcoholism, the first step is to admit you have a problem. Big brewers persistently refuse to do this. Rather than pandering to the lowest perceptions of beer selling individual brands, they need to ask themselves, “how do we want beer itself to be seen as a brand?”
If their answer to that is a drink for blokes sitting around watching television and resting tinnies on their beer guts, they should win a marketing award because they have achieved that spectacularly.
If that’s not how they want beer to be seen, they need to ask themselves what are they going to do about it?