So, according to a story in The Shout, Australia’s large brewers have discovered beer has an image problem.
Given its membership, The Brewer’s Association complaining about the image of beer is like the Army conducting tank manoeuvres down in a suburban street and then complaining about the state of the roads.
But it seems that, after meticulous study into the issue, including the inevitable focus groups, The Brewer’s Association has come to the conclusion that beer was incorrectly perceived as “fattening”, “a lot less healthy than wine” and “laden with chemicals”; ‘blokey’, ‘boganish’ and a ‘dad’s drink’; ‘bitter’ and ‘boring’ not to mention that we need to champion positive rituals, behaviours and language associated with beer.
Beer is fattening
While they choose now to see this as a problem, these are perceptions that the large brewers (and increasingly some small brewers) have been happily strip mining for the last decade through their marketing campaigns. They didn’t need research to tell them that people thought beer was unhealthy, they knew it and have been actively pushing the idea that low carb beers were better for people wanting to avoid weight gain.
It’s interesting that the association’s current plans were announced by Lion Beer, Spirits & Wine national sales director Mark Powell. A few years ago, when low carb beers were in their ascendancy, his own company was doing its very best to confirm those perceptions. Lion’s New Zealand marketing manager Sean O’Donnell was then quoted as saying:
“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.” (emphasis added).
This was a cynical marketing ploy that did nothing to bring new drinkers to beer, just aimed to capitalise on the new trend to fight for market share. Of course, when that trend faded – as they always do – it was always going to leave the broader drinks market having their perception about beer being fattening confirmed, entrenching the problem that the Brewers Association is now wanting to solve with their permanent po-face .
Ironically the above quote was in response to a VicHealth study that suggested more than two-thirds (71 per cent) said they believe low carb beer is healthier than full-strength beer, despite both types containing the same level of alcohol. The members of the Brewers Association publicly ignored this report, privately dismissed it and went about the business of marketing low carb beers as the healthy alternative…albeit using the silent dog whistle of clever marketing to avoid actually saying it was ‘healthier’.
Although, again, Mark Powell’s own company railed several years ago that they couldn’t actually market low carb beers as being healthier.
“Health-conscious males want to have a beer but they want to feel better about it,” (emphasis added) said Lion’s New Zealand marketing manager Sean O’Donnell, again. Lion must be very proud of Mr O’Donnnell’s efforts to improve both the education and image of beer.
O’Donnell explicitly acknowledges in this quote that Lion simply wanted to pander to the belief that they were because it made them feel better to consume the same number of calories. In doing so Lion confirmed the erroneous belief that ‘regular’ beer was fattening. New Zealand’s arm of Lion seems to have gone further than anyone else, but it is the same dog whistle that every marketer of lower carb beers has tooted for a decade.
Beer is blokey
The Shout reports Powell as saying two out of five people surveyed commented that they wanted beer to modernise its image, that they wished the beverage was more acceptable to women for shared consumption occasions and that the the research had also shown that there were negative words and associations with beer that needed to be tackled. Beer was variously considered ‘blokey’, ‘boganish’ and a ‘dad’s drink’.
Now how could this concept have become entrenched in the drinks market? Let’s ask Lion, who has made great strides in changing that over the past decade…
Of course, it’s not just Lion that has worked to ensure women feel welcome in the world of beer, that beer doesn’t make you fat or that low carb is the answer to the beer belly. Amazingly Fosters managed to roll all of that up in one image.
Beer is agricultural
“It’s actually made of four natural ingredients, it couldn’t be more natural,” Powell said.
OK, leaving aside the whole fifth ingredient is time or adjunct sugars brouhaha, Powell’s assertion is still complete nonsense for most of their products, especially their flagship XXXX Gold.
Way back in 2008 Lion had the same epiphany that they are now having…people didn’t know what was in beer and that there was a misperception that beer was a cocktail of additives. To counter this, Lion launched the now-defunct Natural Beer Promise. This saw Lion remove anything artificial from beers bearing the Natural Beer Promise, including tetra hops.
The media release announcing the campaign opened with:
With a staggering nine out of ten Australians unsure of what ingredients are used to make up beer, a group of brewers from Lion Nathan have got together to set the record straight and show that when it comes to brewing some of their favourite beers, it’s natural.
At least they truthfully reported the five ingredients back then…someone should tell Mark Powell about adjunct sugars as he seems to be one of the 9 out of ten who is unsure of the ingredients of beer.
In any event, in launching their natural campaign, Lion also managed to entrench the notion that other beers were filled with preservatives and nasty chemicals. But, of course, that was the negative perception they were playing to to score brand points.
Unfortunately, adjunct sugars make up such a part of XXXX Gold that without the foam-positive characteristics of the ‘non natural’ tetra hops, the beer wouldn’t keep its head. Publicans and consumers were soon complaining that XXXX Gold was going flat and Lion had to retreat and go back to using tetra hops and the campaign was quickly forgotten about, though without any fanfare. When I asked about the campaign the following year I was advised:
XXXX is no longer promoting the Natural Beer Promise due to the issues with the removal of the tetra hop from XXXX GOLD to meet the standard resulting in bad head retention. Also, low carb beers actually don’t meet the promise as they have an enzyme added to break down the carbs so low carbs beers cannot claim to be naturally brewed.
At the time Lion was deservedly applauded for their ideals and their efforts. Unfortunately they need to actually change their product to make it align with what Mr Powell now says is the community expectation and to counter the negative perceptions that they themselves have created.
Beer is ‘bitter’ and ‘boring’
The brewers do realise that one of the four (or five) ingredients in beer is hops. Hops give beer bitterness. Beer is an inherently bitter. That’s what it is. Yet brewers have gradually crept the bitterness of beer down to the microscopic level to pander to the changing tastes of new generations of drinkers. Not beer drinkers, mind you. Drinkers. Now beer is perceived as ‘boring’. Possibly because it has no flavour. “Crisp” and “refreshing” are not adjectives that describe flavour, they describe the absence of flavour.
There is, in fact, a product with similar brand cues as beer but doesn’t have bitterness. It’s called cider. The brewers have worked hard to fill their portfolios with alcoholic Appletise to cater to these tastes. And now they are strip mining that market over the protests of the cider industry. No doubt in a few years, when they have pissed in that pool too, the big brewers will start to make noises about having to change the face of cider. In the meantime, I feel for the cider industry and what is being done to natural cider, but I love beer. Brewers Association Members: go sell your fizzy apple goon to cater to the people who don’t like bitterness and give beer back its flavour and credibility.
Failing that, just buy Canadian Club. The industry hates RTDs already, except for the people who sell them.
A positive beer culture
Powell, and the Brewers Association, wants to lecture us about championing positive rituals, behaviours and language associated with beer. In some ways, through the efforts of their brewers such as Chuck Hahn and Bill Tailor, his own company has quietly done that.
Chuck Hahn has been a champion for beer culture, always reinforcing beer culture at its most basic, such as using a glass. But, unfortunately for Chuck and the beer industry, Squires’ brand has now grown and now they have ”brand people” doing things. They want to moves units for their brand, add a line to their resume and then take the next step up their career ladder at Unilever selling deodorant. They don’t care about beer’s perception or the size of the overall market, just their own little piece of the sales pie chart.
Squires is now big enough to do TV and has recently done some beer and food matches on TV to support the brand. My initial excitement at seeing such a positive move for craft beer immediately crashed in flames when the chef started swigging from the bottle… We are talking about the flavour of beer and you drink from the bottle? Such are the champions of positive rituals.
If you are serious about creating and reinforcing a culture, you model the desired behaviour religiously. These are ads produced under the watchful eye of some Lion brand manager and the have the chef drinking from the bottle. A simple addition but a powerful statement about ritual and culture. In one week of these ads running – even on SBS – Lion managed to reach more people than Chuck Hahn would have in ten years of beer dinners and reinforced exactly the culture the would seem to want to change.
I emailed Chuck about it, he replied, with an apparent sense of his own frustration:
“I just saw some of those spots earlier this week; I am amazed that a glass is not used. I will send an inquiry into our marketing group to see why a glass wasn’t used. Probably some crazy reason – such as tightness of the shot or the laziness of the photographer – easier to just have a bottle sitting there.”
I also received an email from Richard Spicer, Marketing Manager for James Squire. The officially sanctioned and sanitised quote was:
“We can certainly look to ensuring we pour our wonderful James Squires beers into a glass before Peter enjoys it for any future filming. Having the glass beside the beer would make the segment even better. As you know, the main focus of the segment was cooking so we were really excited to work closely with Peter and create some fantastic recipes that use our beers. It was also a great opportunity to showcase our beers in this casual, relaxed environment and hopefully inspire foodies to try something different in the kitchen.
“We’re very much for the decanting of our beers. As you probably know, we’ve released the ‘Friendship Pint’ this year to help people to share our beers in the best way possible – poured into a glass.”
We’re very much for the decanting of our beers, but don’t see OUR MAJOR TELEVISION CAMPAIGN AS THE PLATFORM FOR DOING THAT AND THEREBY CHAMPIONING THE POSITIVE BEHVIOURS AND RITUALS THAT WE SAY WE WANT TO SEE IN THE MARKET.
And yes, I am literally screaming as I type that last line.
There are so many positive sentiments in the Brewers Association motherhood statements, and there is so much about what they say that is both true and needs to change. The Brewers Association is no doubt sincere in their wish that beer improve its image. Unfortunately , the truth is that they are simply not able to do it. So long at their members are wedded to a brand marketing approach of actively pandering to the very negative perceptions that they see now as the problems, their attempts to make beer seem less blokey, more healthy or more elegant are just like trying to dig a deep hole in dry sand. For every scoop that they carve out, the hole will fill under its own weight.
If they are serious about changing the public’s perception of beer, these companies need to start with widespread change of their own perceptions. And stop advertising their biggest selling products would help too.