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The bitter taste of a bigger brewer (branding and rebranding).

The bitter taste of a bigger brewer (branding and rebranding)

Beer-drinkers of a certain age will remember one of the UK’s biggest national breweries buying up a large number of smaller, local rivals, rebranding their pubs, then phasing out the local brews in favour of a giant national brand.

The move, which took place in the late-1960s and early-1970s, was accompanied by a strong advertising campaign extolling the virtues of the standardized national brew – one you could ‘drink near or far’ because it was ‘just the same in any bar’ and ‘always good wherever you are’.

What happened next appeared to take the executives of the big brand by surprise. In one of the earliest and strongest modern manifestations of consumer power, drinkers began to boycott the big brewery’s mass-produced keg bitter and press for the restoration of their local brews. A consumer group was born – the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra). Richard Boston, a Guardian journalist, chronicled its rise, and added momentum to the campaign, in his weekly column, ‘Boston on Beer’.

The campaign was so successful that the big national brewery reversed its policy, scrapped its national beer, reintroduced the local brews and changed the pubs back to the branding of their previous local suppliers. The exercise involved ‘debranding’ as much as ‘rebranding’.

What comes around goes around, as they say. Wiggins (Financial Times, 24 Jul 2008) reports that today’s big brewers are busy developing global brands. In particular, the Belgo-Brazilian InBev company has taken over Anheuser-Busch of the US, giving it ownership of Budweiser, the world’s best-known beer brand, and a leading position in the US beer market.

The author argues that the premium on prominent beer brands is ‘high and growing’. By spending large sums on advertising their brands across the world, international brewers can weaken the position of brewers lacking global recognition. By gaining maximum value from their brands, global brewers can offset the rising costs of beer production.

This time round, there is little sign of a consumer backlash. While the UK retains a large number of micro-breweries that each distributes beers to a handful of pubs, most often those closest to the brewery, the medium-size breweries are being picked off by their larger rivals. Richard Boston, where are you now?

The secret of maintaining a successful brand, in beer as in other areas, is to move with the times without losing sight of what made the brand outstanding in the first place. Taylor (The Marketer, Jul/Aug 2008) recounts how the James Bond franchise has achieved this over the last 46 years.

At the height of the Cold War, 007’s adversaries were usually backed by Russian communism. Today he is as likely to be called into action against drug gangs or international terrorism as an international superpower. He smokes less and perhaps has less gratuitous sex (or is this wishful thinking?) Yet the gadgetry and opulent settings that are such fundamental features of the Bond franchise remain.

Taylor points out that if remembering what made you famous is a great way to grow, forgetting what got you to the top can be dangerous. The author illustrates the point with coffee-house chain Starbucks.

The overarching lesson is this. Whether you’re in the business of beer, coffee or movies, you can never take your customers for granted – however big you become.