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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Hurrah! Another new "innovation" from A-B Inbev!



Porter Tun House, Capability Green, Luton, Bedfordshire, yesterday.  (UK HQ of A-B Inbev.)

And I'm not even being snarky and ironic when I say 'Hurrah'.

No, the thing is, I'm starting to look forward to the press releases announcing these new launches for their sheer entertainment value.  I'm a day late with this one - but with good reason, explained below.

You may remember that in April A-B Inbev announced an "innovation that would revolutionise the beer category", which rather bizarrely turned out to be a 4% bottled Budweiser variant.  I took the piss over the hyperbole they used in announcing something that wasn't only most definitely not an innovation in the market, but wasn't new to A-B Inbev, and wasn't even new to the Budweiser brand.  

I have to say, I'm still waiting for the shockwaves of innovation to rumble through my life, having yet to spot a bottle of Bud 66 in any bar, supermarket or off-licence.

But now they've gone better than mere hyperbole, and actually seem to be entering the realms of the surreal.  I guess if you believe your own hype 100 per cent you start to live in your own world. And if you're completely immersed in your own fantasy world, I guess you can start to invent your own rules and laws of nature.  That's what seems to be happening at A-B Inbev, and it's becoming fascinating and really quite entertaining to watch.

The latest announcement is a new brand extension for Stella Artois.  After the illustrious success of Artois Bock, Eiken Artois and Peeterman Artois (remember them? Anyone? Come on, you must!  it says here that "AB InBev UK have a strong track record in successful innovations"!) A-B Inbev have announced their latest innovation: Stella Artois Black.

We all know what that must be, right?  After Budvar Dark and Asahi Black, it's quite clear that this could only be a black lager. 

I actually think this is a really good line extension for Stella.  Its premium credentials have suffered of late - to say the least - and black lagers remain a very fashionable niche.  Wherever you see Asahi Black on sale it's a priced a lot higher than the main brand, and it's clearly working.  Admittedly it's a shame Stella is not the first to market, but they'll be the first to a mass market with something different yet accessible, something that truly is, for most people, an innovation, and demonstrates that as a premium brand, Stella is, if not quite back on track, certainly groping its way to the edge of the woods.

And look, here's the font:




Nice, premium design.  It's certainly black.  The beer that comes out of that tap will definitely be black, no doubt about it.  Why am I even going on about it so much?  Oh, hang on, here's a shot of the product itself:


Yep, the innovation that is Stella Artois Black is, in fact - golden!  Just like all their other beers!!  Hey, that squirrel just talked to me!!!

According to the press release: "Matured for longer, Stella Artois Black is a golden beer, offering a rounded, full-bodied flavour and a refreshing aftertaste at 4.9% abv. Brewed in and imported from Belgium, the home of Stella Artois, Stella Artois Black will be available in limited distribution and is perfect for those special occasions when consumers want to try something new and different."

Yes, Stella Black is in fact a 4.9% premium golden lager for when consumers - not beer fans mind, not even beer drinkers, but consumers - fancy "something new and different" from Stella Artois a 5% 'premium' golden lager.

It's all rather wonderful, like when someone explains to you their absolute firm belief that fairies exist, or the Matrix is real.

The reason I'm late with this is because I replied to the PR agency who sent me the release, asking why it was called Black, when it wasn't, and why it was any different from Stella.

I just got a reply - here's what they said.

"The name Stella Artois Black denotes premium quality to our customers and consumers - as opposed to being a descriptor in terms of the beer's colour."

and on the second point:

"Stella Artois Black is matured for longer, to develop a rounded, full-bodied flavour, and has a rich, golden colour."

OK.

Now I've got the sarkiness out of my system, when you stare at it for a bit, it becomes clear what A-B Inbev are trying to do with this launch.  Stella has lost its premiumness.  Black does indeed connote premiumness in a general branding sense.  People think (not necessarily accurately) that imported lagers are better than those brewed here.  And more discerning drinkers value flavour a little more.

But here's why this is in fact a disastrous brand extension.

Black may denote quality in a general sense.  But in beer, it denotes colour.  That's been established by previous brands.  I'm sure someone somewhere has produced focus group evidence suggesting that this isn't an issue. But it is. This will cause huge confusion, upsetting people who want a black lager, driving away those who don't like the idea.

The problem with the product specifics of this beer is that, by launching it, A-B Inbev have drawn attention to all the flaws in the parent brand:
  • Ten years ago there wouldn't have been a need to launch a richer, fuller flavoured version of Stella, because Stella itself was richer and more fully flavoured than other lagers.  
  • For much of its history there was no need to mature Stella for longer, because Stella was matured longer than other lagers.  I'm trying to find out how long 'longer' is, but it would be temporally impossible to mature Black for any shorter length of time if rumours of Stella Artois' current maturation time are to be believed.  
  • Even back when it was good, 'proper imported Stella' was seen as superior to the stuff brewed here (even though blind taste tests proved this was not the case).  Black is reminding us that the main Stella brand is brewed in a shed just off the M4.  
As they list each selling point of Stella Artois Black, they remind the drinker of what Stella used to be, and how inferior the present version is.  That's why a brand launch intended to raise the premium credentials of the Artois 'family' overall will in fact do the direct opposite, actively making it painfully clear how un-premium the parent brand - the most important member in that family - has become.

Stella Black also falls between two stools in targeting terms.  The premium beer drinker who has moved on from Stella has already found other brands that are fully flavoured and genuinely imported.  The worrying lack of any product information surrounding this release - I even had to write and ask if it was an ale or a lager - shows a desire to remain vague about specifics that will not satisfy the discerning drinker.  What reason would a Budvar drinker, for example, have to switch to this?  And the silent majority who like Stella how it is now - why would they be interested in this?  It's lower in alcohol, looks expensive, and sounds like it tastes too strong.

It's fascinating to watch, like a slow motion car crash.

I once summarised the expert thinking on brand extensions for a brand manager on Stella.  That brand manager is now president of A-B Inbev UK.  I wish he'd kept hold of my powerpoint presentation - he'd have saved his company several million pounds.  Because anyone who knows the first thing about brand extensions can see that in this case, black is most appropriate as a colour of mourning.

23 comments:

MusicRab said...

Porter Tun House? Its a cover from Yessongs - "Pathways" depicts the emergence of civilization. Or perhaps NOT in this case?

Bods said...

It's amazing isn't it? What planet are they on?!

StringersBeer said...

Matured for "longer". I love that. Longer than...?

HardKnott Dave said...

I am starting to feel the need to join you on this tirade against A-B InBev.

Sid Boggle said...

The "reverential pouring ritual", Pete. What about the "reverential pouring ritual"?

Barm said...

Well, if you can have a Black IPA, you can have a Golden Black Lager. Stands to reason.

Look on the bright side, these launches give work to struggling ad agencies. The logo and glass will look nice in someone's portfolio, and the rest of us get to have a good laugh at AB InBev.

Stephen Beaumont said...

Instead of Stella Artois "Classic," I wonder?

Tandleman said...

Fairies are real. On the top deck of the bus in the IoM at the weekend, to a person all Manx residents said "hello fairies" when passing the Fairy Bridge. That's evidence enough for me!

Shamas said...

At least they didn't call it Stella Artois Stout.

Curmudgeon said...

Strongbow Black isn't black, of course, but it's stronger than the standard product. As Stella Black was originally intended to be.

But the current idea is just bonkers on so many levels.

Northern Snippet said...

WTF? People will obviously assume black denotes the colour.

BLTP said...

May be they copied the idea from "Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV" and his subsequent rebranding....

Davel said...

'Thus spoke the brewers PRO
|a man who really ought to know
for he is paid for saying so'

to probably mis quote Betjeman.

Martyn Cornell said...

Giving a beer the name of a colour it didn't actually have worked OK for Watney's Red, didn't it?

Excellent analysis, btw, Pete. Though I'm sure you didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

rabbi lionheart said...

Ok, so I leterally laughed out loud when I saw the picture. Nice lead-up.

As to the "black" denoting quality, all I can think of is Johnnie Walker, whose Black Label is quality to many consumers, but in reality is their second worst whiskey.

As for the marketing geniuses at AB-INBEV, they just must not be the same geniuses who work for Bud in the US. I hate the beer, but the marketing is spectacular. I doubt anyone over here would be interested in Stella Black. It sounds intimidating and full of flavor.

Lastly, I just have to wonder if Stella's "longer than normal" aging is related to Bud's HYPER-LENGTHY 3 WEEKS IN BEECHWOOD!!! Stop the presses, cause this is just normal marketing. Wait, no, keep the presses going. A lot of people are suckers.

The Bocking Kellys said...

Is this sentence correct - "Even back when it was good, 'proper imported Stella' was seen as inferior to the stuff brewed here (even though blind taste tests proved this was not the case)"?

Surely the 'proper imported Stella' was seen as superior?

DJ said...

I am struggling to understand why Black is used to represent 'premium' in any alcoholic drink let alone in lager where it is widely known for dark lagers. The fools!

http://beerdemon.blogspot.com/

Bob the Brit said...

I confess that I actually quite enjoyed Peetermans, but thought that Elken Artois was a travesty.

I do agree that AB are 'spinning' out of control with regard to its Artois brand. If I want a premium lager then that's what I'll go for, Budvar, Staropramen... Stella is WAY down the list.

John Q. Publican said...

A note on quality lagers; I'm currently selling four of the Freedom beers as my whole keg offering in the new pub. One thing that has been noticeable about the Organic Dark is that it sells slower than the two other lagers (the fourth is the Stout which is arbitrarily not mentioned on the website) but that people who've drunk it once tend to drink it again.

I'm building up to saying that 'proper imports' are not the only way to get quality lagers :) But I will also admit to having Delerium Tremens and a few other choice bits in the cellar waiting for a tap to sell them through.

Melissa Cole said...

I'm awaiting the technical answers to my questions before I comment on this, but I have to say it's a very entertaining post mate!

John Lyle said...

Black is definitely seen as more premium at present, but only if it is carried through the colour - surely?

Look at AMEX and the credit card boys. I think you can almost see the point if it was re-pitching back at the top with a 5.5% beer, but at a lower strength it makes no sense whatsoever.

As a designer myself, I can confirm, that us agencies, do indeed need the work, but we aren't going to keep it unless we stand up to clients and tell them they're being stupid one in a while - just as they are here.

Anonymous said...

Looks a lot more premium now standard Stella has had its ABV legs chopped from under it.

Anonymous said...

On my last visit to uk I noticed that nearly all the"premium" lagers have settled on an abv of 4.8, and it seemed to happen overnight( Stella, becks, bud, carlsberg export).. If you add fosters gold and carling chrome everything is weighing in at 4.8.how did they manage such a smooth collaboration in pursuit of profit?