Brand Health Check: Holsten Pils

Britain's original PPL has lost its way since the 80s, with promotions and distribution that detract from its premium positioning. Samuel Solley asks how it can regain its cool.

Holsten Pils holds a special place in the hearts of older lager drinkers. Launching in the UK in 1952, the distinctive yellow bottles became the nation's original PPL (premium packaged lager). Holsten enjoyed great success during the 80s and early-90s with a series of inspired celebrity-based ad campaigns. Donald Pleasance, Jeff Goldblum, Denis Leary, Griff Rhys Jones and characters from comedy sketch series The Fast Show all starred in its advertising, while more recently, Ray Winstone appeared in the 'It's the daddy' campaign.

But Holsten is in decline. Budweiser and Becks outmanoeuvered the brand in the 90s, and it then faced fierce competition from Stella Artois and Kronenbourg. These two continental lagers enjoyed double-figure percentage growth in value between 2000 and 2002, while Holsten fell by 14.5%. The former market leader is now barely holding on to fourth place in the sector.

The brand has also had to contend with the arrival of alcopops and hybrid ales, which have taken shelf space and sales. It tried to move with them, but its introduction of Holsten Fusion, a fruit-flavoured lager, was a failure.

Holsten's decline appears to have mirrored that of Tottenham Hotspur, the football club it used to sponsor. The brand ditched that sponsorship in 2002, arguing that advertising was the way forward, and last year launched a campaign with the strapline 'It's what's inside that counts' in a bid to kick-start sales.

The ads were created by TBWA\London, but the agency lost patience with the brand and resigned the account. In January this year Fallon picked up the task.

New work has yet to emerge, possibly due to the fact that, in March, Carlsberg bought the Holsten brand for £719m.

What can Holsten's new owner do to turn the brand around? We asked John Harley, chief executive of Budweiser Budvar UK, and Pete Brown, author of Man Walks Into A Pub: A Sociable History Of Beer and head of Storm Lantern, a consultancy specialising in beer marketing.

VITAL SIGNS

Top bottled lager brands by value, on and off trade (pounds m)

2002 2000 % change

Budweiser 372 360 +3.3

Beck's 230 225 +2.2

Stella Artois 205 180 +13.9

Holsten Pils 118 138 -14.5

Kronenbourg 1664 95 80 +18.8

Carling 62 39 +59.0

Source: Mintel

DIAGNOSIS 1 - John Harley Chief executive, Budweiser Budvar UK

Holsten is a big brand, but it is in decline. First imported into the UK in the early-50s, it effectively became the UK's first premium packaged lager, and as such remains one of the most important brands in the history of the UK drinks industry.

ACNielsen's latest on-trade PPL figures show that Holsten Pils bottles enjoy very impressive distribution figures, the fourth-highest of all PPLs. But its rate of purchase (litres per month per outlet) is the lowest of the top ten PPLs.

The problem appears to be the brand's positioning. Holsten is suffering because it has engaged in heavy price promotions at the expense of its premium image. In addition, ACNielsen figures show that it has huge distribution within working men's clubs, which, apart from not being terribly good for a 'premium' image, is also a rapidly declining market.

The wider issue is that Holsten Pils no longer shouts 'cool'. It doesn't make consumers feel special when they purchase it. And that's a great shame.

REMEDY

- Relaunch, as Heineken did last year.

- Come back as something different. Emphasise the beer's German origin, change the packaging or even the ABV rating.

- Become part of the specialist imported lagers category, the only PPL sector growing significantly.

- Be prepared (as Heineken was) to lose practically all existing distribution and have difficult conversations with buyers. The price point needs to rise.

DIAGNOSIS 2 - Pete Brown Consultant, Storm Lantern

When beer marketing was simply about finding the right celebrity, Holsten ruled. But as the market moved on, Holsten fell into decline.

After losing its PPL pole position to Budweiser in the mid-90s, it failed to change. By the time of the Fast Show ads - which launched after the programme had run out of steam - the brand and its celebrities felt anachronistic.

Frequent campaign changes and massive fluctuations in spend confirmed that Holsten had lost its way. Then it broke one of the golden rules by trying to save an ailing brand via line extensions - in this case, fruit beers.

Beer marketing is a curious mix of authenticity and frivolity: drinkers now demand both style and substance. The 'It's what's inside that counts' campaign was a step in the right direction - quirky, arresting and with the beer at its heart. But it may be too little too late. The leading brands rely not only on strong, consistent ad campaigns, but also on powerful associations (sport, music, film) that provide saliency as well as an extra dimension to brand-building.

REMEDY

- Ensure advertising stays entertaining but has the product at its heart.

- Once you've got the idea, stick with it.

- Develop a single, relevant association - something different to the usual sport sponsorships.

- Make much more of the fact that the beer is brewed in Germany and imported. This matters to drinkers.

- Relaunch in 330ml - paying the same price for 275ml leaves people feeling ripped off.

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