Stella Artois has long prided itself on its positioning as the 'Reassuringly expensive' choice, but this self-proclaimed role could end up being the cause of its downfall.
Stella's volume sales declined 4.6% worldwide in the three months to the end of March. Its parent Inbev has blamed a 'weak UK market', where the lager was hit by a significant 8.1% slump. However, its figures come in marked contrast to those of another global Inbev-owned beer brand, Beck's, which managed to grow its volume sales by 4.3% during the same period - suggesting it may be more than the market that is weak.
Stella, which remains the UK's top-selling premium lager despite the downturn, claims to have taken a short-term hit because it has refused to bow to pressures to indulge in a price war in what is a fiercely competitive sector. The major brewers - SABMiller, Carlsberg, Heineken, Coors and Scottish Courage - all market their lagers aggressively and cut prices to ensure their sales remain steady.
Lagers including Grolsh, Kronenbourg 1664 and more recently Heineken are all positioned as premium offerings, but none tread the path to quite the same extent as Stella. Heineken, for instance, whose advertising features Hollywood actor Ray Liotta, is not shy of being price-competitive.
Stella says it will ride out the weak market, retaining its brand equity in the process, even if the supermarkets undermine its positioning with cut-price deals.
So is being reassuringly expensive the right approach, or should Stella shake up its image? We asked Pete Brown, author of Man walks into a pub: A sociable history of beer, and founder of beer marketing consultancy Storm Lantern, and John Harley, former chief executive of Budweiser Budvar in the UK and current chairman of NOFIBS, the organisation launched last year to promote genuine imported beers.
DIAGNOSIS 1 - PETE BROWN, FOUNDER, STORM LANTERN
For years Stella Artois has been a schizophrenic brand: the reassuringly expensive nectar of the ads, and the adopted lager of Binge Britain.
But just as Jack Daniel's succeeds by not acknowledging its rock and roll heritage, Stella has until now maintained the balance between exclusivity and popularity.
Stella's main strength is consistency.
It has been saying the same things in the same way for so long that drinkers 'just know' it's a top-quality brand.
The flipside of this is stagnation. Stella hasn't done anything new for years. Meanwhile, rival Kronenbourg has introduced a white beer, a Premier Cru variant, and sexy new design and dispense. It doesn't matter that some of these innovations don't work; Kronenbourg still feels like the pace-setter in the category.
Stella's parent Inbev has known for years that the brand's momentum couldn't continue and will doubtless be planning something. But it needs to pull off the trick of being nimble and imaginative, without trying too hard.
- Stay true to the brand. Don't panic and change everything.
- Innovate in a way that feels like it comes from a Belgian brewery, rather than an ad agency brainstorm.
- Protect the price. Easier said than done, but discounting is one of the major threats Stella faces.
- Continue to improve product presentation. We don't see enough of the Belgian tulip glass, which makes drinking a half feel acceptable.
DIAGNOSIS 2 - JOHN HARLEY, CHAIRMAN, NOFIBS
Stella Artois seems to be a victim of its own success. As a brand it is distributed far and wide and has almost become generic.
Over the past decade or so ,its parent Inbev pulled off a masterstroke - it took a decent lager, created some fantastic TV advertising with cinematic overtones (no matter that it was French- rather than Belgian-themed), and created the wonderful strapline 'Reassuringly expensive'.
Then - and this is the clever bit - Inbev sold into the trade at incredible value-for-money prices, thus directing much of the money at the third-party supply chain. This ensured that Stella was available in a huge amount of outlets in the UK, and so the legend began.
Now we read that Stella sales are down in the UK by 8.1%. Is this the end of this mighty lager? Not at all. These are market forces pure and simple. If you're as big as Stella (1.7bn pints sold in the UK alone in 2004), then market forces are going to make a big difference to your business.
- Refresh the TV advertising. Time was that people looked forward to new beer ads - now they put the kettle on.
- Don't worry too much about market forces. You never know, we may have a good summer this year.
- Try to stop the supermarkets from robbing your brand equity (£9.99 a case anyone?); 8.1% down at full price is a lot of money.