Last orders at the local? Will traditional pubs have a role to play in the 21st century? Imelda Michalczyk reports

The British pub has always been central to the nation’s culture.

The British pub has always been central to the nation’s

culture.



Even today’s most popular TV soap operas, such as Coronation Street and

EastEnders, put the local at the hub of everyone’s social life.



However, the late 20th century has seen the traditional pub under siege,

forced to compete against a tide of branded pubs and bar chains that are

aimed at specific consumers.



As the pub sector braces itself for what is predicted to be one of its

busiest nights ever - the millennium celebrations - an underlying

identity crisis rumbles beneath the surface.



The number of pub outlets has been gradually declining since 1993.

According to a recent Mintel report, the number of pubs in the UK

dropped from 81,087 in 1993 to 76,091 in 1998. The traditional

ale-selling, male-dominated spit and sawdust pubs of old have given way

to a more branded and marketing-led industry, where theme pubs target

young drinkers or families, and the quality of the pint is now secondary

to the ambiance.



Not only is drinking alcohol as a social pastime competing for share of

wallet with a diversifying range of alternative activities, but alcohol

sales have been cannibalised by supermarkets and off-licences.



In 1970, 90% of beer was sold in pubs. By 1998, this figure had dropped

to 70% as more drinkers opted to take home a bottle of wine or a

four-pack of lagers.



Pub operators have responded to this change in attitude to alcohol

consumption.



The main focus of their activity has been on creating outlets that

appeal to specific consumer groups, and the emergence of themed pub

chains has created a greater sense of branding in this sector.



However, despite the best efforts of pub operators, themed chains, which

appeal in particular to young, female consumers, are likely to take a

growing slice of the market.



The Bass-owned All Bar One chain, launched in 1994, now boasts more than

40 branches nationwide.



Like other female-friendly pub/ bars such as Pitcher & Piano and Fine

Line, All Bar One turned old-fashioned pub culture on its head by aiming

to draw in women.



Female-friendly



Huge glass fronts allow customers to look in and check the place out

first, while a light, airy and relatively peaceful environment, with

soft colours and comfortable sofas, enables professional women to sit

and have a drink and read a newspaper without feeling intimidated.



But the drive towards creating new brands was also circumstantial.

Because the operators invested in high street buildings, often formerly

banks, they had to design the pub interiors from scratch.



This gave the owners a blank canvas on which to build a brand around

lighting, furniture, colours and design, without necessarily alluding to

a more traditional drinking environment.



Robert Clewley, group strategic planning director for Whitbread, sees

the new ’superpubs’ as a match for the traditional pub on a certain

level.



’Brands like All Bar One or Hogshead in the town centres or on high

streets have limited or destroyed any traditional pubs in or around the

high street,’ he says. ’But there’s still a long-term role for

neighbourhood pubs that come within half a mile of home. Most people

don’t live near an All Bar One.’



However, supporters of the traditional pub feel it’s more than just an

issue of geography.



One very vocal opponent to theme-bar branding is Roger Myers, business

development director of Punch Taverns, which has just acquired Allied

Domecq’s pub business.



The company is still deciding on the future of pubs within the

portfolio, including the Firkin chain, which is likely to survive.



Says Myers: ’Brands in pubs should be the exception rather than the

rule.



They only have any kind of value when they’re conveying to the customer

a certain kind of offer, like a cheap food offer. Otherwise, it doesn’t

sell extra beer and alienates people looking for authentic pubs.’



He argues that there are niches for branded outlets, but that the market

has been saturated. Traditional pubs ought to offer the appeal and charm

of being run by an individual.



Myers adds: ’It’s got out of control. When a brand appears on every

corner they lose their credibility - people see them as part of a big

multinational company and not the nice bar around the corner.’



David Bruce, the founder of the Firkin chain, recently launched Honeypot

Inns, a pub chain which veers away from overt branding. Certainly there

are signs that drinkers are turning against the idea of pub chains -

particularly the ’Oirish’ theme bars.



Bruce maintains that there is ’a conscious demand by the consumer to

seek out unbranded pubs catering for the market within their

locality’.



So have the pub/bar brands really run out of steam - or just out of new

ideas? The argument over the virtues of the new-style chains versus the

old-style pubs focuses on service as opposed to product. The issue of

service is the one area that the branded chains have largely glossed

over in favour of offering a specific package deal.



This takes the form of an environment tailored to a certain customer,

then cloned and sent forth to multiply throughout the town or

country.



The staff in this package have no identity, and have little interaction

with the customers beyond what is necessary.



The product itself is consistent across all areas of the brand, from the

quality of food and drinks to the lighting and clientele. Traditional

pubs offer almost the exact opposite - a landlord who knows your name,

familiar faces and an environment with its own identity. It may not

always be perfect, but at least it’s not packaged.



Stuart Harris, deputy director of Brand Futures, predicts that a

combination of the two could be one direction that pubs and bars will

take.



’It’s difficult for chains to create personality. Brands are homogeneous

- there’s nothing intimate or personal about them. Good pubs are all

about atmosphere.It goes beyond mere function and externals and is about

the spirit behind it. If someone like Richard Branson went into the pub

business, you’d expect a certain type of person working in it. Over the

next few years someone will have a crack at it on a personality

basis.’



Harris suggests that the original pub concept won’t die, just as

spin-offs don’t kill successful products. ’Take Kellogg’s Corn Flakes -

they’re still a big seller. People are always interested in variations,

but they get a bit tired after a while.’



Cafe crossover



However, some industry observers say the issue isn’t really about pubs

versus theme bars, but a change in the whole pub experience. And it

could be cappucinos and lattes which prove the biggest challenge to

beers and lagers. Adds Harris: ’The question in the long term is the

crossover between bars and pubs, and pubs and cafes.’



Whitbread’s Clewley admits that the rising coffee-bar culture

transferred from the US and springing up over here in the form of Coffee

Republic and Starbucks could be a potential threat to pubs.



And Bill Nash, a researcher for Euromonitor, says that the rise in

coffee bars is forecast to continue. ’There are 250 chained coffee bars

in the South-East region. The forecasts predict there’s room for

1500.’



This trend might prove slightly less of a threat to Whitbread, as it

bought the Costa cafe chain in 1995 and now claims to be opening one a

week.



In an interesting merging of businesses, Whitbread has also begun to

install Costa cafes inside a handful of its Hogshead pubs. The cafe



cannot threaten the pub, if the pub has gone straight ahead and acquired

it.



Hybrid drinking places across the board could be a future

phenomenon.



Cafes are already springing up in bookstores such as Borders, Costa

plans to site outlets in the travel agency chain Going Places and

Homebase stores, and McDonald’s recently acquired the Aroma chain.



A further shift could be driven by demographic changes. According to The

Office for National Statistics, the number of 15- to 24-year-olds has

been falling consistently. In 1986 there were 9.3 million people in this

age group, but by 1997 it was down to 7.2 million. Meanwhile, higher age

groups have seen steady increases.



Targeting 18- to 24-year-old s might not be so profitable in the long

term, compounded by the increasingly fast-paced changes in fashion that

can render brands massively successful, but only for short periods of

time.



Harris says the expanded older market will increasingly be a potential

target for a new type of pub.



’The baby boom is working its way through the population. By the end of

the next decade there will be a big rump of people who are not like

today’s older people. Pubs used to be a male refuge from the wife and

kids. It may well be that one of the niches in the future will be the

pub as a refuge for the pre-digital generation from the digital age -

the flashing lights, the bleeping, the digital din. Older people may

revert to their origins, where they feel comfortable, but not back to

spit and sawdust.’



However, the major role of the pub of the future may well return to its

very origins - as a community focus.



Harris adds: ’People are increasingly on the move - they’re less tied to

a place. Social relationships have become impersonal, mediated through

the phone or internet. There is an increasing loss of community.



The pub will have the opportunity to fulfil that role as a focus for

people to get together, but in a way that is in keeping with modern

times.’



Community focus



Emma Atkinson, a youth marketing specialist from the agency Circus, also

predicts that the future of drinking holes will be to revert back to a

role with a community focus. Atkinson was instrumental in the emergence

of the Blue Note club in Hoxton.



As she points out, trends often surface in the underground scene and

then spill out into the main-stream, where they are nurtured by

marketers and then sold to a mass audience.’The club and drug culture

has had a huge effect, and I think in one respect it is about people

finding close-knit communities within that.’ She also points to the rise

in clubs with membership policies as indicative of the trend.



’People want to find somewhere where they’re going to have a one-on-one

relationship because, let’s face it, everything is so mass marketed.

Where can you find somewhere like the bar in Cheers, where everyone

knows your name? I think there’s a huge reaction against all those

branded bars.



’People don’t want to feel like they’re in a consumer chain. They want a

home from home that is about the individual. People are much more

comfortable in places that aren’t pretentious, that aren’t all shiny

surfaces and that don’t overawe them.’



There are other concerns, of course, for pub brands in the UK. Not least

is licensing laws, with this country still lagging badly behind many

others in its approach to when people can actually get a drink, and the

draconian 11pm shut-down across most of the country.



The current Labour government favours relaxing the licensing laws,

allowing much later drinking, and the changes for the millennium are a

foretaste of things to come.



The Great British local certainly needs all the help it can get to keep

its role in the nation’s cultural life.





PUB OUTLETS

1993                      81,087

1994                      80,484

1995                      79,801

1996                      78,923

1997                      77,654

1998                      76,091

TOP 10 BRANDED DRINK PUBS

Brand                         No                       Owned by

Wetherspoons                 308                 JD Wetherspoon

Mr Q’s                       248                  Allied Domecq

Firkin                       188                  Allied Domecq

Hogshead                     150                      Whitbread

O’Neills                     108                           Bass

Barras                       104           Scottish & Newcastle

Yates’s                       94                 Yates Brothers

Festival Ale House            82                  Allied Domecq

TJ Barnards                   70           Scottish & Newcastle

Ale & Hearty                  63                      Greenalls

(Source: Company annual reports/Whitbread figures).



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