The British pub has always been central to the nation’s
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
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.
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
’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
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
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
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
’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
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.’
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
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
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
Hybrid drinking places across the board could be a future
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
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
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
’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.
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).