Problem drinkers and the high ABV marketing conundrum

LONDON - The brewers of White Lightning and Special Brew have given up on marketing.

No self-respecting marketer would confess a desire to succeed in the battle for underage and homeless drinkers. Yet the likes of Carlsberg Special Brew and Scottish & Newcastle-owned White Lightning have become synonymous with the park bench.

Last week, S&N announced plans to reduce the ABV of its White Lightning brand from 7.5% to 5.5% to encourage responsible drinking.

However, the company's cider communications manager, Harry Turner, says the change in ABV will not spark a marketing push.

'We're trying to address the alcohol issues being discussed in the public domain,' says Turner. 'Since 2004, we've been easing up the price and White Lightning is now the most expensive white cider. We've also not invested anything in marketing for the brand.'

Repositioning risks

Sales of White Lightning have fallen 25% year on year, and Turner says S&N is likely to pull the plug on the brand if the change in ABV exacerbates the decline.

In 1999, Carlsberg launched an implausible ad campaign to reposition its Special Brew brand as a premium lager. The £1m campaign, by Saatchi & Saatchi, introduced the strapline 'The beer of gods'.

'The ad is being targeted at the more mature and discerning drinker. We want the drinker who partakes in a style brand,' said a Carlsberg spokeswoman at the time. Needless to say, the work was unsuccessful in wrestling Special Brew from the gloved hands of its most dedicated drinkers, and marketing has not been risked on the brand since.

Indeed, brand owners seem scared to publicise high-alcohol products, and instead treat them like dirty little secrets. Yet the story of Buckfast Tonic Wine, a fortified wine product, shows how a lack of marketing can allow a brand to spin off into dangerous territory.

The product brims over with heritage, having been brewed by Roman Catholic Benedictine monks in rural Devon since the late 19th century. However, while it has lacked distribution in England, 'Buckie' has become synonymous with working-class binge-drinking in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Mark Fowlestone, the managing director at drinks specialist agency Multiply, says companies feel uncomfortable drawing attention to such brands. 'If you look at all the legislation, all the "booze Britain" stuff in the press, the fact that they do not market these products is more down to the social decay of Britain,' he says.

Richard Clark, marketing controller at Halewood, which owns perry brand Lambrini, is confident that marketing can turn around a drink's reputation. Lambrini has been attacked by some commentators for encouraging under-age drinking among girls. However, Clark argues that the combination of a marketing campaign, the addition of further variants and the trend to drink at home has restored the brand's image.

Richard Huntington, director of strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi, says brands simply need to be in tune with the times. Huntington, who worked on brands including Pot Noodle and Tango in the 90s, claims that marketing cannot sustain a faltering brand.

'You can use the dark arts of marketing to reinvigorate a product, but only for a while,' he says. 'It's a bit like the Roadrunner running off a cliff. Consumers are intolerant of anything that lacks authenticity.'

Lost provenance

If heritage is so important, then Carlsberg is surely missing a trick or two with Special Brew. According to its website, the product was originally brewed to celebrate Winston Churchill's visit to Copenhagen in 1950. The lager was imbued with a hint of cognac, one of Churchill's favourite drinks.

Yet media pressure upon brewers to discourage binge-drinking is so intense that the likes of Special Brew and White Lightning are likely to remain silent on the marketing front. Instead, the drinks companies have resigned themselves to treating the brands like unwanted, illegitimate children, and focus on quietly mopping up the lingering sales.

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