Designed To Be Human

 

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Big Beer is trying its hardest to take the lead in igniting the nation’s appreciation of beer. The thing is, aren’t we all managing without them?

Let There Be Beer, the much-maligned joint campaign by Britain’s biggest brewers, has had a facelift and, as its organisers have put it, has ‘evolved’ (like a Pokemon) into There’s A Beer For That. It’s not for me to say whether a phrase trademarked by Apple in 2010 being appropriated by Big Beer is a legal concern, but like the rest of the campaign it sadly reeks of someone else’s hard work passed off as something new and important.

The campaign’s press launch on Wednesday (attended by industry execs, press, MPs and two bloggers – myself and Matt Curtis) showed the biggest elements of the industry patting themselves on the back, certain that they had found a way to take back the dastardly creeping margin of craft beer that’s been making them all look bad.

Before I arrived at the fog-shrouded obelisk of Millbank Tower on Wednesday evening, I had truly wanted to like what they were going to show us. I met people representing the campaign back in June at the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin, and, with perhaps the social lubricant of a few beers boistering my resolve and softening my cynicism, I along with a few other bloggers gave them a substantial amount of free advice about how to make their campaign better. The main points that we each made revolved around the importance of being inclusive, sincere, friendly and knowledgeable. The resulting campaign shoots at least for some of these aims, but misses every single one.

For one, there’s a curious amount of doublethink at the heart of the campaign. On the one hand, by the campaign’s own admission, Britain’s beer scene is booming, with more interest in beer and brewing than ever before, but at the same, they believe the British beer scene needs ‘reigniting’ and ‘rejeuvenating’. So, is it booming or not? The only things in need of reigniting and rejuvenating in the British beer scene are the tired attitudes and beers of 90% of the market. Now, that 90%, the representatives of which were sat around us in the function suite at Millbank, has now put £10million into playing catch-up under the guise of presenting a united front for all beer in Britain.

To be absolutely clear, the craft breweries leading the way in including and engaging people about beer have no need for this campaign, nor are they likely to want be associated with any of the breweries that have formed ‘Britain’s Beer Alliance’, the loose association funding the campaign (the British Beer and Pub Association, Heineken UK, Carlsberg UK, SAB Miller, AB Inbev, Molson Coors, Enterprise Inns, Shepherd Neame, Cask Marque, IBD, Everards, the Beer Academy, SIBA, Robinsons, Fuller’s, Liberation Group, Thwaites, Budvar, Charles Wells, Wadworth, Daleside and It’s Better Down the Pub). The involvement of SIBA as an organisation does not mean that any of the breweries it represents are a part of this, or that they support it. Britain’s craft breweries are already reaping the benefits of their own hard work, and now the big boys are trying to reap the benefits of the craft brewers’ hard work, too.

It was blatantly obvious from the launch event that the big brewers are scared, genuinely petrified, of the success of craft beer and small breweries, and they’ve decided to join forces, again, to present themselves as something just as credible and interesting. The sales and marketing language used to explain the Alliance revealed more than perhaps they intended. Britain’s Beer Alliance is so desperate to be a mainstream, UK version of the US Brewer’s Association that it has mistaken values and principles for a sales strategy and an advertising campaign.

The campaign’s new advert, made at great expense and involving the talents of British director Michael Winterbottom (of ‘The Trip’) and a production team including those who worked on the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, is very much of the homey, down-to-earth, pushing-bike-up-a-hill school of advertising last seen in Hovis commercials and more lately given a new lease of life by McDonald’s. A friendly, pan-national accented voiceover reassures us that whoever you are (as long as you fit into advertising’s designated people-pigeonholes), there’s a beer for you. Or, as some have noted, perhaps a burger?

The advert has one thing going for it: it tries to show Britain’s diverse population enjoying a beer as ‘normally’ as possible in as many ways as possible. Unfortunately, as is the way with adverts, it seems so contrived that there is no question of whether it’s ‘natural’ or not. Picture-perfect pints with industry-benchmark levels of head sit untouched in most scenes, with only a few of the actors shown to be brave enough to take a cautious sip. All it shows is that, whatever the cuisine, there’s an unwanted prop beer for that.

Whilst the stated intention of the campaign might be to promote the interests of all beer, the number of beers it chooses to promote in the TV advert is curiously selective. Note, for example, the absence of any stout or black beer, and the absence of Diageo (owners of Guinness) from the so-called Alliance behind the campaign. Unlikely to be a coincidence. This is about self-interest, nothing more.

Some might argue that regardless of the intentions of this campaign and its backers that the industry still needs such a ‘call to arms’ to help Britain’s beer culture to be taken seriously. I’m not sure that we do need a blanket, carpet-bombing campaign like this to achieve such an aim. Only the night before the launch of the campaign, I was at a beer and food dinner organised by Beavertown, Dogfish Head and Wells & Youngs. This combination of cutting-edge British youngblood brewery, American inspirational trendsetter and established British cask ale bulldog resulted in a wonderful evening that represented the very best of what beer can do, with warm and engaging hosts. People with all levels of beer knowledge left that event with big smiles on their faces and zero doubts about what beer can do. Events like that are taking place across the country on a regular basis, and more people are trying more beers from more breweries than ever before, without the help of Big Beer.

For the astonishing £10million pounds being put into There’s a Beer For That, a handful of quality bars or pubs could have been bought, refurbished and used to showcase the most impressive beers this ‘alliance’ of breweries has to offer. Imagine a bar with Fuller’s Vintage, Worthington White Shield, Young’s Special, Shepherd Neame’s IPA and Double Stout, Courage Russian Imperial Stout and more besides all being stocked alongside each other and served with great food by TV chefs, with interested celebrities making appearances at festival events and dedicated TV spots. Done right, something like that could have seemed so much more sincere, interesting, welcoming and capture the imaginations of people considering beer as more than just pints of lager and bitter.

Instead, what we have is deep-pocketed porno for a dumbed-down version British beer culture, something that is pleasant enough to watch, but is devoid of meaning and intent. Sure, a handful of pubs promoting great beer and food to the public might not reach as many people, but shouting BEER at the whole country with a flimsy message for £10million isn’t going to change anything at all. Rest assured that we will be having this conversation again in three, five and ten years’ time, as the giants of the industry try again and again to save their blandest beers from gradual decline.

On top of that, the digital side of the campaign (including a new website which has taken enough of the design of Good Beer Hunting to be concerning) seeks to make the same mistakes as Let There Be Beer, but more expensively. A social-media-based food and beer matching bot will respond to people using the appropriate hashtag, and attempt to match a beer from its database to the words used by the user. We were supposed to be reassured by the fact this bot has been, in their own words, “designed to be human”, but it ‘s hard to see how it won’t simply be broken to pieces by Twitter in a matter of days.

Can this bot distinguish between “I’m having a Sunday Roast and I want a #beermatch” and “It’s hot today so instead of a Sunday roast we’re having prawns from the BBQ and I need a #beermatch” or “The pub has sold out of Sunday Roasts so now I’m having a pulled pork sandwich and need a #beermatch”? It’s certain to end in disaster, or at best, some high parody.

I know that I’m a beer geek and that this campaign isn’t designed to impress beer geeks. I completely understand that. However, this campaign is designed to impress people who aren’t beer geeks, and it won’t. It will pass by the people it’s trying to win over, and fail to sustain the interest of those that give it a chance.

Whilst I’ve made it plain that I don’t believe in the campaign for one second, I should make it absolutely clear I believe that some of the people involved truly do believe in it. However, whilst they are convinced that this is the way to change the face of the public’s appreciation of beer, this is already happening without Big Beer’s involvement, or its attempts to steer the appreciation of beer to its agenda. I cannot and will not be convinced that it is anything more than the largest beer brewers and companies attempting to trade on the credibility and integrity of the smallest.

Whilst the national beer market is gradually declining, the craft beer market keeps on booming. The message is clear: the number of people enjoying good beer is rising, and fast. The largest, slowest and blandest are now trying to reclaim territory they have lost to far more interesting drinks, craft beer included. They are trying to prove they care the only way they know how, by creating artificial things designed to be human, to promote industrial beers designed to look more craft. They are trying to fool us all into believing that they care, fool us into believing that they have good beer’s interests at heart. They won’t succeed, because despite all their money and influence, there isn’t a beer for that.

 

Further reading:

– Matt Curtis spits fire and reveals his previous interactions with the PR company behind There’s A Beer For That

– Craig Heap explores the similarities between the new ad and recent ones by McDonald’s

– Ruari O’Toole looks at the ad in the context of the difficulty of advertising beer in the UK

Pete Brissenden provides some sharp criticism and offers perspective from the smaller end of the brewing industry

Author: Chris Hall

London-based freelance beer writer and blogger. Member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Co-author of 'Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in The World' On Twitter @ChrisHallBeer.

13 thoughts on “Designed To Be Human”

  1. I suppose one positive point is that the women in the advert aren’t all drinking pink fizzy stuff. If the advert actually manages to capture the attention of anyone, they might see that, contrary to previous imagery of female drinkers, women can drink whatever the hell they want and be classed as “drinkers” rather than “women drinkers”

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  2. Can you explain why a top notch craft brewer like Dogfish Head partners with one of the Alliance brewers in Charles Wells and produces such a mediocre product when they could have partnered any one of the UK craft brewers and produced something really special.

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    1. Fair question, Paul. Sam at Dogfish Head loves big hoppy beers, but he’s also a huge fan of English cask ale and went to Wells to create something that was supposed to be the best of both worlds. The first version sadly seemed to lack the positive qualities of either. Apparently they went back to Wells and reformulated the recipe, and having tasted a newer version, it is a marked improvement, but by no means a hop bomb. Luckily, they also brewed a beer with Beavertown recently whilst they were over here, with the help of a local gin distiller, so watch out for that!

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  3. First I hear about The Portman Group contacting Beavertown over an investigation about their cans of Gamma Ray design appealing to kids too much (Big man trying to squash little man 1) and now reading this (big man trying to squash little man 2) the blood levels are high this week!

    Personally I think this second pop at it will go the same way as the first attempt! They don’t have true passion behind them to make it successful, where as so many of the Craft breweries that have the big boys knickers in a twist so much do still have that passion and I believe will continue to grow by doing more of the same that they are now.

    Although this whole campaign annoys me so much with its constant unwanted twitter ads and complete waste of money, it doesn’t worry me for the future of good beer and people getting into good beer!

    I don’t know how much Wetherspoons have had to lay down for all the new craft works beers etc but it would be a fraction of that £10 million and it has done 10 millions time more good than this advert has to get new people to try something new!

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    1. That’s a good point you make about Wetherspoons, Matt. Others have also been saying that a more directed approach would yield better results. Wetherspoon itself obviously sees no benefit in joining the Britain’s Beer Alliance when it can plough its own furrow.

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  4. While this advert is ok it smacks of treating people like grandma’s who don’t know how to suck there eggs. It’s common sense that there is a beer for that. We need a 10 million pound advert to tell the uninitiated about this? I don’t think anybody is going to change there drinking habits because of this. A complete waste of time.

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  5. Hi Chris,

    While you and I are obviously never going to agree about this campaign, now you’ve given such a thoughtful critique I can see a few areas where I could offer, if not reassurance, then at least explanation.

    – Big brewers move more slowly than small brewers. The idea for this campaign was agreed two years ago. It was always going to be a three-year plan. Things change fast, and they learn from their mistakes, so the strategy changes. In terms of budget, the idea was to commit five million a year for three years. For a campaign that hopes to reach a national audience, this is actually quite modest – spend less than that and you’re simply not going to cut through. Big beer brands regularly spend double than that each year. Mobile phones, banks etc spend many times more. The reason its £10m this year is that the ad being banned last year means there’s effectively two years’ money left in the pot.

    – The beer market has shrunk by 23% in the last decade. That is catastrophic. Within that market, cask ale accounts for 16% of volume, and craft beer in other formats accounts for 2%. Yes, non-cask craft is growing by about 70% a year, but it’s still tiny. Cask has massively increased its share because it has remained stable while big lager has declined. But overall, the beer market is a basket case. This presents me with two challenges to your point of view: one, can you honestly criticise the big guys for wanting to reverse such a shocking decline? And two, do you honestly think they’re spending ten million to try to steal back that 2%, rather than reverse the decline of 23%? You may think they’re doing a bad job of it, but honestly, they’re not trying to do anything else other than grow the whole beer market.

    – Given that the aim is to try to grow the whole market, what’s the best way to do that? It seems these guys are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Last year we rightly criticised them for only showing lager, for putting Fosters Radler as a BBQ food match etc. This year you’re criticising them for daring to show a full range of styles and straying into craft territory, and in the same post you’re criticising them for not showing enough styles. I guess that proves they can never win whatever they do in your eyes. More to the point, the strategy for this ad did not come from an imperative to steal from the glory of the 2% of the market, to piggyback on the strength of craft. I’ve seen the brief given to the advertising agencies and it is all about growing all beer. The guy who put the campaign together does not work directly for any of the big brewers. These days big guys don’t make any strategic decision without acres of market research to reassure them they’re on the right path. They realised that they could only bring people back to beer by making people think differently about beer. And it was their expensive research, among ordinary people who don’t drink beer any more, which told them the best way to do that was to talk about beer’s diversity of styles, its variety and complexity.

    – The way the product is portrayed – Most of this is adverting regs I’m afraid, as Ruari O’Toole’s excellent blog pointed out. In many countries it’s actually illegal to show people drinking the product, and we’re not far off that – any ad that shows someone drinking and then anything positive happening afterwards will get banned. Alcohol Concern and their lackeys look for any possible reason to ban an ad. They had to be very careful not to show anyone drinking, and always to show a range of other drinks in shot to show that alcohol is not the only solution. So it makes sense, if they can’t show people actually drinking, for the product to look as good and appetising as it can. Does this mean a campaign promoting beer shouldn’t even bother with telly? Well, I do have some sympathy with that argument, but telly is what these guys do, and there are arguments for and against.

    I’m not going to be an apologist for the actions of big brewers – I still remain a strong critic of them in much of my writing. But they are doing the right thing here. They are using a market leadership position to try to grow the market. If they succeed in growing the market, then everyone in the market benefits – this is classic marketing theory.

    Craft from the small guys will continue to grow its share, but wouldn’t it be better for craft if that share was of a market that isn’t tanking? I spend most of my time arguing that craft is increasingly a mainstream proposition, and in terms of awareness etc, it is. But 2% of the beer market is still tiny. In practical terms, if this campaign persuades people who now think beer is shit and wine is cool to actually come and look at the beer shelves in Tesco again, they’re at least as likely, if not more, to pick up a bottle of something interesting as they are to say why don’t try Foster’s again.

    You’re well within your rights to argue that, if these are its aims, it could have done better in executing them. These things are always subjective and there’ll always be more that people could have done in hindsight. What I don’t understand is the paranoia that somehow this is a sneaky attack on craft by the dastardly big guys. It’s quite the opposite. It’s a massive free gift to craft, because the big guys have realised that flavour and diversity is the most interesting thing they can say about the market, and so if they want to succeed in reversing the decline of the beer market, they have to give free publicity to beers they don’t make. They don’t want to do this. They are doing it through gritted teeth. But I can’t for the life of me see how this will damage craft beer, whereas I can totally see how it will bring interesting beer – which is booming but still tiny – to a broad mainstream audience that is currently sitting at home in front of the telly instead of going to the pub.

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    1. Hi Pete,

      I’m really grateful to you for taking the time to comment in detail on this. It’s great that you’ve provided further explanation of the things that I and a lot of other people are most concerned about.

      As you rightly say, this isn’t something we are going to change each others’ minds about, and in the spirit of that (which I *hugely* respect, especially in the sphere of beer blogging), I’m not going to argue with you about what you’ve said. Of course, most of what you’ve said is fact, so how could I? Still, you have given me an opportunity to expand briefly on the issues you’ve raised, some that I didn’t have space or chance to in the original post, so I will.

      Really, the scale of investment isn’t actually that surprising to me, given who’s involved, it’s what it’s being used for that bothers me. And, of course, I don’t *blame* the big brewers for trying to reclaim lost ground, but I do genuinely believe they are attempting to achieve it at craft beer’s expense, or rather, that good beer means nothing to many of them beyond a way of helping them reclaim their lost ground.

      You’re also absolutely right that I’m damning them regardless of their approach. I hold my hands up and say I’ve been incredibly critical of the new campaign from the very first word I heard spoken about it. The reason I took that approach is because frankly I think it’s my job, as one of the handful of beer writers in that room, to scrutinise and question every single aspect of what this campaign is. Any less than that would be as difficult to defend as a purely personal, venomous attack on it, or blind acceptance.

      The research behind it was one thing I wanted to write more about. It was so interesting to learn that their research told them to concentrate solely on the aspects of beer that so many of these larger breweries fail to display in their products. As Tim Anderson said on Twitter yesterday, they could do a lot more to improve their reputation, and beer in the UK’s reputation, or the whole beer market, if they spent less money on campaigns like this and more money on simply making better beers. Perhaps then they wouldn’t be in this situation. Maybe not.

      Yes, Ruari’s post was fantastic because it simply focused on the context of beer advertising. That context is crucial. If anything, the difficulty breweries experience in trying to convey the best things about beer in television advertising just proves to me even more how much of a waste of money this advert was. Whilst TV might be what *they* do, I think they need to realise that it’s not going to work anymore, especially for something like this.

      Finally, I agree that growing craft in any small way as a result of this campaign would be a wonderful side effect, but I simply don’t believe that this campaign or the people behind it have what it takes to sustain this. I’ve worked for one of those big breweries many years ago and saw time and time again initiatives that cost fortunes be tossed aside after a year, or simply not cared about enough to succeed. I really hope you’re right though, Pete, I really do.

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      1. I have no problem with anything you say here Chris. We’ve both worked for the big guys in the past. We both know where they’re coming from. I only ask that we debate facts rather than blind prejudice and that’s what’s happened here so thank you.

        And if blogging had existed when I was in my twenties, and if we were talking about music rather than beer back then, I promise I would have been just as strident then as you are now.

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      1. Exactly.

        As far as I can see, the only thing the ad really says about beer is that there is more variety out there than you thought and hey, why not try some of it.

        To me that approach should benefit the smaller, more interesting breweries a disproportionate amount. I certainly can’t see anyone trying a Carling off the back of that ad.

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