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