Real ale is about to burst onto our screens in a big way.
The week before last, two of the UK's biggest ale brands launched their new advertising campaigns to beer writers and trade journalists. I was invited to one launch but, for some reason, not the other one the day after - even though seemingly everyone else who was at the first one was. Please believe me that this in no way colours what I'm about to say about these two campaigns. I'm bigger than that. No, really, I am, honest. But I tell you this so you can filter the following for any perceived prejudice.
Anyway, I used to work in advertising so this, for me, is in part going back to the day job.
The second event - the one I wasn't invited to - was launching the next wave in the new campaign for Well's Bombardier. Now, I get the feeling that I'm going to come across as disliking this development a lot more than I actually do, so let me say some positive things about it first, and hopefully this will prevent a hit squad being despatched from Bedford - home of William Charles Bedford, 'your dashing hero on the battlefield, with a caddish twinkle in his eye,' according to the press release (I am at least still on their email distribution list - at least until they read this.)
Basically, what they're doing is extending the campaign they launched last year, with Rik Mayall playing the Bombardier, drinking the beer and extolling its virtues with what Well's & Youngs clearly hope will become a pub catchphrase: 'Bang on!' They're going for a heavyweight promotion on Dave, the channel for blokes who like repeats of the programme Stewart Lee refers to as 'Mock the Weak'. Ten and fifteen second idents will frame peak time programmes. I haven't seen the idents because like I said, I wasn't invited to the launch, and didn't get to meet Rik Mayall, but the press release says 'viewers can expect to see the Bombardier's take on the English sense of humour, values, our love of pubs and our social habits.'
They're spending £5m on this, which is great news for Bombardier and great news for ale too. It's the highest ever spend they've put behind the brand (but not the highest ever spend in the ale category, as the press release falsely claims). Whatever your views on the beer and the campaign, this is brilliant because it helps propel ale into the mainstream, makes it more visible and more contemporary. When I do focus groups, many people assume that if a brand is on telly it must be good, must be doing something right, and this leads to greater social currency. So here Bombardier are helping ale look more modern (with some caveats, below). It's also a great sign of confidence - they wouldn't spend this money if they didn't think cask ale was in good shape and people were ready to consider it.
Secondly, they've got with the programme and done a Facebook page and taken the Bombardier on to Twitter, extending a true brand property and providing content which people can interact with. That's a good thing as far as marketing, brand building, and the saliency of real ale is concerned.
For me, this entire campaign feels like it's aping lager ads of the seventies and eighties, and even lagers don't behave like that any more. Rik Mayall is reprising a character he played in Blackadder thirty years ago, in a slightly less funny way than it was then. Is this really the way to make ale feel fresh, contemporary and appealing to new generations of drinkers?
To make my own mind up, I followed the link to the youtube channel at the bottom of the press release I was sent. And I got this:
Woof woof! Bang Off, chaps!
The ads launch 16th April and run from 9pm to midnight weekdays for twelve months.
The other campaign is from Bombardier's rival, Greene King. Disliked by many readers of this blog and diehard ale drinkers in general, scorned for bland beers and nicknamed 'Greed King' for their sometimes voracious business practices, booed when they were runner-up Champion Beer of Britain a few years ago, they can sometimes come across as difficult to love, and have clearly been doing a bit of soul searching.
I think the results are a pleasant surprise.
Greene King IPA is the UK's biggest cask ale brand. It still only has a 7% market share - the diversity and fragmentation of the ale market is (most of the time) one of its main strengths. But GK IPA is, for better or worse, still the biggest brand. I don't tend to drink it myself, but clearly lots of people like it. And like Magner's does with cider, if it attracts people to real ale for the first time who then start to look around and trade up, that's no bad thing.
In marketing theory, one classic strategy for the brand leader is to do a job that grows the whole market rather than trying to steal share form your competitors. The theory is that if you're already the biggest, advertising what's good about the whole market means you benefit everyone else, but if the market grows proportionately then you'll gain more in volume terms than everyone else does. Most new entrants to any market tend to go for the biggest brands, so you'll probably grow disproportionately, benefiting everyone but, most of all, yourself.
This is the strategy GK has chosen, and I think it'll paid off.
They've created an ad that quite simply celebrates the joys of good cask beer in a good pub - not the joys of hops and malt and yeast, but the moment that beer - and only beer - can create.
This has always been what's excited me most as a writer, and it's lovely to see a brand that has wonga to spend and an ad agency with creative skill taking this aspect of beer and celebrating it. It's an ad for the pub as much as it is an advert for beer or Greene King IPA specifically, and I think it's rather fucking wonderful:
I particularly like the opening, in the cellar - just enough beer craft for the mainstream viewer without getting too technical or boring. Even if you don't understand what you're seeing, you get the impression of craft and care, the sense that this is something a bit more special than what you can buy in the supermarket.
The ad was shot in the Hornsey Tavern, north London, and the music is by a precocious eighteen year-old called Jake Bugg, who is to my ears like Ed Sheeran, only good. The gaffer is an actor, but many of the people are real punters, sharing real beer moments. The finished ad has been culled from about five hours of footage, the film crew just passing through the pub as people relaxed and shared a good time having a beer. It's the kind of positive image of beer and pubs the whole industry sorely needs more of.
GK is spending £4m behind this, and it's breaking on 14th and 15th April, during the FA Cup semi-finals on ITV and ESPN. It's also going to be on Sky and Dave.
Coinciding with this, they also launched two new beers under the Greene King IPA brand: IPA Gold, a 4.1% golden ale, and IPA reserve, a 5.6% rich, mellow, fruity ale. For anyone who drinks or works in a Greene King pub, these beers are welcome additions. The golden ale is a golden ale, no better or worse than many in the market just now, while the reserve is in Fullers ESB territory, and dangerously drinkable. They won't set RateBeer alight, but they're not meant to - that's not what they're for. But they are quite drinkable beers that bring Greene King's portfolio a bit closer to what drinkers want.
My only, obvious, quarrel is that, already under fire for calling a 3.6% session beer IPA, they've now brought out two new beers that are very different from the original, obviously not India Pale Ales in any shape or form, and called them India Pale Ales. This reveals that as far as Greene King is concerned, IPA is a brand name and not a beer style. I could just about defend the mainstream GK IPA because while it's not a traditional IPA, IPA is an evolving style and in the mid-twentieth century this is what it was to most brewers and drinkers in the UK. But by calling these new beers IPA rather than just 'Greene King Blonde' or 'Greene King Reserve', GK have created a needless rod for beer enthusiasts to beat them with - a silly own goal at a time when they're doing some big things right.
GK has also launched an attractive Facebook page to support the campaign.
One tip to both brands: Facebook is an interactive medium. If people ask you if it's possible to buy Bombardier in North America or who did the music on the IPA ad, it's good manners and good business sense to reply. Don't fall into the trap of bigger brands who pretend to be there on Facebook but don't actually read or respond to comments, thereby actively alienating some of your biggest fans. oh hang on - EDIT - GK actually did respond.
I'm anticipating many tiresome comments about how both these beers are shit, boring and bland, made by big corporations, and that it's a bad thing they're on TV. My answer to that would be that these beers, and these ads, are not aimed at people who write beer blogs and drink in craft beer bars. We're fine - we don't need to be told that real ale is a decent drink or that pubs are nice places to be. No one who is already drinking great craft beer is going to suddenly start switching to Bombardier or Greene King IPA as a result of these ads. The useful job that big brands can do is bring more novices into ale for the first time - and remind people how great pubs are. With nearly £10m being spent advertising real ale over the next few months, this is fantastic news for beer as a whole - whatever you choose to drink yourself.
Cheers to both of them. Especially the second one.