In my first book Man Walks into a Pub there's a chapter called 'When People Stopped Going To The Pub', about how in the 1920s and 1930s, new gadgets at home and more stuff to do outside it meant people drifted away from pubs.
This situation gravely worried Britain's brewers because at that time nearly all beer was drunk in the pub. So they came together and organised a generic campaign to remind people of how brilliant beer is. Advertising was so much more straightforward back then, and the whole thing ran with a simple strapline, 'Beer is Best'.
The campaign ran for 40 years, culminating in this classic, 'Look in at Your Local', where the legendary Bobby Moore drinks beer and patronises his wife down the boozer (15 seconds in):
Beer, like the rest of history, is circular, and last night I was at the launch of 'Let There Be Beer!' - a new, high budget campaign aiming to remind people how wonderful beer is and get non-drinkers or lapsed drinkers to reconsider drinking it.
Memories are short in marketing - the video we were shown to whet our appetites claimed this was 'the first time ever' that brewers had come together to promote what marketers insist on calling 'the beer category' (even I still use that term when I'm not concentrating.)
As you can see, it's not. But the structure of British brewing has changed beyond recognition, and it's certainly the first time that these particular brewers have come together to promote beer, and that is no mean feat. I'm about to be quite critical of a lot of what followed at the launch, but before I am, I want to stop and emphasise this point.
Most of the British brewing industry is now in the hands of foreign-owned global brewing conglomerates (of the twelve brands being served at the launch, only three were British beers). These huge corporations play hardball. They have colossal budgets, view the beer market as a battle between brands rather than beers, and in mature/declining markets such as the UK, they slug it out like punch-drunk heavyweights, trying to grab percentage points of market share from each other. Last night, senior representatives of the five biggest brewers on the planet (they were never introduced to the audience so I don't know who they all were) sat next to each other, chatted, and drank each other's beers rather than their own. That these people even agreed to be in the same room as each other, let alone work together long term and actually produce a campaign, is miraculous and worthy of heartfelt congratulations.
Like them or loathe them, these are the guys who have the money in British beer - their budgets dwarf those of all the regional, family and microbrewers put together. And they have committed a sizeable chunk of that budget to a three year campaign to promote all beer - none of their brands will feature specifically, it's about pushing the entire 'category'. The British Beer and Pub Association has played a major role in bringing the whole thing together and is central to the whole thing, and CAMRA is firmly on board as a partner too. While smaller brewers have not been involved directly, they have apparently been 'consulted', and several regional brewers were there last night to show their support.
Whatever else happens, whatever criticisms I have, this is a bloody wonderful thing that I wholeheartedly endorse and hope everyone else will too. I hope my criticism will be seen as constructive, and I hope anyone else who cares about beer will attempt to be constructive too rather than simply dismissing the whole initiative from the start.
So in that spirit, here's more of the good stuff first: this is going to be an integrated campaign that runs across advertising, social media and much more. The Facebook page is here, and the Twitter feed is here. In a move that will delight anyone who has ever pulled their hair out in frustration at the lack of beer in TV food programmes, there will also be a tie up with Channel 4's Sunday Brunch, exploring beer and food matching. Chef Simon Rimmer is a genuine, bona fide beer fan, so this should have some real integrity to it. There's going to be an online 'beeropedia', which I haven't seen yet but which promises to be a great resource around all kinds of beer.
Big budgets committed for three years. Brands put aside in favour of 'all beer'. What's not to love?
Well for me, the main problem is that, being big lager brewers, they've managed to produce a generic big lager ad.
There are three scenarios in the TV ad that acts as the flagship for the whole initiative: a bloke battling his barbecue, another bloke nervously meeting his girlfriend's dad, and a woman in a nightmarish office anxiously awaiting 6pm so she can get down the boozer. These are three of the seven classic beer advertising tropes: beer as refreshment, beer as social bonding agent, beer as reward - all seen on our screens countless times in lager ads over the years. And in every single scenario in this ad, the beer in question is lager. Despite repeated assurances that the campaign will celebrate 'lagers, ales, bitters, pilsners and stouts' (er... you really might want to rethink that as a description of beer styles or types, chaps) they've made a reassuringly familiar lager ad.
Here's a sneak preview clip:
"Well that's perfectly understandable," some people said to me last night, "They're the guys putting the money in, it's only right that it's their products that are featured. And despite what you craft beer ponces say [OK, they didn't quite say it in these words] lager is still where the volume is in beer."
Both points are true. But my abject disappointment with this mainstream lager ad is not grounded in my personal preference for craft beer or real ale; but in my dodgy past as an adman. I think the execution scuppers the likely effectiveness of the campaign, for various reasons:
- This is a campaign that hopes to improve the image of all beer. Within beer, lager now suffers a boorish, laddish image and is seen as a commoditised product. Craft beer and real ale are already driving positive image associations about beer, recruiting new drinkers, and creating interest. Featuring these beers in the ad wouldn't just help promote a broader appreciation of beer, it would make people see lager in a different context, as part of a broader range - lager would get a positive halo effect from being next to more stylish and interesting beers.
- It's not just that lager is the only style of beer featured. The tone of voice of the ad - the situations, the comic stylings, the hammy acting - all feel like deeply familiar lager territory. They reinforce current perceptions of lager (therefore beer) rather than prompting us to reappraise them. These big brands spend tens of millions of pounds a year making ads like this, and they haven't stopped people drifting away from beer. So why on earth would yet another typical lager ad prompt people to do anything different just because it doesn't have any brands in it?
- Following on from that, I'll bet you a month's salary (or ten quid, whichever is higher this month) that when people see this, because it looks exactly like a lager brand ad, they will misattribute it to one of the brands involved. Even if they enjoy it, it will be, "Have you seen that new ad by... ooh, was it Fosters or Carlsberg?" If there had been a range of beers featured, and if the styling of the ad had been different, it would have been (excuse me while I put my marketing hat on) disruptive to category norms and more likely to prompt reappraisal - in other words, impossible to mistake for a lager brand ad. And that would have been of more benefit to all styles of beer, lager included.
Apart from that, the other really annoying part of it is that in a thirty second ad, there is one fleeting shot of a pub - about three seconds long, if that. And it's more of a 'bar' than a pub (probably a 'bar and kitchen').
Astonishingly, for a campaign that purports to be embracing all beer, they've even managed to find a place that only has lager fonts on the bar - no real ale handpulls. It's actually quite difficult to find a stylish pub or bar these days that doesn't have handpulls on the bar, but somehow they managed it. I'm guessing the brains behind the ad disagree, but in my view the pub improves positive associations around beer, and simply mirroring people's out-of-pub drinking misses a trick.
If the campaign is three years long, I hope that when this commercial fails to prompt people to reappraise beer or remind them how good it is, some of these points might be taken on board and new, better executions might follow. We were given no opportunity to ask questions last night - instead, bizarrely, an occasionally sexist Eamon Holmes conducted a scripted interview with the brand owners*. But when I raised my concerns with individuals I was told that other beer styles would be featured in the layers of detail behind the TV ad. Fine, but they must surely be in the ad as well.
About that detail: we were told that this is a campaign they would like the whole beer and pub industry to get behind. So if you're looking for interesting content, might it not have been a good idea to approach the Guild of Beer Writers at some point, or the broader beer writing community? To the best of my knowledge, writers and bloggers have simply been told about this campaign, rather than being asked for any input. (Disclosure: I did some paid consultancy with the ad agency that went on to win the pitch to make the ad, but that was at a very early stage.) One of the major themes of the campaign is 'conversation' - the great conversations that happen around beer. Perhaps if there had been more conversation about the aims and ideas of the campaign before it launched, its flaws might have been avoided.
This is early days in what promises to be a long-term campaign to support beer and make people think about it in a different way. The TV ad launches on Saturday morning, at half time in the British Lions game, and I'm guessing (there was no press release available last night) that the website and social media stuff will all go live at that time too. There's loads more to come. Some of the best TV ad campaigns in history only really found their feet with the second or third executions, once they'd worked out what the idea was really about. I hope 'Let There Be Beer' will eventually fall into that category. I also trust that the wider campaign will indeed do much more for beer than the TV ad does. But the TV ad is where the biggest chunk of money is. For now, for aims, intention, initiative and thinking: 10 out of 10 - outstanding. For execution: 6 out of 10 - must improve. I still think this execution is better:
* Woman on panel: "I was given my first ever pint of beer by my boyfriend at the time." Eamon Holmes: "Well, we know what he was after!"