What’s to become of a problem like Stella?

July 31, 2014 Brands and Branding, Journal

Let’s be honest, I don’t think I’d ever be writing a piece which is essentially sticking up for one of the biggest, baddest*, multi-national brands and they probably don’t need my help, but here goes.

Stella Artois. She’s (one of) the beers we love to hate and it’s easy to throw stones; the delicate slip of a Belgian lager that grew up to be the cash cow of InBev’s premium brands and lost all her dignity along the way.

Stella-Artois-Can

With one of the biggest marketing budgets available to mankind, Stella is everywhere and therefore an easy target. We all have a go when the opportunity arises, even Roger Protz resorting to comments like “the hoary old whore of Leuven” [Link to article] once to describe the appearance of Stella on Eurostar where his beloved Duvel should be.

But I don’t mind a glass of Stella Artois on occasion. If I have a thirst for a glass of relatively tasteless, cold, refreshing lager as a thirst quencher, then it hits the spot – as does a Kronenbourg, Becks or Carling, I suppose. Sure I can think of a lot better beers and I’m never going to choose one of these aforementioned over a decent beer, but there are occasions when it’s just the ticket.

There you go, blasphemy right there and immediate excommunication in the eyes your average craft beer expert, but I’ll live with it. I doubt I’ll ever recommend stuff but nor will I chastise for anyone drinking it. I’m stalling here and not getting to the crux of this.

What caught my eye recently in The Westmorland Gazette, my local newspaper, was the headline “Man throws glass ashtray at Mum when he can’t find his mobile after drinking Stella, court hears.” [Link to article]

I’m not going to try and pretend that the ‘wife-beater’ moniker doesn’t exist, but ‘mother-assaulter-with-glass-ashtray’ is a new one on me and I’m not confident that it will catch on. Be thankful for small mercies.

The article explains about a chap who drinks more than his safe daily allocation of alcohol units in one sitting before taking exception with Mum over a trivial matter; he then proceeds to launch an ashtray in her direction and leaves her with an injury which could easily have been far more serious.

Rightly appearing before a Court, he pleads his case but is found wanting and the law imposes it’s sentence. Justice is served, banged to rights.

What’s more than a bit difficult to swallow is the fact that, at some point in his defence, the brand of beer is brought into play. Now I’m making a huge assumption here, but might I suggest that the name of the beverage would not have been mentioned had it been say Budweiser, Carlsberg or Fosters?

The fact that ‘Stella’ is referred to in the article title and body copy would suggest this fact is a key aspect to the Court hearing. Might I also assume that the legal defence team have used the ‘Stella-factor’ as some mitigating plea, perhaps to sway opinion of Your Honour and the good folk of the Jury?

“You can’t blame him, your Honour, he’d drunk four cans of wife beater…” One can imagine the plea being presented, “We should be lucky he didn’t do more damage, after all, we know how mental Stella sends everyone.” Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more.

But this is a ‘premium’ beer brand we’re talking about here; you know, reassuringly expensive, served in a chalice with a fair degree of theatre, implied continental cultural credentials, ever so slick TV commercials? Yet it still appears fine, in a Court of law no less, to portray it as a red rag to a bull.

It was only a year ago that there was a concerted point of delivery marketing push by InBev: “Brand owner AB InBev is launching a concerted push to transfer the premium-isation strategy it has employed in above-the-line campaigns for Stella Artois in recent years to the on-trade. Those outlets taking part in the “Connoisseurs Programme” are rewarded for promoting the brand’s premium positioning” (ref. Marketing Week, September 2013)

This is the same beer that is the first official beer of that highest of elite sporting events the Wimbledon tennis championships [Link] and has also partnered with The Open Golf Tournament [Link] for the next five years.This is where a premium brand should be, highly visible and rubbing shoulders with the great and good.

Reassuringly Inexpensive

But is this the same Stella Artois which costs just 60p a bottle at your local supermarket (currently on offer at £9.00 for 15 x 284ml bottles in Asda, Kendal at the time of writing)? The same Stella Artois which is a popular choice for those of us who enjoy drinking from a can or bottle in the great outdoors then casting the empty aside to fall where it may?

It’s the very same beer that, when ordered at a bar, one can almost hear the sharp intake and the words “Doesnt he know? That’s wife beater…” uttered in hushed tones. And that’s just the bar staff.

Imagine what it would be like if we were talking about the native Belgian version rather than the 4% UK-brewed rendition?

Leuven, we have a problem.

Or do we? Do InBev actually care about Stella Artois? Should they need to care? The expensive sponsorship deals and marketing spend would suggest they do care, but that reputation just won’t go away.

“Stella Artois: the classy, premium, stylish [sic] continental brand that we’ll market to the hilt but we’ll knock it out as cheaply as possible to make sure that any Tom, Dick and ashtray-wielding Harry can get their hands on it and have a perfect excuse if resulting actions get a bit tasty.”

Might be a bit lengthy on the adverts, but I reckon it could work?

Lists show that Stella Artois perennially features in the top handful lagers in the UK, but does that make it more exclusive or merely ubiquitous?

I don’t know what’s to be done with Stella Artois but a brand that’s equally at home at the most prestigious social and sporting events as well as providing an arsenal of material for a regional defence lawyer, that is assumed to be expensive but is cheaper than chips must be doing something right.

Should other brands develop their danger levels as well? After all, it’s not harmed Stella and if we can organise a structured briefing to the Solicitors of the land then that’s our word of mouth marketing sorted.

Stella are not alone in being a premium brand that occasionally attracts the wrong kind of customer: Burberry for example found their products becoming a ‘must have’ for a certain less desirable demographic (research in 2005 showed that “Quite a lot of people thought that Burberry would be worn by the person who mugged them”).

With perhaps few exceptions, brands can’t stop people buying their products nor can they be held responsible for what people do (throwing ashtrays or mugging) but it does make today’s Brand Manager role a very fine juggling act.

Reassuringly dangerous, anyone?

The latest multipack packaging shows a chalice of Stella Artois with the top of the head being levelled off with a knife… an interesting [serving] suggestion.

*Baddest as in ‘not very good at all’ as opposed to the Mr T type baddest, fool.