Benjamin Franklin (you know the guy…US Postmaster General who liked flying kites in lightning storms) once said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Well, as it is the world’s third most popular drink after water and tea, it seems he may have a point.
Of all the beer that is consumed on the planet every day – 18 million pints of which are drunk in the UK alone, a few brands stand head and shoulders above the rest. One such blond beauty is the Belgian titan, Stella Artois. ‘Stella’ has been brewed in the town of Leuven since 1926 and not 1366 as denoted on the bottle label: this is actually the date all brewing originated in the small Belgian community. Even so, this lager has a fine heritage and has been a regular visitor to our TV screens and magazine pages over the last couple of decades. Stella’s dominant position in the market hasn’t always been assured and a number of key factors contributed to its meteoric rise in the 1990’s.
Across the latter part of the 20th Century the beer business was being globalised by industry giants such as Anheuser-Busch, S&N and SABMiller. We were all getting a taste, literally, of beers from around the world that we’d not heard of before. The demand for international, premium and speciality beers was increasing steadily and the trend for Guinness to travel East and Corona to travel West and Newcastle Brown Ale to travel everywhere was a global event.
The sales of Stella Artois were declining in its domestic market but its owners at the time, Interbrew, saw the opportunity to re-launch this historic brand into key territories and take advantage of the prevailing consumer demands. With the company fully committed to this approach and Stella Artois established as its flagship product, the brand team at Interbrew did two exceptional things:
This provided the perfect platform for one of the most successful marketing campaigns of the 90’s.
‘Reassuringly Expensive’ was the bold message driving a consumer audience hungry for quality products into a frenzy. The beer’s advertising built on this message with some memorable images which cemented an illusion that everyone could and should sell their granny for a Stella Artois! The ads which imitated European cinema wonderfully provided us with situations such as the skating priest who rescues the crate of Stella from the lake ice rather than his colleague; the dying man whose last wish for a pint is dashed by his son who can’t help drink the beer himself; the contaminated plague doctor whose pint the locals will happily share and (probably the most daring pastiche of all) the barman who gives away a man hiding from the Nazis just so he can prevent the glass of Stella he’s pouring from overflowing.
All of the ads were filmed in French which formed part of the no compromise approach to building the Stella Artois brand: the message simple, original and authentic. This led to the company’s involvement in film sponsorship and added another well-targeted, tactical piece of marketing strategy to the overall plan of drawing in valued consumers.
The strategy of un-compromised, premium positioning worked its magic for Stella Artois and had an immediate impact on market share. In large, mature markets at the end of the 1990’s, Stella Artois was recording growth of around 20% year on year within the sector. It became a mainstream beer of choice for the masses across bars, clubs and in supermarkets: people were happy to pay the price and buy into the ‘Stella cult’. The fact that is was more expensive than any other draught beer available actually made it more attractive for many drinkers borne out of an ‘I only want the best’ culture.
The brand faced some challenges, however, by being not only one of the most expensive lagers available but, at the time, one of the strongest on tap. A perception was established suggesting the consumption of Stella Artois, in particular, led to drinker aggression. Clearly, this wasn’t the kind of image the company was looking for and, over the years, has had to carefully manage the brand and its public image accordingly. For example, removing the word ‘Stella’ from the Artois Tennis Championships and investing in a specific ‘chalice’ glass which most bars now use to serve the golden liquid are subtle, clever nuances the brand has employed just to keep the ‘edge’ off the beer’s public perception.
The other challenge, of course, has been to keep the beer – or the stable of Artois brands as it is now, as a force in the premium beer sector. This has successfully been achieved by evolving the brand message and product portfolio without compromising the initial direction which has paid so many dividends.
The introduction of a 4% abv version of Stella Artois and jumping on the popular cider bandwagon with Cidre (smartly launched with the French name to be in keeping with the brand’s heritage and building on all that equity) has demonstrated the brand can move with the times and remain relevant. Its portrayal of chic 60’s style in the La Nouvelle Smooth adverts for Stella Artois 4 is another example of where the brand has helped moved its public image away from less tasteful connotations.
The success of the Stella Artois brand, however, has been maintained by the single guiding principle that it remains a quality product. Even its most recent slogan ‘Master brewers required: 600 years experience needed’ hints their dedication to delivering perfection. Albeit has been a stormy ride at times, the various teams behind this gorgeous ale have delivered outstanding marketing success based on this enduring philosophy.