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'Sophisticated' beer image could prevent future lawsuits


With several of the world's biggest drinks group accused last month of deliberately promoting their brands to under age drinkers, the issue of drinks advertising has never been hotter.

But while brewers and spirit makers were included in the lawsuit, wine companies were notable by their absence, suggesting, at least according to one beer industry executive, that other alcoholic beverage marketers could do a lot worse than take a leaf out of their book.

Talking last week at a wine conference in London, Peter Kendall, CEO of Coors Brewers , the UK arm of the American brewer which was one of those companies cited in the lawsuit, said that while beer remained the UK's most popular alcoholic beverage - and Coors' own Carling lager the number one seller - wine had grown its share of the market over the past 30 years and now accounted for 25 per cent of the £40 billion market.


While there are a number of different reasons for this growth, Kendall said he believed it was in large part down to the success of the wine industry in promoting its product as a healthy and sophisticated way of enjoying alcohol.


"Wine is seen as a natural product, a healthy option, a sophisticated and educated choice, a compliment to food and equally popular with men and women. In fact, beer can also boast all these things, but its public perception is poor by comparison," Kendall said.


"I would love the British to regard beer as a national treasure in the same way the French do their wine. The evidence is there to support this, but it will require a big effort on the part of the brewing industry and retailers to shift public perceptions. Beer is a wholesome natural product, made from malted barley and hops. Moreover, moderate (and we stress moderate) beer drinking is just as healthy as moderate wine drinking."In large part due to the way in which it is promoted by brewers such as Coors, beer is seen as a relatively unsophisticated product, and certainly does not have the same upmarket image as many wines.


But beer is a more diversified offering than it is often given credit for, according to Kendall. "The choice of beer is not simply between ale, lager and stout, any more than the choice of wine is between white, red and sparkling," he said.


"Beer is actually far more diverse in its styles and flavours than wine. Beer is available in strengths from 2 per cent alcohol by volume to over 12 per cent, and from the subtle straw colour of a lager through the deep browns of ales to the blackness of stout. That is to say nothing of wheat beers, Belgian fruit beers, honey beers or chocolate stouts. There is a beer flavour to suit just about every person and every drinking occasion - including partnering with food."


According to Kendall, brewers and retailers should work more closely together to help improve beer quality and ensure that "people are surprised and delighted when they buy beer in a pub". Coors, along with a number of other British brewers, has launched a campaign called Beer Naturally designed to "celebrate the special qualities, uniqueness and value of beer", he said.


"We have learnt from the wine industry that in addition to building our brands we need to build the category itself, to educate people that beer is a far more diverse product and start to dispel some of the myths. It is a big task, but the wine industry has shown what is possible."


Getting the retailers involved is a key part of this plan. Perhaps more than anyone else, it is the retailers in the UK which kick started the wine industry there in the 1990s, offering an increasingly broad range of wines and, perhaps most importantly, providing clear and useful information about flavour profiles, grape varieties and food partners.


It could be argued that beer is, per se, a far less complicated product than wine and as such does not need to be 'demystified' in the way that many wines do, but the same willingness to educate consumers about flavour, and in particular potential food matches, certainly has the potential to improve the image of the drink


Some companies have already adopted this kind of approach. In its home market of Denmark, for example, Carlsberg has rolled out a number of speciality beers created solely as an accompaniment to food. Heineken adopted a similar stance in the UK two years ago when it launched two of its speciality brands there: Affligem and Wieckse Witte. Both are marketed as flavoursome beers designed to be drunk with a meal.


Different image


Wine has built a successful sophisticated image for itself, certainly, but it already had that image (in the UK at least) long before the retailers and marketers got to grips with it, not least because the UK relies almost entirely on imports to supply its wine needs - and something which is 'foreign' always has a certain cachet about it.


While it can certainly be argued that some of the beers from, say, Belgium, Germany or the Czech Republic are just as sophisticated as a fine wine, and just as appropriate as an accompaniment to a meal, the problem they face is that this is a minority view. Beer - in pints, of course - is seen as little more than a refreshing, and, compared to wine and spirits, relatively cheap way of getting drunk - an attitude ingrained for centuries.


And, moreover, an attitude which has been supported by years of beer advertising, promoting it primarily as an 'everyman' product without the pretensions of wine. More sophisticated advertising, mainly for premium imported lagers, is starting to appear, but this is still targeted mainly at younger drinkers whose primary concern is not what to offer their dinner party guests as an accompaniment to their food.


Kendall is probably right in believing that the beer industry can learn from the lessons of the wine sector, but the task will be far more difficult, with the views of consumers, retailers, and, it has to be said, the industry itself, far more entrenched than in the wine sector.


If Heineken were to invest as much in its 'flavoursome' brands as it does in its flagship (and some might argue, somewhat bland) lager brand, then consumer attitudes might begin to change. But until there is a mindset shift of this magnitude, brewers are more likely to have their knuckles rapped for targeting under age drinkers than find their brews on every dinner table.