James Watson, European marketing director at Stella Artois, insists the brand has shaken off negative associations.
Is Stella Artois perceived as the drink of booze Britain, or a sophisticated premium beer? James Watson, its European marketing director, claims the answer is the latter, although he is willing to concede that this has not always been the case.
Watson, 38, a smooth operator with an easy manner, says the brand is now in rude health. 'We have done the same 'deep dive' piece of research every year for the past five years. You can see that the brand has come on a journey. Consumers talk about some of the past issues in the past tense,' he says. 'It is a living case study.'
He points to the launch of Stella Artois 4% in 2008 as the turning point. A creative advertising genre came with the product; out went the bucolic scenes for which the brand had become famous, and in its place, consumers were offered a Continental Riviera world, set in the swinging 60s.
'The ad perspective was fresh, we were doing things in a different way,' explains Watson. 'It softened and contemporised the brand image, and all of that played back toward the parent brand.'
A raft of marketing initiatives, which some may argue are a touch 'madcap', have flowed from the lager brand's marketers since then as they bid to shake off the negative associations. The brand embraced the green movement with a 'hedge fund' promotion, allowing consumers to support Britain's hedgerows by purchasing special packs of the lager.
Another idea was the creation of a 15-minute black and white YouTube video based on a humorous 60s TV chat show, with a recycling theme. To add to the strangeness of the content, or perhaps its pretentiousness, it was entirely in French, with English subtitles.
These marketing drives did not take place on Watson's watch, but he, too, has managed to rack up some original initiatives since moving across from a similar role on sister brand Budweiser a year ago. 'It's been a hell of a year,' he says.
In a wholly unexpected move, AB InBev extended the Stella Artois brand into cider with the launch of the premium packaged Cidre product three months ago. He claims the brand, which is pitted against Bulmers Original and Magners, has made an 'incredible' start in terms of consumer response, and the cannibalisation of other Stella brands is 'much lower than we thought'.
Will this bright start for Cidre fade away in a similar vein to the 4% variant, sales of which are reported to have dipped once it came off promotion? He rejects the basis of the question on two counts: Cidre, he says, is not being heavily discounted in supermarkets and 4% has to be seen as a success.
His sunny disposition dims slightly and an edge of tetchiness creeps into his voice as he expands on this. 'People have very short memories,' he begins. 'Stella Artois 4% was launched less than three years ago. Its retail value is about pounds 80m. It's worth pounds 50m in the off-trade, that's pounds 30m more than Peroni in the off-trade; in three years,' he says.
Activity around the Stella Artois 4% brand dropped off last year during the football World Cup because 'we have this thing called Budweiser', which as a global sponsor of the tournament was always going to be the brand that AB InBev would focus on during the competition.
Watson is happier talking about the marketing of Stella Artois Black, the on-trade only variant that launched last year. In a standout move, it has been promoted through a campaign led by immersive theatre, where the audience participates and interacts with the play's characters in various locations. Two productions, The Night Chauffeur and The Black Diamond, involved people, who had applied for tickets online, being drawn into worlds of stolen diamonds, curses and femmes fatales. …