Magazine article Marketing

Last Orders at the Local?

Magazine article Marketing

Last Orders at the Local?

Article excerpt

Will traditional pubs have a role to play in the 21st century?

The British pub has always been central to the nation's culture. Even today's most popular TV soap operas, such as Coronation Street and EastEnders, put the local at the hub of everyone's social life.

However, the late 20th century has seen the traditional pub under siege, forced to compete against a tide of branded pubs and bar chains that are aimed at specific consumers.

As the pub sector braces itself for what is predicted to be one of its busiest nights ever the millennium celebrations - an underlying identity crisis rumbles beneath the surface.

The number of pub outlets has been gradually declining since 1993. According to a recent Mintel report, the number of pubs in the UK dropped from 81,087 in 1993 to 76,091 in 1998.The traditional ale-selling, male-dominated spit and sawdust pubs of old have given way to a more branded and marketing-led industry, where theme pubs target young drinkers or families, and the quality of the pint is now secondary to the ambiance.

Not only is drinking alcohol as a social pastime competing for share of wallet with a diversifying range of alternative activities, but alcohol sales have been cannibalised by supermarkets and off-licences.

In 1970, 90% of beer was sold in pubs. By 1998, this figure had dropped to 70% as more drinkers opted to take home a bottle of wine or a four-pack of lagers.

Pub operators have responded to this change in attitude to alcohol consumption. The main focus of their activity has been on creating outlets that appeal to specific consumer groups, and the emergence of themed pub chains has created a greater sense of branding in this sector.

However, despite the best efforts of pub operators, themed chains, which appeal in particular to young, female consumers, are likely to take a growing slice of the market.

The Bass-owned All Bar One chain, launched in 1994, now boasts more than 40 branches nationwide.

Like other female-friendly pub/bars such as Pitcher & Piano and Fine Line, All Bar One turned old-fashioned pub culture on its head by aiming to draw in women.


Huge glass fronts allow customers to look in and check the place out first, while a light, airy and relatively peaceful environment, with soft colours and comfortable sofas, enables professional women to sit and have a drink and read a newspaper without feeling intimidated.

But the drive towards creating new brands was also circumstantial. Because the operators invested in high street buildings, often formerly banks, they had to design the pub interiors from scratch.

This gave the owners a blank canvas on which to build a brand around lighting, furniture, colours and design, without necessarily alluding to a more traditional drinking environment.

Robert Clewley, group strategic planning director for Whitbread, sees the new 'superpubs' as a match for the traditional pub on a certain level.

"Brands like All Bar One or Hogshead in the town centres or on high streets have limited or destroyed any traditional pubs in or around the high street," he says."But there's still a long-term role for neighbourhood pubs that come within half a mile of home. Most people don't live near an All Bar One."

However, supporters of the traditional pub feel it's more than just an issue of geography.

One very vocal opponent to theme-bar branding is Roger Myers, business development director of Punch Taverns, which has just acquired Allied Domecq's pub business.

The company is still deciding on the future of pubs within the portfolio, including the Firkin chain, which is likely to survive.

Says Myers:"Brands in pubs should be the exception rather than the rule. They only have any kind of value when they're conveying to the customer a certain kind of offer, like a cheap food offer. …

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