If you’ve been mingling among the 55,000 expected visitors to Great British Beer Festival at Olympia this week, you’ll be forgiven for not believing me when I tell you sales of beer have actually fallen around 4% each year in the UK for the past few years.
Thankfully, the British beer industry is fighting back and has united to reignite the public’s love of beer with a national advertising campaign, which calls for the country to rediscover what's great about beer.
There is no doubt that the beer category as a whole is declining, but under the surface the situation is more complex.
The good news is that we have seen a resurgence in small craft brewers and if you are a beer connoisseur, then choice is as good as it has ever been. There are also clear signs that larger retailers are starting to take the beer aisles far more seriously and are using some of the more premium retailing cues found in wine to bring the category to life.
But the bad news is, overall beer sales continue to fall by about 4% year-on-year, and this does not make for a healthy or sustainable category. The high number of pub closures and increased competition for leisure spend from other categories (coffee stands out) is not helping.
We can sit and fret over this situation, or we can do something about it.
As individual brewers, marketing investment is largely concerned with market share and encouraging existing drinkers to consider more premium products. In a mature market, it is difficult for us to grow the category alone, but we do have a duty to bring forth innovation and new product development, which increases choice, appeals to modern drinking occasions and has regard to increasingly health conscious consumers. This is evident in the blossoming lower alcohol by volume (abv) sector where we have seen a rich seam of activity in the 2-2.8% abv range, including the spring launch of our own Foster's Radler, where sales have already exceeded our wildest expectation. Beers such as Heineken are also performing ahead of the market.
That said, in order to properly grow the category - by recruiting new drinkers, recapturing lapsed drinkers and generating a greater sales rate from existing drinkers - a long term, concerted and well funded category campaign is required.
And so, this summer, UK brewers big and small have united behind the new Let There Be Beer campaign. This collaboration comprises some of the world's biggest brewing companies, national brewers, publicans, retailers, organisations such as the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) and support from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and the Society of Independent Brewers.
The campaign’s ambition is to reignite the public’s love of beer and restore lagers, ales, bitters, pilsners and stouts firmly in the nation’s heart, wherever they are enjoyed, whilst highlighting the significant role brewing plays in supporting the economy.
While it's early days, we have already created momentum though a TV campaign, which is taking full advantage of a full summer sport, social networking and PR. We have some other exciting elements to come on stream, including celebrity endorsement and unique content, which puts beer firmly where it belongs.
Will it work? I sincerely believe so and there evidence from other markets and categories to support this. Spanish brewers, for example, have worked together for some years now and have achieved rejuvenation in the category.
And why is it important? Beer is the nation's historic drink of choice and should be celebrated in its many forms. It is also a valuable aspect of our prosperity, where beer and pubs contribute around 2% of GDP and provide thousands of jobs. Let’s not also forget beer's significant marketing investment, which finds its way to agencies, media owners and support services. Beer commercials pretty much always figure in anybody's top ten - creating iconic campaigns which survive generations, refreshing the parts other campaigns can't reach - if I can be partisan for a moment!
A world without beer - big, small, craft or mainstream would be a sad place, and I am delighted that Let There Be Beer had set itself bold ambitions to grow the category in years to come.
- Jeremy Beadles is corporate relations director at Heineken