InBev, the giant brewer which is currently sniffing around rival Anheuser-Busch, is set to launch a new 4% ABV version of its famous Stella Artois beer, in its latest attempt to revive the flagging brand. Once Britain’s best-selling beer, its premium image has been tarnished by massive discounting in supermarkets – it’s a bit difficult to promote yourself as ‘reassuringly expensive’ when your local Tesco is selling 12 cans for a fiver.
Worse still, at a fairly strong 5.2%, it’s become associated with the wrong kind of clientele. Stella is now popularly known as ‘wife-beater’ in the UK, which isn’t exactly the kind of brand association that companies like. InBev UK boss Stuart MacFarlane may consider this ‘irresponsible’ and ‘offensive’, but he’ll know that these labels tend to stick. By launching a lower-alcohol version (which won’t get devotees quite as legless), it might be able to distance itself from the image it’s inadvertently acquired.
Back in April, Stella lost its tag as the UK’s favourite beer when it was overtaken by Carlsberg, after a year in which (according to pollsters Nielsen) its sales fell 7%. In January the Young’s chain of pubs decided to stop selling it altogether, claiming it was no longer premium enough, while rivals have been rejoicing in its ‘precipitous decline’.
Naturally MacFarlane denies all this – and given the amount of beer it still sells in the UK, plenty of brands would love to have Stella’s problems. To be fair, it can’t help it if retailers choose to discount Stella to drive footfall. But it has been forced to scrap the long-running ‘reassuringly expensive’ campaign, and replace it with a focus on the brand’s 80-year heritage (which of course contains no hint of domestic violence). This new relaunch will hopefully allow it to wipe the slate clean again (although no word on what’s happening about its lower-alcohol Peeterman brand, which has enjoyed modest success).
Fortunately InBev has a good model to follow – its own Beck’s Vier brand, launched three years ago, has sold well as a premium product despite being lower-strength. And if all else fails, maybe there’s the US, where it’s trying to establish a foothold by paying $46bn for Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budweiser. Unfortunately A-B appears to consider these advances about as welcome as your other half would after you’ve spent a night on the Stella. Clearly it didn’t think the price was reassuringly expensive either.