The problem for the big brewers is manifold. Lifestyles are changing, people are spending more time in the gym. When people do drink, it's more likely to be wine (wine consumption is increasing according to the ABS). Beer isn't as cheap as it used to be, either, and wine producers aren't taxed as heavily as the multinational beer corporations.
In the face of those structural headwinds, can advertising save the schooner? "Sure it can," says Droga5 chief executive Sudeep Gohil. But he thinks part of the problem is that the fun has gone out of beer advertising because the brewers are running scared. "I can't help thinking that clients have become more risk-averse. The fun seems to have gone out of it."
Pre-testing and marketing by committee needs to go, he thinks. Not too long ago, Gohil says, the people tasked with making beer ads did not have to worry about consumer groups. "You just came up with a great idea and clients would go for it."
Heineken's CEO made that point at Cannes earlier this year. Jean-Francois van Boxmeer pulled no punches when he said, "If you make advertising in a committee then you are dead." Heineken might be on to something, Gohil says, given that "arguably, they make the best beer ads in the world".
"Some of my best mates work in research – my wife works in research. But if anyone is even slightly nervous in pre-testing, that leads you down the path of least resistance and that is what has happened in Australia. There is a reason you don't need to pre-test: beer is all basically the same. So if you don't have confidence in what your brands stands for, I'm not sure how pre-testing ads to that."
Clemenger BBDO managing partner Paul McMillan has a different perspective but agrees advertising can save beer. In seven words: "Yes it can, give me the brief." McMillan practically grew up working on Carlton United Brewers. It's his 18th year on the account, so he can "celebrate legally".
"The category has been in decline for about 25 years. There is definitely a trend away from regular beer to craft and premium beer. Lifestyles are changing and people are drinking less. So it's a difficult ask because [the task in hand] is broader than stimulating brand choice."
So what can advertising do? It's more about what the brands can do, says McMillan. "SABMiller is returning to the core of what they need to be,” he says, citing VB's recent return to the top of the pile. He also points at Crown's recent ads, which are about returning to the quality ingredients that make Crown a premium lager.
McMillan says that the plan is to build a stronger foundation for the brand and work out from there. For Crown, "once the foundations are re-laid we will be pushing out to more emotional stuff that will be bigger and bolder". He disagrees that the fun had gone out of beer advertising and said that the big ad was not dead, but that it "depends on what the brand requires at any point of time".
"We are believers in the power of creative ideas. Advertising should be able to change [the decline]. But we start with the brand's business issue and work from there."
Naked's Adam Ferrier agrees, sort of. "Can advertising save beer? No. But a few breweries can. They need to start delivering beers people want to drink and use advertising to support the product." That means quality and craft beers, which the big breweries know is where the growth lies.
“Advertising is one lever and it is largely image-led. In most food and beverage categories tastebuds are evolving. Beer brands need to evolve the culture of beer within society, from beer swilling to beer appreciation."
Lion told AdNews recently that was precisely what it was trying to do, and was well aware of the growth in the craft segment. Lion, which is owned by Japanese holding company Kirin, bought Little World Beverages, owners of the Little Creatures Brewery, four years ago. Ferrier says that was a smart move.
"A brewer that has bought one of the best craft beers in the country and does innovative things such as Tap King is the type of thing breweries should be doing and it bodes well."
Ferrier reckons the ads in the beer category are "largely really good", but it was a case of "managing the decline of the very big brands – which is a viable strategy if they are simultaneously investing in the future".
He says the ad industry could apply the same strategy to itself. "Beer ads are still the bellwether of marketing communications. So what is happening in the category is a benchmark for industry."
If that's the case, a more pressing question might be whether beer can save advertising.
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