Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
I'm standing in a crowded bar on the 28th floor of Millbank Tower in Pimlico and I'm surrounded by people in suits. This has made me uncomfortable, I'm very much a jeans and trainers kinda guy and I find it difficult to associate people clad in suits with the beer industry. Perhaps I'm partially blinded by my craft beer blinkers and cautiously optimistic perspective. I'm handed a shot glass filled with Fuller's Vintage Ale which has been meticulously paired with a cheese pastry twist. It's not exactly the most inspiring combination but thankfully I'm not here for a culinary experience, I'm here as a member of the press to witness the relaunch of the much maligned Let There Be Beer campaign.
But first, a little transparency on my part. I first got in contact with Frank, the PR agency behind the campaign, several months ago. They had tweeted a picture of some 'his and hers' beer glasses and while the 'his' glass contained beer the 'her' glass appeared to contain something resembling Ribena. I'm sure there was no real intention to offend but it did. I decided to take it upon myself to email them and tell them why this wasn't good enough and that they had a responsibility as beer communicators to offer something better. It got me on their press list at any rate.
Fast forward a couple of months and I'm at the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin enjoying some lunch and lashings of unfiltered Pilsner Urquell. Myself, Chris Hall and Craig Heap are approached by representatives from Frank PR and are quizzed about what we thought was wrong with their existing campaign. In our inebriated state we probably gave them far too much free information and they were recording our conversation (we had agreed for them to do this). At the end of our chat they hand us a USB stick each that contains a few details about the next stages of their campaign but it's all pretty run of the mill stuff with no mention of a grander plan.
It's now August and I'm on my way to the trade session at the Great British Beer Festival. I'd agreed to meet with the same two reps from Frank PR for a morning coffee and a chat about their future plans. Against my better judgement I thought it might be worthwhile to give Let There Be Beer another chance. They used me as a sounding board for a few of their ideas but ultimately I tell them that I wouldn't be interested in working with them unless I saw some genuine change in their practices. I was not paid nor did I ask for payment, to be honest the conversation never got that far and I didn't feel that it was a terribly worthwhile avenue to pursue as a writer.
They tell me a big change is coming but I had no idea what this was going to involve at this stage. I had little to do with them after this meeting bar a brief exchange about a poorly constructed infographic they put together for Cask Ale Week. Once again I felt incensed to contact them about the misinformation in the graphic, they took it offline and then invited me to the press launch that I am now attending.
We're ushered into an adjacent room, Chris is with me once again and he sensibly decides to take notes while I just sit there, drink beer and develop increasingly deepening feelings of cynicism. Soon the presentation starts with a brief overview of Let There Be Beer and what it 'achieved' over the 18 months since its inception. Then they unveil what it is that they've been working away on these last few months, the newly rebranded campaign; There's a Beer for That brought to you by the newly formed Britain's Beer Alliance.
There were elements of Let There Be Beer that I kind of liked, it looked relatively modern, fresh and in the right hands probably could've done some real good. Now all that hard work has been boiled down into something that has all the gravitas of a Mitchell and Webb parody. Say it out loud, go on, say it with a big beaming grin, why not stick your thumbs up and crack a wink in the mirror while you're at it. It's ridiculous and what's even more ridiculous is that they've spent ten million pounds on this new campaign.
Chris and I look at each other in horror and we haven't even gotten to the worst part yet.
With a hundred thousand pounds you could renovate a pub, start up your own brewery, or if you've already started one you could leave the days of hand bottling behind and buy a canning line. For me, ten million pounds is a ridiculous sum of money to spend on a project like this, but not for the multinationals behind it.
They then give us the premier of their brand new TV advert that will air for the first time tonight in the ad break during Downton Abbey. It's directed by the genuinely brilliant Michael Winterbottom who is responsible for, amongst other things, 24 Hour Party People and The Trip. He'd never done an advert before but apparently he really loves beer so he decided to do this one, also he probably got a decent wad of that ten mil. By now most of you have probably seen it and I'll agree that it's kind of nice. The twee music offset with some Yorkshire poetry cutting between shots of people just really enjoying themselves and most of them are having a beer. Immaculately presented, full to the brim, stemmed glasses of beer. Doesn't it just make you want to get in the car, drive down to the supermarket and load up with as many slabs as possible?
Where are the brewers? The publicans? The draymen? Where's the story? It's forgettable and throwaway but hey, it might shift a few thousand extra cases of Stella down the supermarkets this week because of course, people have just been forgetting to buy beer all this time, haven't they?
The crowd, which includes members from SIBA and CAMRA clap and cheer a project funded by multinational brewing corporations and designed by suit clad executives so that they can carry on meeting their sales targets. I'm left feeling cheated and angry, especially after witnessing the 30 second sped up and cut down version of the commercial which almost obliterates the message they are attempting to convey. Pete Brown then takes the stage and explains his involvement with this project and how he has helped with the rebrand. He seems to really believe that this can get more people into beer, good on him. I'm still skeptical. After Pete's speech we're then treated to details of the next stages of the campaign.
The thought is that people who watch the advert will then want to engage with the campaign through social media. That's exactly how these things work right? You watch an advert when you're tired and malleable on Sunday evening and then when you're bored out of your mind on Monday morning, sick of clicking the refresh button on your preferred social network over and over you need something else to pass the time. Hey, I know! Let's give those beer guys a follow because beer is good because it gets you drunk! Top engagement, ten million pounds well spent right there.
Essentially the campaign will continue to spout the same level of consumer driven bullshit, talking at those who choose to engage rather than to them. This is the polished turd your mother warned you about. All on a website that looks like a carbon copy of the wonderful Good Beer Hunting (which will be launched in a few days time.) Good news, they've paid established beer experts to make their level of communication 'better' but how long can they sustain this for? How long will people continue to pay attention?
The main focus of 'There's a Beer for That' is on food and beer matching and they've even developed a twitter algorithm that, and I quote, is 'designed to feel human' that will pick a beer match for you if you tell it what you're having for dinner. That's right, just tweet 'roast chicken' and use the hashtag #beermatch (at the time of publication this hasn't gone live) and presto, you now know exactly what to drink with your chicken. Heavens forbid you just go on twitter and just ask a real beer expert who does this kind of thing for a living, no way, there's a bot for that!
So that's There's a Beer for That. More of the same that Let There Be Beer oh so dutifully provided but a lick of battleship grey paint has been smeared liberally over the existing ocean grey finish. You're probably still wondering why all this has got me so worked up and well, as much as I dislike the idea of this campaign it's the concept and my perceived aim of Britain's Beer Alliance that has had me spitting hellfire.
Sales of alcohol, not just beer, are on a slow, gradual decline. Generally, people are drinking less be it because of financial restraints, choosing a lifestyle they perceive to be healthier or just drinking less but drinking better. It's the better that the people behind this campaign are worried about, craft beer is bucking the industry trend and growing at an exponential rate. Beavertown have expanded three times in four years, Magic Rock sell out gyles of Cannonball months in advance, Brewdog are one of the fastest growing businesses in the UK and in the USA the Great American Beer Festival sells out thousands of tickets priced at 100 dollars a pop in minutes. Craft beer hasn't just got its foot in the door to the mainstream, it's already in the room throwing a party and it brought beer. So why do we need There's a Beer for That? Well, multinational corporations really don't like it when small businesses infringe on their market share.
So who are the major players behind Britain's Beer Alliance? Well you've got Carlsberg (Denmark), AB-InBev (USA/Belgium), Heineken (The Netherlands), SAB Miller (South Africa/USA) and Molson Coors (Canada/USA) and these are exactly the kind of guys you'd expect to invest ten million pounds just for the good of the beer industry right? RIGHT? Joining them are The British Beer and Pub Association, SIBA, The Beer Academy, Fuller's, Shepherd Neame, Enterprise Inns, Cask Marque, The Institute of Brewing and Distilling, Everards, Robinson's, Liberation Group, Thwaites, Budvar, Daleside and It's Better Down the Pub.
I'm sad to see certain names on that list, I'd like think they're strong enough to trade on their own merit without needing to trade off the back of a generalised campaign such as this. That's what There's a Beer for That is to me. It's a reaction from the global beer corporations who simply don't know what to do about the rising threat of craft beer, they've tried copying it but got figured out so instead they've just tried to lump all beer into one category and say 'hey we don't care what you drink, just so long as it's beer!' Instead it's about finding new ways to meet their targets and keep their shareholders happy.
I'm well aware that as a beer enthusiast I see things very differently from the majority that this campaign is targeted at. Unfortunately I think this will largely pass the people they oh-so-dearly hope to engage with by as the twang of a ukulele is drowned out by the hiss of a boiling kettle. It would be fantastic to get more and more people into beer and as a rule people are getting more interested in food and drink in general but this is not the way to grab their attention. I've tried being the beer evangelist, the guy who questions his friend who prefers a light lager over a pale ale and it just doesn't work. If people want to find out more about beer and you communicate about it well then they will seek you out when they want to know more. People are happy with their cup of tea or bottle of Blossom Hill or gin and tonic and I say if they're happy then leave them to it. I fail to see this campaign getting enough people into beer to make the investment financially viable.
What would the reaction be if a similar campaign was run for pies, gin or chocolate? Would people suddenly down their pints and rush out to the shops for a bottle of Gordon's? Imagine if that money was used on a campaign to get people down to their local or drink British beer, something with a genuine focus rather than something so generalised and vague. There's a Beer for That is a sign that the big guys don't know what to do about craft beer so instead of trying to beat them they're attempting to piggyback on that success. In six months time it will, with any luck, have largely have been forgotten about bar a pre-programmed twitter robot still spouting out nonsense pairings to people who've hijacked the hashtag and the suits will have to go back to the drawing board and work out what they're going to spend their next ten million pounds on.
Here's a selection of other bloggers making their opinions known on the Beer for That campaign:
Chris Hall makes similar points in his post 'Designed to be Human' which also features an excellent response from Pete Brown in the comments sections which is followed by a similarly excellent response from Chris. It's the way I wish Pete had approached this from the off.