I can’t make my mind up whether it’s a good thing or not. Sainsbury’s ‘Taste The Difference’ range of beers is a sort of surrogate ‘own label’ range of beers – very much a mutant child of proud micro brewer father and pushy retailing mother.
You can’t miss own label in our supermarkets. In some categories (think aisles – it’s the closest approximation in non business speak) own label rules the roost – it can be up to 50% of sales. Often this is with products that shoppers aren’t that bothered about – loo rolls, washing powder – or where brands can’t really develop like with fresh fruit and veg, meat or fish. There are surprises too – categories like roast and ground coffee have a high proportion of own label despite some excellent products and pretty good prices from companies like Taylor’s or Douwie Egberts.
Beer has been the exception though – and for the wrong reasons. You see, own label generally exists, and typically thrives because it keeps the brands honest. If a brand gets too dominant, its share too high, then the retailer slips in a sharp priced own label offer and before you know it, the supplier is sitting around the table sharpening the proverbial pencil. Not with beer.
Because unfortunately beer is cheap. So cheap, there isn’t a meaningful space between the cost a retailer is buying at and the price it’s being sold out at. You have to bear in mind here that a very high proportion of beer is sold on promotion and British consumers know this. Wait a few days, or shop somewhere else and invariably you get a better deal.
So own label has withered on the bine. There’s been a bit of activity: Tesco launched their own label Czech beer – Boheme. They gave it lots of space and focus and activity. It’s still there, but it’s a runt. And there are a few lower alcohol versions – drop the ABV, reduce the cost and you create space to play. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, drinkers are not interested in these insipid, tasteless and poorly brewed beers. (We’ll have to see whether minimum pricing changes this landscape).
Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range is different. It’s a clear hybrid. The neck label, crown and aspects of the label are clearly branded; there’s a ‘structure’ across the range (each carries the brewers’ alleged signature for example*). But it ends there. As you can see – the Suffolk Blonde is in a St Peter’s bottle – the rest of the range are in their own. There’s no attempt to hide the origin – in fact, it’s built around it. There are beers from Harviestoun, Black Sheep, Meantime and others in the range. Each different in shape & format; each naming the brewery.
Yet I’m troubled. My background is brand owner – and in a company that refused to do own label. This legacy I bring with me no doubt. But it’s more than this. Somehow, the values of these small brewers feel just a little tarnished by the hand of the retailer. Not that I am berating Sainsbury’s here – I like their effort, but it feels an uncomfortable marriage.
And the beers – well, I’m working my way through. Tonight I had the Suffolk Blonde. Pleasant enough – certainly a bright back-lit gold in the glass, but I didn’t get the notes of banana and clove the label suggests, but rather a slight biscuity malt. The Hallertau hop aroma was there but not overly pronounced. Good enough for sure; I wouldn’t refuse another – but ‘taste the difference’ – nope, had more different beers that taste better. Mind you, the bottle – wow! The bottle is a stunner and perhaps not as pretty as their original flagon type, but practical and different too.
It just feels odd with a Sainsbury’s label on it.
*Watch out Mark Slater at St Peter’s. I’m after your credit card. Now I have your signature, it’s going to be a cheap Christmas…
© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012