Last night was another Peroni experience. My girls both came home from school with lovely school reports and as I have been working away a lot we decided to hold Friday Night Pizza Night out of home rather than in. So we tootled off to Ask and placed our order.
I haven’t actually checked, but I think there’s an Austin Powers Conspiracy going on in the sphere of Italian restaurants. We use vouchers to save a bit of money, and they all come out with minutes of one another – this is either incredibly effective competitive monitoring, or more likely, they are actually all one commercial concern. This theory is supported in my eyes because the three protagonists are getting more distinct from one another: Pizza Express the mainstream offer, with wide appeal, upmarket enough for a treat but not so pricey you can’t dine there often; Strada, playing on the authenticity card and hence pricier, and then below them Ask, which is outwardly less authentically Italian and more ‘inspired by Italy’. But they’re not different in beer: Nastro Azzuro 330ml, Nastro Azzuro 660ml (for that sneaky upsell) and Peroni Gran Reserva for when you’re feeling flush, or more likely, not driving.
The point of this is not to complain… although I would like to see a wider selection – Menabrea perhaps – or one of the great beers from Le Baladin? No, the point was that sad though I may be, the experience made me reflect on semiotics.
Semiotics is quite a specialist psychological field and is now employed by all sorts of companies, as it can have a real impact on how a brand or an experience is understood by its end user. Essentially semiotics is all about the meaning that derives from non verbal cues and signals. It’s about how a beer presents itself (how it ‘codes’ to use the lingo) and the real experience, not what it says about itself.
Take Ask for example: the experience of ordering, receiving and drinking my bottle of Nastro Azzuro is a good cross section in Semiotics. One of the benefits for stocking such a small range of beers is that you see what’s there as you walk in. A lady opposite me had an ice cold bottle and branded glass sitting in front of her on the table: refreshment is cued up. I order one: the glass has been frosted, and the beer is clearly deeply cold; the condensation sitting on the label.
Ah…the label. Peroni really is a masterpiece in how it presents itself. It adheres to some premium lager expectations and betters others. The design of the label uses many classic references in beer design: hops and barley; bottle embossing; international awards (generally won at the turn of the 20th century for some reason); oval shape and riband devices – all say ‘a well constructed beer’. But Nastro challenges too: it’s predominantly a white design, and white cues ‘value’ or ‘cheap’. But they balance it with a non beer colour (a rich blue) and little touches that are psychologically big touches: just the right amount of gold edging or lettering; mock hand-written script; delicate background detailing. You may think this is accidental – but trust me, it isn’t. Everything on this label, everything, is there for a reason and has been well thought through. It is the consistency with which SAB have executed these little touches, and how carefully they have built the distribution over time that has transformed it into a hot brand.
I’m not in SAB’s pocket so I shall blow no further air up their trumpet, but it is worth reflecting on the power of semiotics. Nastro Azzurro is a perfectly alright, perfectly average beer, but the bigger experience it delivers is a multipier effect (Stella Artois is an even more stark example). No, a basic understanding of semiotics is particularly important in the burgeoning world of craft beer. Start-ups don’t have big (read: any) money for marketing. The assets that they do have that the drinker touches: the bottle, the beer mats, the glass, the font or badge, the website – these take on a disproportionate importance. Making them consistent, not chopping and changing becomes critically important not just because it’s a better use of money but because it makes sense given that a drinker may not experience your product that frequently.
The question is which codes to keep and which to break – and that’s something to think about as you work your way through the many great beers emerging today.
© David Preston, Beer TintedSpectacles 2012