Branded Glasswhere

There’s a quiet revolution going on with beer glassware. I remember when I was at University down in Exeter it was a real struggle to get your pint served in the correctly branded glass. In fact, it was rare to even see a branded glass. Guinness was the exception, so much so that it was quite typical to get a pint of Director’s or Bass served in one, often leading to me asking for it in a plain glass instead (I have nothing against Guinness but somehow any old pint in a Guinness glass spoils the experience both of the beer you are drinking and your future pints of the black stuff too).  Packaged beer was even worse. Frankly, if I asked for a glass with my bottle of swanky lager I was given a thoroughly gone-out look. ‘Look at that wazzock, wanting a glass with his beer instead of necking it from the bottle like the rest of us. Knob.’  Today you may get a glass designed specifically for the bottle.  But back then it wasn’t a case of brand glassware but rather branded glass where?

What really brought the change home was a conversation with an ex wine marketeer,  a friend of mine who has put me right on a lot of commercial issues facing the wine boys which I as a beer boy had been quite ignorant of, if not thoroughly mistaken over.  One of these issues was glassware.  Wouldn’t it be great to have an industry standard set of beer glasses to ensure that each type of beer was served in the right way? This would keep it easy for publicans….not swamping them under a sea of different shapes of beer glasses, or having them confronted by oafs sending their beer back if it’s served in a Guinness glass.  The wine boys: they have it sorted: elegant glasses, consistent across pubs to bars to upmarket clubs. I even attended a beer dinner at The White Horse in Parson’s Green where this was raised.  But funnily enough, I as with many others, was mistaken.

The first issue is how the wine makers see their challenges.  One big issue for them (perhaps not for drinkers but leave that to one side for the moment) is a lack of wine brands. Coupled with over supply this is leading to many wine markets suffering extreme price deflation and discounting, and a huge differential between the pricing drinkers experience in the on trade vs supermarkets. Whereas in beer the difference is double (using the UK example but increasingly this seems the rough rule of thumb in many markets) in wine this can be anywhere up to fourfold. And wine ‘all looks the same’ to drinkers…a glass of rose may vary slightly between labels but there’s little else to distinguish them, including no branded glasses.  The plan: introduce branded glasses. Ah.  Which just goes to show that not only is the grass not always greener on t’other side but in fact, it could be pink with yellow spots.

The second problem has been listening too closely to the licensees. Publicans have it tough, that’s for sure, not only have they got the issues with escalating duty, supermarket cut-throat deals and changing leisure patterns impacting on their business, they also have to run a complicated little business with long hours, the vagaries of staffing and recruitment, coping with weird laws and bylaws, offering food and getting their drink range and quality right. But this doesn’t always mean they appreciate the best way to run their businesses. And beer glassware is one example. If you took operational considerations to the nth degree then you would have standard height, stackable, toughened (shatter not shard to prevent glass injuries), non branded (doesn’t wash off in the dish washer) in two sizes, pint and half, capable of being used for beer, spirit long drinks and soft drink too. Oh, hang on, this is often standard fare in pubs in the UK. So, they’ve got it right, yes?

Nope. Think of your own experiences.  Here are some of mine in the last few weeks. In the Lakes, I had a pint of Black Sheep in The Bridge in Buttermere. Right glass, right setting and definitely the cause for a second.  A bottle of Erdinger nearer to home, in its preposterously curvaceous tulip glass; on holiday in Lanzarote a glass of Estrella Galicia in a handled, frosted glass; numerous bottles of Nastro Azzuro and not just in Pizza Express; in Prague a fantastic cellar-aged Žatec in a simple pilsner glass. I could go on. The point is that the glass is the fireworks over the Disney castle. The theme park is good, but those extra details make it memorable, lift it, make you want to go back.  So it’s a fine thing to see Fosters promoting their new glass; to see Stella Artois continuing to push for sales in its ‘chalice’, for Carlsberg introducing the wonderfully angular San Miguel glass, or abroad for brewers like Boston Beer investing research and development money in the right glass shape for Sam Adams Boston Lager. And sure. They get stolen, but if ever you wanted advertising in the home and prompt to buy the right beer for the right glass then surely this is a investment worth making (or sell them to bars for the price of a non branded glass – bars need to buy glasses anyway and this reduces the hit).

But why is this? What is behind the transformational effect that something as simple as a branded glass has in the purchase of a glass of beer?  Interestingly, the psychology of buying sheds some light on this. Basically when we buy, in fact when we plan to buy, there’s an emotional upside that impacts our physical state: endorphins raising our anticipation to a peak, the apex being when you actually hand over the money and buy. Thereafter the downside kicks in, big for a TV set or clothes and so on, but for a beer is pretty small (one reason beer has traditionally been described as ‘recession proof’). And the branded glass? It simply accentuates the positive …. it’s a triple win, it shows the brewer cares, the pub cares and you can show off your distinctive choice overtly.

Now ok, clearly you can only have so many branded glasses in a bar. But here is another reason for bars to sell a smaller range, with higher throughput and therefore fewer problems with glass storage and serve (as well as all the upsides of beer quality).

Back to that beer dinner I mentioned earlier. As the debate rolled about different issues, out came pudding. And with the pudding came some Trappist and Abbey beers. Westmalle was one, served of course in its Communion style stemmed glass, deep-walled and thick painted. It’s no exaggeration to say that celestial quiet filled the room for the brief moment it took to pour. There, I thought to myself, is the last word on the subject. Whisper it quietly, but ‘Vive La Revolution’.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, April 2012


Doom Bar.  Where did it come from all of a sudden?  Sharp’s Brewery isn’t 20 years old yet their flagship brand, named after a sandy marine ramp, that squelches around the low tide mark and is generally frequented by sea molluscs, crustaceans, kelp and assorted ships’ keels, is one of the UK’s fastest growing cask ales.  Fascinating.  And what makes it fascinating is that this is a genuine brand – it hasn’t earned its success as a function of a strong tied estate which gives a beer a springboard forward, gets it noticed; and it isn’t over-marketed. I mean, take the badge on the beer engine. It’s not exactly a design classic is it?    Simple, punchy, sure…but superlative design, no.  Then there’s the beer – purist or not, put a cask ale in a clear bottle and whether you like it or not, you’re supping on stoat¹ before you know it. And frankly, it isn’t a bad beer; equally it isn’t great, it does what it was designed to do: sit in the middle of the market and appeal to most.

doombarSo all this got me pondering on how brands get created.  Because despite CAMRA’s claims to the contrary, it isn’t marketing money. Oh sure, it helps, don’t get me wrong, and certainly, you would be utterly slack jawed if you knew how much money breweries (and not just the ‘big’ ones – let’s not fall into that trap) throw at winning and keeping distribution² (ie the stuff that we, as drinkers, don’t see).  And yes, it buys a nice font, and a few glasses for us to purloin, but there’s obviously much more to it than that.  Think of the brands that are spending big today: not that many. And think of the brands who have spent big until recently but just can’t stem the decline: Tetley’s, Boddington’s for example.  Broadly speaking, it seems that advertising money keeps you there, but it doesn’t get you there. More often than not in fact, it seems to be that the main audience is the Tesco or Morrisons Beer Buyer: ‘Look!’, the advertising says, ‘my owner is serious about me. List me, please!’

None of this explains Doom Bar that’s for sure.  Their approach has been to PR the hell out of their brewer, Stuart Howe, allowing him free rein, and slowly build from their heartland, out. And my, they’ve done this relentlessly and ‘executed’, as the Americans would say, superbly. Good for them.  But arguably, what they have done is no different to a vast array of other great brands, that have much more varied degrees of success. Take one example: Timothy Taylor’s Landlord – it’s been kicking around for yonks compared with Doom Bar, but it sells nowhere the near hundreds of thousands of barrels Doom Bar sells a year…and is, if you’ll forgive my personal taste, a vastly superior beer.

It’s tempting to deconstruct the inputs of the brand. The stuff it’s doing and gets to market. It’s glassware. It’s assorted ephemera – drip mats and all that.  Even the pubs it’s sold in. The myths and legends that emanate from its PR team. But I don’t think it’s that. My theory is this: it’s groupthink, or clearly in this case, groupdrink.

Go with me on this. I run lots of research with consumers across all sorts of different types of products – dairy, coffee, tea, soft drinks, banking, snacks – you name it.  And one of the biggest issues I contend with is groupthink. The tendency for humans, when they get together or socialise to adopt collective behaviour, views, opinions and attitudes. It’s remarkable because it takes no time at all – literally minutes.  It’s fascinating to watch the dynamics in a group: here are total strangers – never met before, unlikely to ever meet again. Yet within minutes they are watching how their peers in the situation are reacting; what they are saying and how they are saying it. It’s an innate human trait – more than that, a desire to fit in.  All sorts of tricks are attempted to avoid it- typically, asking for individual, written responses, done in silence before the group start discussing.  Of course, there’s a huge amount of difference in opinion when you do this, but again, within minutes, the lifelines are being thrown out: ‘Well, when I first saw it (lets say it’s an idea for a new beer) I liked it, it sounded really appetising. But now I’ve heard what this lady has said, I’ve changed my mind’.  There’s lots of scientific study in this area and it confirms what you don’t want to hear: I’m afraid, just like in The Life of Brian, you’re not an individual.  Human tendency is actually to conform. And ultimately, be conservative.

So the question is: how do you get your brand to the trigger point? To that point of reputation where a few people, just a few, are actively drinking and recommending your brand.  And in a situation where the context is positive.  This for me, is the happy serendipity that faced Sharps. Wittingly or unwittingly I’m unsure, but they chose to build their brand out of Cornwall, and specifically that part that has a lower concentration of Cornish, and a higher (albeit seasonal) concentration of tourists.  Tourists with a predeliction to come back year in year out; to bring their children and pass on that gene. To pop down for long weekends whenever they can, and if fortunate enough, buy a second home down there.  To sail in the Camel Estuary and pop over to one of Rick Stein’s bistros for a spot of supper. This is the emotional context that comes washing ashore with Doom Bar. And before you know, you unknowingly want to fit in, so you order a pint…

It can be replicated too. Sure, not exactly (albeit  Adnams has the wind in its sails for a similar reason), but building positive context and association around your brand is doable. Take Brew Dog; unless you live in Pitlochry, it’s not exactly on your door step, but their positive context is the challenger, maverick attitude.  ‘If you think this, come to me’ it says. And Black Sheep – the name says so much; the Yorkshire values; the visual portrayal:  a small Stone cottage just in view between the wooded interlocking ridges of the Dales.  It’s this mental image, this mindset that we really buy into. And that’s what Doom Bar have got so right. And why we all want to drink what he’s drinking.


²Put it this way, UK Volleyball wouldn’t be experiencing any funding problems through to, oooh, let’s say the 2092 Olympic Games. They’re in Ulaanbataar by the way, order your Mosquito Spray today.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012