BlokeChris Bates

Thinking about Beer

As an individual who is all too often heard to say "That looks like a nice pub" even when perhaps, it isn't,  the last few years' steady closure of hostelries across the UK has caused both concern and sadness for myself, as it has for many men.

Thinking about Beer

Change and progress have come at a cost, and you may well be familiar with a number of the reasons offered to try and explain pubs' demise: the smoking ban, increased health concerns around drinking, the cut price drinks available in supermarkets, the economic crisis, and the decline of disposable income as the basic costs of living have risen.

The pub industry has some good success stories, where food offers have been improved to provide an affordable treat for families. Or premiumised to become an occasional ritual, rather than habitual social space. But what can get overlooked is how pubs, once a bastion of male culture, have perhaps lost touch with how men socialise. As pubs have sought to become more inclusive and to service more occasions, in certain ways they have lost sight of their core audience in pursuit of the biggest audience possible. We live in an age when to be a "good pub" often involves offering wifi and a coffee machine. Making pubs more female and family friendly has led to the disappearance of a number of features that helped men to socialise. The thing you have to realise about men is that they socialise differently to women. Men are socialised to be funny, or at least try. And banter is key to that.

Banter stops men having to talk about themselves, and important stuff. Like feelings. Or family. And, as many a comedian has pointed out, this is why when a man returns from a "boy's night out", he can commonly not answer his wife's queries about the wellbeing of his mates' partners or kids, or even perhaps his mates. What he can tell her is an assortment of trivia, anecdotes and jokes that she probably won't find funny. This is why, successful beer brands tend to know the value of humour when it comes to connecting with men.

If you ask men to design their ideal pub, it tends to not feature olives, wifi, lattes, or kids menus. It tends to feature stimulus… for conversation, banter, teamwork, competition and play, and these stimulus have disappeared from many pubs. The dartboard, the pool table, the cards, dominoes, jukebox and fruit and quiz machines generated money, atmosphere, and acted as catalysts for bonding. Now it's common to just have the big screen and the match, which might be great, but isn't the same, as the majority of punters leave at the final whistle. As the means of play have disappeared, so have valuable triggers to male socialising, and subsequently, the allure of pubs. Granted, fruit machines' medley of noise is commonly infuriating, but it's astonishing that no brand has at least thought about jukeboxes as a means of building their brand and adding value to nights out, considering how many have music related sponsorship programmes. And it's not like the music industry don't need a new revenue and exposure channel.

And then there's the beer. Considering how big and established some of the lager brands are, it's quite an incredible achievement that some have maintained such market share.
If you look back to when you were starting out in pubs, it can be surprising just how many brands have come and gone. It's a while now since I've enjoyed a Lamot or Lowenbrau Pils, a Breaker or Tennent's Extra. Times move on, choice evolves, tastes evolve and people aspire to new brands - to drink different.

Ubiquity is of course a major challenge for big brands to manage, especially as the gap between their off and on trade price can be so large that it encourages the pub man to try something new, and drink beers he does not buy for his fridge. It's worth bearing in mind some of the key trends in lager and beer.

Firstly, there's the trend of lighter tasting beer with key examples being Coors Light, Corona and Peroni. Notably, German and Czech beers have struggled in recent years. The taste is too much for most.

Then there's the trend of easier drinking beer: lower %ABV which taps into health concerns, older consumers' recovery rates and the need for general coherence on a night out. Becks Vier is a prime example, and one that successfully addressed the parent brand's challenging taste profile, that is out of step with the mass market. And a fair few premium brands have trimmed their strength over the years, which can benefit both their margins, sales and consumers the next morning.

The ales renaissance is also important - tapping into the desire to explore and try new things, and new tastes, and drink something local, traditional and "crafted". The challenge for ales is quite distinct from that of lager. While lager offers plenty of choice but few distinct product options (focusing more on brand distinctiveness), ales are quite the opposite - plenty of products to select from but little choice as brands can lack salience.

And finally there's the exotic beer trend, with provenance and positive associations with it such as heat, sunshine and cuisine contributing to success. The general rule of thumb is that beers from both common and aspirational holiday destinations can prosper, while those that don't evoke flip-flops and relaxation can struggle. San Miguel, Tiger, Peroni, and Corona benefit from beer time being leisure time being "holiday".

So what does all this mean for beer brands? Maybe they could think more about how the brand could contribute to male bonding and socialising on trade, beyond the beer itself and the branded glassware. And maybe some brand owners need to consider the key trends in the market and how their portfolio can serve that need to drink different. Or is it the case that men are just drinking far more in mixed company on trade, and times have moved beyond the "boys night out"? Maybe, coffee shops will start featuring dartboards someday soon…

Chris Bates is a Qualitative Research Director at 2CV, with over 16 years' experience of researching the drinks market.