Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The Beers That Made Belgium Semi-Famous

Two new articles to add to the collection: my latest piece on TCS has posted today; check it out for some instanalysis of the European Commission confirmation hearings.

And in the Wall Street Journal Europe I hold forth on something I actually know about: beer. The subtopic is marketing, of which I know nothing. I paste it here, since the WSJE is subscription only.

A Tale of Two Belgian Beers
Business Europe
By Craig Winneker
27 September 2004
The Wall Street Journal Europe
(Copyright (c) 2004, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Brussels –

Beer, like popular music, is usually more about marketing and demographics than such elusive and unquantifiable phenomena as, say, taste.

Anheuser-Busch's now-iconic Bud Light did not, in some singular cosmic occurrence, suddenly become a more satisfying form of refreshment than Lite Beer from Miller. Rather, a relentlessly clever advertising campaign simply overwhelmed a competitor that had become America's first successful low-calorie pilsner in the 1970s with TV spots featuring aging sports heroes and a slogan -- "Tastes great, less filling" -- that was memorable if doubly dubious.

Then there is Rolling Rock, a beer now favored by Blackberry-wielding young hipsters paying premium prices for it on the U.S. West Coast, while in the Rust Belt, where it has been brewed for decades, it remains the default pitcher-filler of the hardhat set. They drink it because it is cheap, and local.

It all has to do with brand positioning -- and, yes, with the undeniable lure of something that appears to be new even when it isn't.

In Belgium, home to the finest beers in the world (including a handful still crafted by Trappist monks -- although one suspects they, too, have beefed up their marketing staffs), a new battle is brewing between one of the world's largest beer companies and a small but clever local competitor.

It has all the makings of a classic beverage war: expensive marketing campaigns, a struggle for the right kind of retail visibility, ambitious brand re-positioning, and the occasional bevy of tank-topped women in a bottle-shaped truck.

Order "une biere" or "een pintje" in just about any Belgian bar -- from the grandest Art Nouveau cafe to the humblest corner tavern -- and you are almost certain to be served one of two nearly indistinguishable pilsners. Stella Artois and Jupiler, both produced by Belgium-based multinational Interbrew, are ubiquitous in this small country.

Moortgat Brewing, on the other hand, is a small, family-run operation based in a suburb of Antwerp. Its flagship brand, Duvel, is sold around the world and is justifiably considered one of the finest beers available anywhere. Its light, slightly sweet flavor is notorious for fooling British lager louts into thinking they can drink huge quantities with impunity. They can't; its alcohol content is nearly 10%, or three times as strong as any English beer.

But recently, Moortgat has moved beyond simply promoting Duvel around the world as a super-premium product for connoisseurs. It is taking aim at Interbrew in the local market for beers made to be quaffed.

And it has a secret weapon. Frederic Nicolay opened his first bar in Brussels in 1995 and has since amassed an empire of trendy establishments that now includes everything from converted warehouses serving shaggy students to a Michelin-starred restaurant. But back at the beginning, when he was broke and just looking for a change from the usual dark-wood and smoke- and ennui-filled Belgian brasserie, Mr. Nicolay was visited by a Moortgat rep who offered a free refrigerator if he would sell the company's beers.

It was fortuitous timing for both: for Mr. Nicolay because he had no money and needed a fridge, and for Moortgat because it had just struck up a relationship with a young man who would turn out to have the golden touch when it comes to in-crowd nightspots. "Little by little we started to work together and they saw that I sold a lot of their products," Mr. Nicolay says.

His establishments, one of which opens soon in London, share certain characteristics: they are understated and clean in design, have service that is stylishly indifferent, they are full every night -- and they all feature Moortgat beers.

Eventually, the brewery became partners with Mr. Nicolay and now co-owns all of his restaurants and bars. And when they decided to relaunch one of their nearly unknown products, an unassuming pilsner called Vedett, they asked Mr. Nicolay to mastermind the whole effort, from the label design to the advertising and promotion campaigns.

Vedett, it must be said, tastes like just about every other Belgian pilsner. To be honest, it's not a whole lot different from Schlitz. But its recent marketing efforts have been more eye-catching than anything the big boys have done in years. First came beermats that appeared to have mobile-phone numbers scrawled all over them, enticing customers to pick them up. Then came the bottles with little pictures of photogenic young Belgians; each label had a different hipster, and there seemed to be no two alike, thus encouraging bar patrons to collect several at a time.

Still, Moortgat is appropriately post-modern about the campaign, and its Web site acknowledges the absurdity of the Vedett rebranding. It has even crafted a sort of legend around what it says was once a "cult" beer favored by "an intimate circle of insiders in the Antwerp-Brussels region" but is now going through a "second childhood in a number of trendy cafes." It proudly proclaims the beer's image to be "hip, young and slightly absurd."

How has Interbrew responded to this small-scale attack? The only way a big company can when confronted with an energetic upstart who can make an advertisement painted on the side of a cement mixer look cool: by getting bigger. Much, much bigger. Interbrew has been buying up small, medium and large breweries everywhere; it is now the world's largest beer producer by volume.

And, strangely, it has changed its name twice in the last six months. First, after merging with Brazil's AmBev (whose flagship brew is Brahma, a beer that could taste good only if consumed on a sweltering hot Rio beach -- and whose ads feature thong-clad women choosing instead to pour it on their bodies), it become InterbrewAmBev.

That, wisely, did not last long. Now, in a move that is neither likely to improve the flavor of Stella Artois and Brahma nor send Mr. Nicolay back to the drawing board, it has become . . . InBev. Actually, it's !nBev, with an exclamation point substituting for the capital I and signifying, well, who knows what. !'ll probably have a Vedett instead.