June 10, 2013
In Beer Marketing, Image Is Still Everything

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to work for InterBrew (now AB-InBev) in a strategic consulting capacity. Locally and globally, maintaining resiliency of a beer brand is as exciting as it is challenging. But once your brand is on the outs with the prime target group, cardiac arrest sets in.

Oh sure, everyone tries to resuscitate their beloved brand with scads of Hail Mary endeavors ranging from “cool” package design to “cutting edge” advertising. Marketers of Michelob, Fosters, Miller Genuine Draft, Black Label, and Labatt’s 50 have all walked this path. All have failed to maintain mass brand appeal over the long haul. Labatt 50 used to be the leading brand in Canada. A generation later, young beer drinkers starting calling it “Dad’s beer.” When Labatt 50 became “Granddad’s beer,” the gig was up for good.

Twenty-three years has passed since Andre Agassi introduced us to “image is everything” in a television ad for Cannon cameras. Initially, this campaign was criticized for putting style ahead of substance. But, in short order, outstanding results erased the naysayers. Cannon had the goods and Agassi personified the brand’s new image.

Experienced and astute beer marketers ought to know by now that it is far better to milk the cow than flog the dead horse. The key to success in beer marketing is keeping the brand fresh. Easier said than done. Marketers continue to seek that creative silver bullet, and once in a while someone nails it, with outstanding creativity that imbeds the brand with the right emotional imagery.

Last year, Carlsberg introduced the concept of putting regular people through stressful predicaments and then disclosing the sting. They began with a cinema full of bikers. The video below went viral and had 11 million views within 8 months of launch.

The slogan, That Calls for a Carlsberg, represents the consumer’s payoff for demonstrating courage in the most adverse of situations.  Carlsberg’s latest commercial, Carlsberg Puts Friends to the Test is equally powerful. They challenge people to call a friend in the middle of the night and ask for money to bail them out of a poker game amongst the most unsavory of characters.

Creative such as this is the vehicle to extend Carlsberg’s life cycle in every market in which it competes. The challenge facing Carlsberg and every other long-standing beer brand, including Budweiser, is how to hit a home run every time. Even Babe Ruth couldn’t do that.

PS: For the record, my assignment with Interbrew was to re-invent Labatt 50 Ale. Knowing that its days were done as a big brand, I recommended a niche strategy. Back then, big beer marketers hated niche strategies. Craft brewers are delighted that this view hasn’t changed much.

John Bell
John Bell is a retired consumer packaged goods CEO and global strategy consultant to some of the world's most respected blue-chip organizations. A prolific writer, John's musings on strategy, leadership, and branding have appeared in various marketing journals and publications such as Fortune and Forbes. He has served as a director of several private, public, and not-for-profit organizations. John can be reached at

Other Articles by John Bell:

Taking A Step Back Doesn't Always Move You Forward

Taking A Step Back Doesn't Always Move You Forward

Work That Matters Starts With Matters That Work

Leadership: When Information Inhibits Knowledge

When Change Is Bad

Should Every Idea Make Sense?

5 Companies That Do Less, Better

The Two Faces Of Charismatic Leaders

CEO Presence Isn’t Style. It’s Substance

Panhandler Lessons For CEOs