Reassuringly expansive

19 October, 2007

Graham Holter Meets InBev

UK president Richard Evan


Rotten summer weather, no football tournament and a general flattening-out of the beer market have presented Richard Evans with a headache. You might assume that a man with the mighty Stella Artois in his portfolio would be immune from such worldly concerns, but lately the ­flagship brand has discovered that sales figures are no respecters of ­reputation.

Evans insists his beer glass is half full rather than half empty. Like most big brewers, he's clearly alarmed at the way lager is being traded on the grocery floor, and you suspect he may even welcome some ministerial interference in the way promotions are run. But that's not a conversation he intends to conduct publicly. Instead, he wants to focus on positives.

First, the harsh reality. "If you strip out all the ups and downs of football or wet summers there is an underlying problem, which is that for many years we saw an increasing number of people entering the off-trade beer market; penetration was growing. And that is no longer the case."

The three sets of consumers in Evans's sights are affluent older people; the basket shoppers, typically singles, buying supplies for the evening meal; and finally, that most mysterious of all sub-groups, at least to the beer trade: women.

"During my three years in Global I coined an expression: I said we had to stop expecting consumers to live in our world of beer, and understand how beer has to live in the world of the consumer," he says.

"The point is that the dominant mechanic in the beer industry is case deals, which aren't great for attracting any of these people.

"We've been saying to our customers 'let's not get into throwing bricks at each other about whose fault it is'. The reality is that if we're going to achieve profitable, sustainable growth then we need to recognise that there are groups of people that the focus on heavyweight promotions doesn't appeal to. Let's think about some of the other tools we could employ.

"We find it more constructive in the short term to leave to one side the question of twofers ... they [supermarkets] have to deal with that for themselves. We're trying to demonstrate there are other ways to broaden the category.

"If we're sensible and we live in the consumer's world and work back from there, I remain positive that there are plenty of opportunities to grow profitably and responsibly in the take-home beer market. There is a better way out there."

Affluent olders

"For a lot of these consumers, beer is not necessarily their first choice of alcohol," says Evans. "Your ability to consume diminishes and older consumers tend to go for higher-alcohol products in smaller quantities. Within beer they're looking for more interesting options and the two most relevant categories are premium bottled ales and speciality beers."

InBev can justifiably claim market leadership in the speciality sector, with Leffe and Hoegaarden leading the charge. Bass is somewhat isolated as the company's token PBA, and Evans is reluctant to suggest it may have some stablemates any time soon.

"With PBAs I wouldn't say we've missed the boat, but in any brand portfolio you have to make choices," he says. "I would love to spend four times the money behind all our brands but I can't. I believe in focusing on segments and brands where we are leaders.

"The reality is that while we have brands that can compete in PBAs, we're not the leaders, so we'll take our share of growth that's there but our focus is speciality beers. We have a rich heritage of brands coming out of Belgium and in the long run it will be as big if not bigger than the PBA segment and we will lead.

"In France Leffe is at least 10 times bigger than it is in the UK - and we are a smaller company in France. The potential for us is for us to make it 10 to 20 times bigger than it is today."

Evans admits that InBev is "still learning about how to market to these people" ("we've all grown up selling lager to 18 to 30-year-olds", he says) but recognises that price is not a big issue for them.

On that subject, he argues that InBev is already demonstrating that beer pricing can achieve a wider spectrum than some had believed.

"If you take Carling as a benchmark, Stella Artois is still, on average, 30 per cent more expensive. Leffe is somewhere between 60 and 80 per cent more expensive. I think we can educate customers and consumers to recognise a price ladder in beer as much as they do in other categories.

"We think we've spotted an opportunity in what we're calling 'core premium' with products like Peeterman and Beck's Vier. I think we've broken a paradigm that you pay more for more alcohol.

"Actually you don't have to put more alcohol in a product to drive a price premium."


"Women are more likely to go down the automotive fixture than they are the beer fixture," Evans reports. "We've been doing a lot of work on women and beer. There are a lot of platitudes around women beer drinkers, but there are a couple of basic truths.

"If women are coming to beer it's for refreshment, not alcohol. If they want alcohol they have other ways of getting it - like wine and vodka. They're more interested in lower abv products. The other thing is that they find beer fixtures complicated and confusing so we're talking to customers about different ways of laying out beer.

"What I'm talking about is not cutting back speciality beers and PBAs. Giving them more space actually is a good idea. What I'm talking about is a simplification of the big volume core of the market which is lager and mainstream ales. People can't take in a choice of 300 SKUs in the average 90 seconds they spend in the beer aisle."

Basket shoppers

"This is a relatively easy one," says Evans. "Basket shoppers don't buy twofers. A lot of them never make it to the beer aisle at all. They're coming into a supermarket to buy what they need for that evening. We've got to bring the beer to them and it needs to be in small packs. It's surprising how little anyone is doing it."

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