Beer hangs in the balance

Despite the beer market currently looking a little worse for wear, some brands are enjoying substantial growth

Beer is a category currently witnessing some depressing declines - and the situation has worsened since our chart was compiled. When the calculations were done, the off-trade beer market was static. The latest Nielsen figures describe a 2% decline.

The big winner in the category is Peroni Nastro Azzurro, up 50.5%. The Italian lager, part of the Miller Brands portfolio, built its constituency in restaurants such as Pizza

Express and has transferred well into the off-trade. Has it also been helped along by some sharp deals? Sales director Nick Miller insists not.

"Peroni's success has been driven through delivering innovative and engaging marketing activity that substantiates the brand's style credentials," he argues. "Ongoing growth will be sustained by maintaining our unique activities and we have several exciting and ground-breaking initiatives planned that will further substantiate our premium status.

"Peroni is not a brand that is heavily discounted and recent market data confirms this. Of course, the success of Peroni often leads retailers to include the brand in promotional activity, but this is on a much less frequent basis than with other brands. Nielsen data confirms that Peroni is able to command a significantly higher retail price than competitor brands, yet still has one of the fastest growing rates of sale of all premium lagers."

Peroni leapfrogged its rival Corona in the sales league, but the Wells & Young lager - reckoned to be the fourth biggest selling beer in the world - was itself one of the big winners. The launch of the 12-pack has been an important development, according to managing director Nigel McNally, but so has keeping its nerve on pricing.

"We're reluctant to go down the discounting route, where a lot of brands keep promoting on price in multiple formats," he says. "I think retailers respect our view that we try to preserve the brand equity by not discounting as much as other people. If you get into the game of continual price promotions then beer will be seen as a generic product and people will switch from one to another.

"We have a higher price than most other brands in the on or off-trade."

McNally is an ambitious man and has his eyes on Stella Artois'

crown. His formula for the coming months is "pretty much more of the same", but he adds: "We're looking at the possibility of advertising to support the brand, but we want to do that in the right way. We're looking at tailor-made promotion."

Holsten Pils, the daddy of the premium packaged lager category, is back in rude health under Carlsberg's stewardship, while Heineken is revving its engine with a similarly impressive sales increase. This

will be a brand to watch as the Dutch company absorbs the S&N portfolio, and it's almost inconceivable that it won't have star billing ahead of Kronenbourg and San Miguel.

" Quality is at the heart of everything associated with the Heineken brand," says customer marketing controller Chris Duffy . "We have had plenty of opportunities to drive volume and we've declined to participate in deep-cut price promotions which just deliver a short-term volume hike.

"Price promotions have a role to play, but they are just one of many tools in the marketing box. It's about where you place the emphasis and we tend to focus more on activity which creates a positive brand experience for consumers. We have made it clear that our strategy is to build the brand in the long term and you don't do that by being a regularly and heavily discounted brand.

"All of the marketing activity surrounding the brand is focused on reinforcing the brand's credentials as an imported premium continental beer. That's a strong and motivating brand proposition and one which is clearly appealing to beer consumers who are increasingly looking for quality and authenticity ."

Ale also declined by 2% in the year to April and that is reflected in the fact that no ales appear in the top 25 growth brands.