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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 3rd Jul 2015 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Building a story, safe levels of alcohol consumption and moving forward
Authors: Glynn Davis, Paul Chase and Ann Elliott

Building a story by Glynn Davis

Taking a trip to the Champagne region of France recently was a real eye-opener not only in it improving my knowledge of how the product is made but also highlighting how well the region and the Champagne houses continue to build such a good story around their product.

It must surely be one of the most genius marketing ideas ever to associate your product with every type of celebration. The opening of an envelope nowadays seems to require the popping of a cork on a bottle of bubbly.

Many parts of the drinks industry could take a lesson or two from these master storytellers and top-draw marketers. One grouping for sure is the small brewers that are cropping up all over the country. Unless they build, and then tell, a decent story around their brewery and beers then they’ll fail to get that essential place on the bar and listing in the growing number of bottle shops.

Visiting Veuve Clicquot, Vranken Pommery and Mercier it was clear that they have each carved out their own positions in the market. While Mercier is placed in the affordable category the other pairing are aimed at the more premium end of the market. While each highlighted their illustrious heritages Veuve Clicquot and Pommery enhance their premium price-points by clever marketing activities. The former uses its distinctive yellow branding on myriad drinks-related products and is a keen sponsor of high-end events.

The latter has close links to the contemporary art world, with the bottles of its POP sub-brand adorned with art it commissions each year, and the cellars at its Reims-based home contain a number of art installations. Cynical brewers might suggest this has little to do with the actual stuff in the bottle. Not true. The exercise is about having some other element that takes the brand beyond being just a pale bubbly liquid. These links in your mind enhance the overall experience of the product when you get down to actually drinking it.

While the Champagne houses are fortunate in having lots of heritage to help them maintain their premium positioning, they are also clever enough to know that they need something else too – to help keep them fresh. Young brewers without any history can also create differentiation from the rest of the pack if they take the time to think about what it is that makes them different. And then they must keep telling the story.

In Copenhagen tiny operators Mikkeller and To Øl compete with the mighty Carlsberg by focusing on producing distinctive beers and then selling the story of these individual ales. In complete contrast, Carlsberg is selling its beers purely on its long history. Carlsberg gets rather annoyed at the media attention garnered by these two tiny upstarts so they must be telling a pretty effective story. They both know that regardless of how good the product, it is unlikely to sell in today’s increasingly saturated market unless it comes with a strong narrative.

BrewDog has produced some super beers – show me a better UK-brewed West Coast-style IPA than Jack Hammer – but it has also not exactly been averse to giving us a little storyline to go with its diligent brewing. Tanks rolling down high streets, fights with the Portman Group, and goading Vladimir Putin all embellish the tale of it being a bolshie outsider. 

The reality is that whether small brewers like it or not they’ve got to adopt marketing-led mindsets if they are to survive the onslaught of even newer entrants than themselves pitching up and producing ever more innovative brews under an arch somewhere on the edge of town. What has also worked well for the Champagne houses is providing tours and tastings (at a cost no less) that gives them another opportunity to tell their story. Pommery receives an incredible 130,000 visitors per year while Mercier is just behind with 120,000.

They are not only revenue generating activities in their own rights but they also create thousands of brand ambassadors who will no doubt go home with a very different – more rounded – view of the brand. They’ll know exactly what goes into each bottle to justify them paying out about £35 a pop.

The fact that a growing number of brewers – including Camden Town, Beavertown, Magic Rock and Cloudwater – are opening up tap rooms within their breweries and hosting special launches and events suggests there is a realisation in this community that stories need to be told. The likes of Veuve Clicquot and Pommery would no doubt applaud such sensible actions and celebrate in the only way they know how.
Glynn Davis is leading retail trends commentator

Safe levels of alcohol consumption by Paul Chase

It has been reported in the press recently the Department of Health is considering revising down the “lower-risk” or “sensible drinking” guidelines, on the basis of new evidence linking even very low levels of alcohol consumption to an increase in the risk of developing cancers – particularly breast cancer. The logic of the healthiest argument is there is no level of regular alcohol consumption, no matter how low, that doesn’t raise the epidemiological risk factor for a variety of cancers, and therefore there is no “safe level” of alcohol consumption. It follows from this the “lower-risk” drinking guidelines should be reduced, as they have been recently in Canada and Australia. I believe there is actually good evidence that, from a health point of view, that we could safely raise the lower-risk guidelines. That’s right – raise them!

Let’s take a step back. Firstly, if the overarching purpose of lower-risk drinking guidelines is to reduce levels of premature death by reducing the risks of developing fatal diseases, then surely what we should look at is the relationship between various levels of alcohol consumption and the risk of premature death from all causes, not just premature death from one cause – cancers. Here’s where we uncover some inconvenient truths for the health lobby. Research has established that people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol on a regular basis are less likely to die prematurely than people who never drink. And to be more specific, they are less likely to die prematurely from cancers or heart disease.

The current lower-risk guidelines were plucked out of the air; they are not based on science. But we can now define a rational basis upon which to calculate such guidelines. It’s about relative risk – if people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol regularly have a lower level of all-cause mortality as compared with those who never drink, then the question we need to ask, when framing the lower-risk drinking guidelines, is: how many units of alcohol consumption per day would raise the risk of premature death from all causes above the risk level of those who never drink?

We do have an answer to this. Research in the United States has shown that for men, two to four “standard drinks” per day, and for women, one to three standard drinks per day, keeps the risk factor of premature death from all causes below that of “never drinkers”. In the United States a “standard drink” is the equivalent of 12 fluid ounces of beer with an ABV of 5%. This translates into 1.7 British units of alcohol. So, two to four standard drinks a day represents between 3.4 and 6.8 units of alcohol consumption for men, and one to three standard drinks gives us a range of 1.7 to 5.1 units a day of alcohol consumption for women. The current UK guidelines are 3 to 4 units a day for men, and 2 to 3 units a day for women – hence my view that the current guidelines are too low and could be raised.

But there is another question we need to ask about what the healthists have to say concerning safe levels and risk factors: if we are going to define alcohol as “unsafe” because at any level of consumption it raises the risk of developing cancers, then what happens if we apply that principle to other drink products? Let’s take tap water as an example. In the UK we put chlorine in our public water supply. Chlorine is a disinfectant that kills micro-organisms and thereby renders water safe to drink. The chlorination of public water supplies represented a massive step forward in public health and virtually eliminated cholera in advanced countries. But we know from research done in the 1970s and the 1990s that chlorine, when added to water, forms Trihalomethanes (THMs), one of which is chloroform. THMs increase the production of free radicals in the body and are highly carcinogenic (cancer causing). Specifically, they raise the risk factor for bladder, colon and breast cancers. So, would healthists say there is no safe level of chlorine consumption, from the point of view of cancer risk factors and therefore we need to have lower-risk drinking guidelines for tap water? Of course not.

There are numerous studies that establish this link between chlorinated water consumption and cancer. Here is just one example: a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in the United States found that “long term drinking of chlorinated water appears to increase a person’s risk of developing bladder cancer by as much as 80%.” I’m not trying to start a health scare here folks, because the absolute risk of developing bladder cancer is very low, so an 80% increase in a very low risk is still a very low risk. I’m merely pointing out that basing public health policy on epidemiological risk factors alone does not provide the basis for evidence-based policy. Used selectively, as in the example of alcohol consumption and cancer risk factors, it is merely scaremongering and doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Department of Health, please take note.
Paul Chase is a director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on on-trade health and alcohol policy

Moving forward by Ann Elliott

Victor Kiam, the American businessman who became famous for the quote in which he said: “I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company,” also stated: “In business, the competition will bite you if you keep running, if you stand still, they will swallow you.”

This quote came to mind when I spent a day at north west brewer and retailer Robinsons recently and was shown around its new pub The Airport (www.airport.pub), its reasonably new visitor’s centre, its brewery and packaging plant. They are all great examples of outstanding leadership, drive and vision on the part of the Robinsons family – a desire to innovate, never stand still, to constantly question the status quo and to instigate change on an ongoing basis in order to deliver commercial success.

I do see many brilliant pubs in the Independent Family Brewers of Britain (IFBB) members’ estates but The Airport stands out among these. It’s a conversion from a tenancy to a managed pub for a start, which required a considerable amount of investment (as well as huge conviction that it could work) from the business. It overlooks the runway at Manchester airport, customers have to pay for parking and Robinsons has had to install portable loos in the garden to cope with demand – not usually the best of starting places. But it works and customers stream in there.

The attention to detail on the design front is amazing – it’s inventive without being clichéd. The food is awesome. The back bar looks great and the staff were really friendly (possibly because I was with Oliver Robinson but I doubt it). I felt inspired by the whole visit.

Talking about innovation and constant change – last week I had lunch at the new Wagamama in Great Marlborough Street, which was just fantastic. There was an energy and buzz about the restaurant that was infectious. While the old style long tables do still exist, there are now more booths and more tables for those who don’t want to have their meal sitting next to total strangers (and not everyone does).

The kitchen is totally open which helps create the buzz and excitement – I always used to wonder what the chefs did behind those kitchen screens. Wagamama talks about fresh, lively food with soul. Now I can see them actually cooking this food and it works. And the food itself was fabulous too. The menu design and layout has changed so it’s so much simpler and more joyful to order food than it used to be. The service was – well it’s hard to describe but I’ll try – mad, quirky, lively, talkative, engaging, individual, unconventional, brilliant, passionate and modern.

Wagamama needed to change and it has. It’s a brand on its toes – ready and able to respond to nuances in customer’s needs and wants quickly and creatively. The team there has done a great job.

On our way up to Scotland last week we called at Tebay services (www.tebayservices.com). Normally I would positively choose to stop at Welcome Break because I like the variety of its offer but I had heard a lot about Tebay Services (it’s a family-run motorway service station and offers no franchised outlets preferring to offer locally-sourced seasonal food at its cafe and farm shop) and wanted to see it for myself. It’s a fantastic place to have something to eat and drink on your way up North and has rightly been praised for its “outstanding selection of local food”. I think the whole place reflects its mission statement: “Ultimately, we know that if we stand still we start to move backwards. While we celebrate and are inspired by our heritage and roots, like generations of hill farmers before us, we understand that to survive and ultimately to thrive, we must continue to innovate, keep our ‘family’ and community close and always believe in what we do.”

I love this approach. Don’t stand still. Don’t accept the status quo. Be led by the customer. Be passionate, determined and have clarity of vision. It’s one reflected in my experience at both Robinsons and at Wagamama.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of public relations and marketing agency Elliotts – www.elliottsagency.com

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