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Why Do People Care About the Marston’s Rebrand?

Marston's rebranded beer range.
SOURCE: Marston’s, via the Morning Advertiser. Yes, we’re sick of this image too.

Marston’s announced a major rebrand yesterday and it seems to have made lots of people, on both sides in the culture war we’re apparently having these days, a bit irritated.

Traditionalists like the Pub Curmudgeon are annoyed at the apparent pandering to the youth market — what’s wrong with appealing to middle-aged and older people? Isn’t their money good enough any more?

Others are dismayed by the lack of respect for history and heritage: Pedigree, a brand invented in the 1950s, is a classic in its own way, so why pretend it was conceived in the 21st Century? (Note: they tried the retro look in 2012.) Why give Oyster Stout, one of the Marston’s beers that is better-loved among beer geeks, a would-be trendy name when the old one was quirky and interesting enough? And what’s with calling Pedigree ‘amber ale’ all of a sudden — is ‘bitter’ a dirty word now?

On a somewhat related note, colonial booze historian Dr Sam Goodman quietly rolled his eyes at the laziness of the new design for Old Empire IPA:

For our part, we instinctively felt it a misstep and, after a bit of chat over the porridge, decided that the problem was the potential confusion and disappointment for consumers. Someone who isn’t an expert but is vaguely interested in trying a beer similar to BrewDog’s might casually pick these up at the supermarket only to be let down by the contents. You might trick a consumer into buying once with misleading packaging (what we’ve previously called craftsploitation) but it doesn’t win repeat custom.(Note: we haven’t tried the new pale ale and maybe it really is a super-hoppy and bitter session IPA.) Meanwhile, those who prefer old-school beer are likely to give these a miss, or (see above) feel that their custom is not wanted.

Among those more soundly in the ‘craft’ camp the reaction was sharp. For starters, the design just isn’t as cool as its creators think it is, as Charlie ‘The Crafty Beeress’ Worthington confirmed when she asked a graphic designer pal what they made of the new branding: ‘I think the boat has sailed on all that distressed looking type stuff that BrewDog were doing 7 years ago.’ In desperately seeking relevance they’ve somehow made themselves less relevant.

Others were insulted by the suggestion that people who make a point of buying and drinking craft beer are actually just idiots buying labels who can be duped with a wave of the brand manager’s wand. For what it’s worth, we don’t think they’re actually after craft beer drinkers, though — just people who might be vaguely aware of the idea and don’t like ‘old man’ beers. Which, of course, leads to a sense that this is just a crass attempt at co-opting a thriving culture by an organisation that, as Richard Coldwell observes, is a modern equivalent of Whitbread or Watney’s in their 1970s pomp.

So, that’s everyone annoyed, for different reasons. Probably not the intended result.

The funny thing is, beneath all the hoo-ha about the clumsy re-brand, there is actually something interesting going on: Pedigree is now bottle-conditioned. That’s a material change that might — let’s even say will probably — improve the quality of the product. It’s certainly not something they had to do and, we suspect, is a deep-level gesture to beer geeks, and especially to CAMRA members. We’ll give it a go when we get the chance and report back.

33 replies on “Why Do People Care About the Marston’s Rebrand?”

We attended a launch event for their nano kit yesterday and got a bit of context for the Rebrand. Found it fascinating in many ways. Will hope to have a blog up soon.

I think in a funny way– a way that almost defies logic– the label is a part of any product experience. I won’t buy a product I hate just because the label is pleasing to my eye, but if there are a number of products that I like equally, I will choose the one with the beautiful label.

But that is a trivial matter compared to this one: A company needs to be very careful about completely ditching a beloved logo and starting all over again from scratch. Even in just pragmatic terms, the customer will have trouble finding the product on the shelf. But it also makes the company look desperate and unwilling to stand by its own product. Logos like “Coca-Cola” and “Ford” and “GE” are very, very old-fashioned looking. But their companies know that modernizing these logos (beyond subtle tweaks) would be a mistake. To me it projects confidence: “Our product is so good, we need not change this logo that was designed in 1912.”

In this particular case the new logos are just flat-out boring. I’ll acknowledge when a new logo is an improvement on the old one. The “Walmart” logo of today, for example, is more pleasing to my eye than the old one was. But this new Pedigree logo is not on the level of its predecessor, which was, in its own way, more in keeping with a timeless “Ford” or “Coca-Cola” type of logo.

Never mind Marstons, who else has noticed that Black Sheep has now been launched “Black Sheep IPA” with a snazzy new bottle?

Walked round Tesco, its mainly the same old beers, but with “IPA” appended to the end of all of the names.

I think the elephant signifies India, not Empire.

Certainly I think we have a problem in this country with underestimating the importance and attractiveness of authenticity, history and tradition to people – including the young – and this isn’t just limited to beer, but is an ongoing debate in sporting circles. We’re not a particularly patriotic country, but we are nostalgic – the idea that you are sitting in the same chair, supporting the same sports team and drinking the same beer as your great-grandfather is deeply appealing to people of all generations. I think people forget this. As much as looking forwards and outwards, the craft beer movement has always been about looking backwards and trying to identify more closely with our national brewing history.

Ironically, the American’s “get it” far better than we do.

“the idea that you are… drinking the same beer as your great-grandfather is deeply appealing to people of all generations”

Very well put. There is comfort in this sense of history, and it is a position that few products achieve: hard-earned over a period of decades. When a company suddenly chucks all that history out the window, you get the feeling they’re having an identity crisis.

The Black Sheep IPA is a new beer though, and I really quite liked it. Decent strength (5.1%) and had got hops in it, though they are British hops so it’s not in ‘juicy banger’ territory, but if anything that made it more interesting to me. As far as supermarket beer goes it’s up there with the likes of Ghost Ship, but Proper Job still probably pips it for me.

Since they’re still in 500ml bottles, they’ll stick out like a sore thumb in your average supermarket PBA Midlands section next to the Holdens, Everards etc. Certainly will in my shop next to the Mann’s Brown and Worthington White Shield. The only thing “craft looking” there is the Thornbridge, and as they’re going 330ml soon we’ll be shifting them to the Craft Beer section.

I’ll have to see whether the redesign has any effect on sales (the last attempt, making the letters “IPA” twice the size on Old Empire, didn’t have much effect). Doubt it, personally, as Marston’s push their lines on a “Only £1.25” promotion 4 months of the year and those who actually want Pedigree etc. stock up then.

Question for a distant UK watcher. If you were given the reins to the Marston’s strategy, what would you have done? The rebrand is perhaps only one element. There is product development, market positioning, brewery storytelling, and so on. It seems that breweries like Fuller’s and Adnams have embraced the changes brought by craft brewing while others have not (or, having misunderstood it, reacted weirdly to the changes). How should venerable cask-ale producers adapt to the modern market?

Oof. That’s a big question. Might need its own blog post. Short version: slight tweaks to the beers (bottle-conditioning, ABV boosts here and there, bump the bitterness up maybe) to send positive signals to those who are interested in such things; maybe revive an old recipe as a show-off premium product; update the graphic design, but subtly. Perhaps reserve anything too radical for completely new beers like the pale ale, but even then go for something a bit more dignified than this.

Even Adnams’ and Fuller’s don’t always get it right — Frontier Craft Lager is a shameless and slightly cringe-inducing attempt to ape something like Camden Hells — but, yes, dignity is probably the word. Adnams’ craft spin-off is especially clever and classy-looking using as it does a revamped version of their 100-odd-year-old trademark rather than, say, faux-graffiti.

“That’s a big question. Might need its own blog post.”

Hope you can do this; a fascinating topic, and I’ll bet we’ll be seeing more companies attempt this sort of thing in the years ahead. I can certainly sympathize with a company’s need to save their brand from just sitting there and withering away. Your characterization of this rebrand needing to be more dignified is spot on.

Agree with all this, really.

They want to tell a story that has broad appeal but is also believable – ideally even true. “We’re a iconoclastic posse of hip young hop-fiends” isn’t going to cut it. “We’re a great old traditional brewery but we’re still in touch with the modern world” might. Like you say, though, how to do that is a big question. I had a bit of a punt here:
although that was mostly focused on beer-geek appeal rather than the broader public.

Part of me wonders how much difference the tied estate makes, though. I was in a fairly well-heeled dining-oriented Marstons pub at the weekend, and it wasn’t inspiring. No (genuine) guests, no bottles, no indie keg, just Pedigree, Hobgoblin, Boondoggle and the usual macro stuff. Very little about it made me think “here is a company that loves great beer”.

And FWIW, I don’t think that branding needs to be set in stone, but the emphasis should be on making sure it looks classic or “vintage” and not dated rather than on making it look aggressively modern.

A choice of Pedigree, Hobgoblin, Boondoggle etc sounds absolutely awful. Maybe Marston’s main problem is that they’ve bought out too many poor breweries, and as a result carry too many poor brands.

I mean look at this: Have you ever seen so many mediocre beers all on one page? No amount of clever marketing can make up for that.

To quote Nick Hornby, what came first, the music or the misery? Have Marstons bought too many poor breweries, or made too many bought breweries poor?

As someone who had the misfortune to grow up in a Marstons area I can tell you that their entire portfolio is utterly mediocre at best.

Thinking more deeply, I don’t think Fullers and Adnams are good comparisons. Marston’s is a much bigger enterprise and has a totally different strategy. Its much more similar to Greene King in that regard, in that the majority of its profits come from its extensive pub estate. The point of owning five breweries is simply a form of vertical integration in order to cut costs back to the bone: rather than its pubs buying in beer from other breweries, it simply churns out huge quantities of really cheap and nasty drek under a variety of different brand names to give the punter the illusion of extensive choice when in reality he has none.

It has 2 breweries in the south, 2 in the midlands and 1 in the north, in each case using the regionally well-known breweries as the branding on its pubs in that region in order to make the most of local brand recognition and loyalty. All of them sell some of the worst cask ale in the UK: whether Marston’s deliberately bought up poor quality breweries or drove down quality by ruthlessly slashing costs after purchase, I’m not sure.

This rebranding is just another way to retain customers by giving them the false illusion of choice, make them think that the pubs they go to now offer craft beer so there is no need to go and seek it out anywhere else. Just stay in the nice comfortable Marston’s pub and drink this filth.

I have to say that we don’t buy into the idea that Marston’s beers *are* all awful. In recent years we’ve enjoyed Old Empire in bottles, Banks’s mild, Jenning’s Snecklifter on cask, and most recently Ringwood Forty-Niner in our local — it was really, almost weirdly wonderful, which did not tally with our previous experiences of that particular beer. On other occasions we’ve found their beer dull but rarely dreadful, and even then we’re fairly sure it’s been the fault of the pub.

Adnams and Fuller’s generally make better beer but there’s not a great gulf between them and Marston’s. Again, tweaks would probably fix it.

The Marstons own-brand stuff is… ok. Pedigree is passable if its fresh on cask, and Old Empire is genuinely quite nice in small doses. Banks and Jennings make mediocre beers at best, and Ringwood and Wychwood stuff is just about undrinkable in my experience.

The difference between Southwold Bitter, London Pride and Pedigree isn’t that huge, the key distinction is that for Adnams and Fullers, those are two of their lowest quality beers, whereas for Marstons, Pedigree is pretty much as good as it gets. They don’t sell anything whatsoever that would appear to the beer enthusiast, and that doesn’t actually appear even to be a market they’re interested in (perhaps misunderstanding how important that market is in terms of wider influence and reputation, if not bulk sales). I guess if you have a captive audience in your sprawling pub estates whose choice is to drink your beer or go home, you don’t really need to worry about that kind of thing.

Mind you, they’re still better than Greene King. They don’t have a single redeemable feature.

Random thought, but we tend to talk about Fullers and Adnams as the stock examples of family / regional breweries who’ve Done It Right and they’re also the only two traditional British breweries of that sort of size whose head brewers I could name.

Marston’s are also the leading supplier of Premium Bottled Ales in the country and I’d say this rebrand is more aimed at that market than draught beer sales in their own pubs.

Fullers and Adnams have done a good job in several ways:

They are associated with a specific area: Adnams is “beer from the coast”, Fullers is London Porter, London Pride, etc. Everyone instantly sees where these breweries are from, what their history is and what they stand for.
Apparently Marstons are from Wolverhampton, but would anyone really know that?

If you go to a Fullers or Adnams pub, you know you’re going to get good beer – both do ale-focused pubs, where you are guaranteed a good range of both cask and keg beers. The quality of both is excellent IMO. Could you say the same thing about Marstons pub chains?

Although both Fullers and Adnams have experimented with craft style beer, they’ve done a really, really good job of them. They also constantly look backwards and maintain a sense of history and tradition – look at Fullers Vintage ale etc.

Marstons have had a go at this with their revisionist series, but really, they’re just not that good. All the branding in the world doesn’t matter if the product is mediocre. The Saison was passable, but the rest were dreadful.

Finally, Adnams and Fullers both have instantly recognisable branding both on bottles and pump clips – I didn’t know until now that the same brewery made Pedigree, Old Empire and Oyster Stout.

Now Marstons are nowhere near as bad as Greene King, but they’ve got along way

“Apparently Marstons are from Wolverhampton, but would anyone really know that?”

A big part of their operation (the biggest part?) is in Burton which, again, they could make more of — all that brewing heritage and history but, the odd weasely mention of Burton unions aside, they don’t do much with it at all.

It was Banks that took over Marstons so their headquarters is in Wolverhampton.

And whilst I’m here’s now Pedigree is bottle conditioned I’ll have to try it again, and maybe Old Empire too now it’s in brown bottles.

Oyster Stout was bottle-conditioned when it was first launched years ago (mid 90s?), iirc, and very good too.

Most of the event at The brewery yesterday was about just that, celebrating their heritage and links with Burton. They are also trying new things and specials via their nano kit.

“Faux craft” branding, and the question has to be, why? Sussex brewer, Harvey’s re-branding, on the other hand (see back cover of “Beer” magazine for examples), manages to be stylish and modern looking, whilst still retaining the heritage of the individual beers. I also bet they paid a lot less for their re-branding than Marstons did.

I’m not too concerned about the new designs. However, the risk I see is that they may lose some existing customers who either don’t recognise the different labels of familiar beers, or assume that the beer has been changed as well.

Apparently so. Presumably they’ve got figures that suggest the bottle isn’t selling well anyway, or have done some sort of market research. There aren’t many breweries in this category whose flagship bitter is bottle-conditioned, though — tends to be the stronger ales and speciality beers. Not sure where they’re at these days but St Austell did bottle-condition Tribute, at least for a while.

The debate surrounding the re design of the Marston’s range labels etc surely misses the point , ie Beer Quality.
If another Brewery were to take the same approach to it’s products , yet keep the same overarching brand design criteria would there be such a debate? , probably not .

Where Marston’s are concerned you can colour me sceptical. I was a Marston’s fan once & positively sought out their pubs, but that was before the W&D takeover. These days, as I wrote on my blog after a disappointing encounter with a Ringwood beer,

this is what Marston’s do … they make bland brown bitter (Pedigree), alternating with bland malty brown bitter (Cumberland), bland dark brown bitter (Hobgoblin) and bland yellowish bitter (Boondoggle). And now they’ve got Wainwright too. Yippee.

That said, I quite like Banks’s mild, and both Jennings Snecklifter & Ringway Fortyniner are OK – they’re certainly a cut above the more widely distributed Cumberland & Boondoggle. I’ll even drink Hobgoblin in preference to (say) Spitfire or Deuchars IPA. But they do seem to have a commitment to turning out bland beer.

This is classic bandwagon jumping. I’m just surprised it doesn’t say ‘crafted’ somewhere prominent on the labels.

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