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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

        1. 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: http://www.marstons.co.uk/beers/ Have you ever seen so many mediocre beers all on one page? No amount of clever mar­ket­ing can make up for that.

          1. 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.

      3. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

          2. 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.

        2. 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.

    2. 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

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

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

          2. Was real­ly pleased to see Old Empire in brown bot­tles at last. Might have to give it a go again – I remem­ber enjoy­ing it. Dou­bly so if it’s bot­tle con­di­tioned too.

        2. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Are we say­ing that in future *all* bot­tle Pedi­gree is going to be bot­tle-con­di­tioned? If so, that will wipe out most of its sales at a stroke.

    1. 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.

  9. 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 .

  10. 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.

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

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