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Killian’s, Irish red ale and French beer drinkers, 1978

During 1978, Guinness got twitchy: a new beer was muscling in on their turf in France. Did George Killian’s Irish Red present a threat, or an opportunity?

From its London base at Park Royal, Guinness commissioned Market Behaviour Limited to go to France and investigate:

RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

1. To study the premium beer market sector in France. To explore beer drinkers’ attitudes towards the sector and the various brands of beer within that sector. (The research concentrated on the bottled beers within the sector.)

2. To explore attitudes towards Killian’s, and to find out which elements of the marketing mix are leading to its current success.

3. To undertake exploratory research into the idea of a new bottled beer to compete with Killian’s, positioned somewhere between the Spéciale and Luxe categories. To explore reactions to the new beer both with and without the Guinness connection.

The report they turned in in December 1978 is interesting not only because it provides more information on the creation of a new beer style but also because it hints at the craft beer culture to come.

The best place to start with the story of Killian’s is Martyn Cornell’s recent in-depth piece on its genesis at Zythophile. It was that which reminded us of the document we’ll be digging into in this post, which we got hold of via former Guinness head brewer Alan Coxon’s papers.

In summary, though, it was launched in 1974 by the French brewery Pelforth, based on a strong ale recipe bought from the Irish firm of Lett & Co., and presented to the French market as a traditional Irish ‘style’. It was a huge success which made other breweries keen to produce their own takes on Irish red ale. That included Guinness.

Commodity blonde vs. quality rousse

Guinness’s market research team focused on drinkers of what we would probably call premium beer – why, and when, did they consider it worth upgrading?

The majority of people seem to split their beer drinking into two main categories: firstly, occasions when the taste and quality of the beer are thought to be important enough for the drinker to exercise his choice in terms of the type of beer, (blonde, brune, rousse, Geuze) and the brand; and secondly occasions where the taste and quality of the beer are far less important and the drinker tends. to choose a cheaper brand of ‘blonde’ beer, almost as a ‘commodity’ product.

French beer drinkers appear to take more care in choosing their beer when they want to relax and when their objective is the enjoyment of the beer. On these occasions they tend to choose a slightly more expensive beer which they feel has a more identifiable taste than an ‘ordinary beer’. This would, for instance, be the occasion when the majority of drinkers of ‘rousse’ and ‘brune’ beers would switch from drinking an ordinary French ‘blonde’ to their favourite type of beer, and when confirmed ‘blonde’ drinkers would switch from an ordinary French ‘blonde’ to either a foreign ‘blonde’ beer or a better quality French ‘blonde’ beer.

However, most of the beer drinkers to whom we spoke tended to drink an ordinary French ‘blonde’ beer most of the time. The ‘normal’ beer to drink in the cafe/ brasserie/bistro is a ‘demi’ of the establishment’s draught ‘blonde’ beer, which is usually an ordinary French ‘blonde’. The important feature of this type of drinking is that, most of the time, the drinker is not aware of which brand of ‘demi’ he is drinking.

A few things strike us as interesting there:

  1. The perceived connection between the colour of a beer and its depth of flavour. We all know that pale beers can be flavourful, and that dark beers can be bland, but there is still a popular perception that darkness equates to intensity.
  1. The idea that people could identify as drinkers of quality beer some of the time while also enjoying necking “Whatever normal lager you have, mate,” on other occasions.
  1. That brand becomes more important with ‘savouring’ beers.

The research confirmed that, almost overnight, French drinkers had accepted the existence of a new style, even though only one example of that style existed:

The research seems to indicate that George Killian’s has been successfully introduced into the French beer market.

The majority of people accept [Bières Rousses] as a legitimate category and not just a description of George Killian’s beer… George Killian’s seems to have attracted beer drinkers because it aroused their curiosity through its unique positioning as a ‘rousse’ beer and because of its taste. Killian’s originally drew its drinkers from ‘blonde’ drinkers as well as ‘brune’ drinkers, but we feel that its major appeal now lies with ‘blonde’ drinkers who are seeking something more than a ‘blonde’ beer but who do not want the heaviness or the bitterness of a real ‘brune’ beer. We feel that a ‘rousse’ beer will not have great appeal to the majority of ‘brune’ drinkers as it lacks the bitterness and heaviness which are characteristics which these people look for in a beer.

Reading that, we can’t help but think of the success of Camden Hells and similar ‘mainstream upgrade’ beers. If the majority of drinkers like standard lager, giving them something a bit more characterful, but not too scary, is a good way to win market share.

The researchers also reached the conclusion that beer was primarily drunk in France as an accompaniment to a night out with “the lads” (their phrase). On almost every other occasion, wine, spirits, coffee or other drinks were preferred. Beer was also seen as almost exclusively a drink for men; when asked why women might drink beer, one respondent said:

Par snobisme essentiellement. Vous ne pensez pas qu’elles le font pour fair plaisir a l’homme? (To be fashionable, essentially. Don’t you think that they do it to please the man?”)

Another interesting finding was that Killian’s was popular with drinkers in France despite being French, and despite being a Pelforth product. An imported product, with Guinness’s name attached, would surely be able to steal some of Killian’s thunder.

The result of all this activity was, we think, the launch of a stronger version of Smithwick’s under the name Kilkenny – hey, that sounds a bit like Killian! – on to the French market in the 1980s.

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