The Burton Snatch – marketing triumph and brand failure

As a Burton-born boy I now view from a ‘down south’ distance the marketing triumph that is Marston’s Pedigree and the corporate failure to manage the Draught Bass brand.

I grew up in a Burton world where roads were criss-crossed by the spider’s web of brewery railways, pubs seemed to be on every street corner and more than a few blokes had taken advantage of drinking beer at work. I thought every town had a smell of spent yeast and Marmite. And the joy of a summer holiday job with free beer in the canteen. It wasn’t just the workers – I remember having to carry a case of beer up to the Bass board meeting for ‘tasting’.

Time moved on and drinking choices in town became clear – Ind Coope’s Burton Ale, Marston’s Pedigree or Bass. Whether it was the choice of pubs or the taste of the beers, it’s lost in nostalgia but I’d hope I’d been able to recognise that Burton beers are not all the same. Pedigree to me is so sulphurous you might be drinking water from a volcanic lake, Burton Ale was too much for a session but Draught Bass was the business.

As I’ve said before it’s just my taste but if I’d had to predict a beer capable of national success as real ale became mainstream it would have been Bass. A great brand in the UK and abroad, perfect for a session and a superb traditional bitter taste. In Burton it even had a tower named after it – until Coors rode into town.

Where is it now? It’s a stand back in amazement moment when you see it on a bar. Too many times recently I’ve stared wistfully at that Bass triangle on the outside of a pub only to face the inevitable Doom Bar inside. It’s easy to say it’s not the same Bass taste anymore but there’s still a hint of what might have been when it’s gently supped. (Congratulations to the Shoulder at Barton for keeping a very good pint.)

From a business perspective Marston’s has done a superb job on placing Pedigree as one of the key contenders for a real ale national treasure. Its sponsorship of England cricket hits the perfect demographic, the advertising pulls gently on nationalistic heartstrings and then there’s the taste (oh well you can’t have it all). They started with product, some regional brand-strength and a growing market and they’ve achieved wonders.

On the other hand InBev had the national (even worldwide) Bass brand – the perfect session product for the only growth market in town and they’ve failed completely and utterly. On the AB InBev website Bass is categorised as a lowly ‘local champion’ and without a hint of irony they note that “the brand has had an incredible pedigree (my italics) for centuries”. The marketing maestros probably don’t even realise it is brewed by Marston’s these days.

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Since it’s you that’s asking I’ll have another gin dear

My grandad ran a couple of Marston’s pubs, the Fir Tree Inn in Arley (formerly a mining village in North Warwickshire) and the New Talbot in god’s own Burton-upon-Trent. whatpub accurately describes the Fir Tree… a large pub on a pointless roundabout. I’ve thought about my childhood memories of the pub whilst reading the BoakandBailey book BrewBritannia on the rebirth of British beer. Their otherwise excellent tale of the rise of Grotney’s Red Barrel and tasteless lager and the decent beer fightback lacks a vital explanation as to why many punters happily turned to keg. Shock horror, it was better quality and more reliable.

My dear old grandad took the bucket of beer slops at the end of every night and poured them back in the barrel topping it up with a bottle of lemonade to give it a bit of fizz. The slops were free and the lemonade was cheap because, sorry Marston’s, he used to go undercover to the local pop factory to avoid paying the brewery’s prices for soft drinks. The result for my dad and many of his generation was that a drop of real ale never touched their lips after the arrival of keg. Dad struggled to understand why I’d ever want to drink something that was subject to tampering by the landlord. I suspect my grandad was not alone in his dodgy practices but he had to make a penny or two.

Grandad’s other business ideas for money making in the pub were ‘white-labelling’ and target marketing initiatives well ahead of their time. It was customary amongst the regulars to ask Sam if “he’d have one with them” – the offer of a free drink in your own pub. His response “thank you I’ll have my usual” and he’d pour, from the gin bottle behind the counter, a measure of the finest tap water.

When I visited the Fir Tree as a child I wasn’t allowed to go the other side of the bar and much to my annoyance I couldn’t have a lollipop from the jar behind the bar – they weren’t for me. What I was allowed to do was to stand on a tin box of Smith’s crisps and engage the old ladies in the snug – pubs in those days were of course omni-channel venues. My script from grandad went along the lines of… smile, say hello Mrs Jones and then ask her if she’d like another gin. Of course the cherubic marketing message triumphed and she responded with “since it’s you that’s asking I will – tell your grandad”. So it was my fault that gin sales rocketed amongst the old ladies of Arley – guilty as charged mi’lord.

Back to the annoying jar of lollipops. Many years later it was explained to me that the sweets were for little Eric. My grandad was never prosecuted for serving after hours but always had lock-ins, except on those nights when the local bobby turned up ‘unexpectedly’. Little Eric was the local copper’s son and he could come to the ‘offie’ window and get a free lollipop whenever he desired. That’s called community policing of the ‘old-school’.

Grandad was educated at the university of life – I think he awarded himself a MBA with merit.

End of an era…beginning of a journey

I am bringing to an end full-time working on 30th September after 27 years with CACI Location Planning. My mum probably has the best take on my working life – so it’s your fault that all High Streets look the same.  That labels me as a ‘real ale socialist’ I suppose. Anyway, every new journey should start from a port loaded with victuals so many thanks to Jeff at the mighty Finborough Arms in West London for hosting my leaving do.

In many ways the Finborough reflects recent changes in beer and pubs but it also harks back to an earlier era. The most important element for me (sorry CAMRA) is the welcome. I’d rather drink a Guinness in a friendly pub with an interesting landlord than a pint of the finest ale where the landlord wishes you dead for daring to cross the threshold. The Finborough scores on many counts – the beers whether keg or hand-pulled taste interesting and it feels good to walk through the door. As the great Richard Boston said don’t forget you’re being invited into a private house when you enter a pub.

On the beer front I’ve come to accept that some people like beers flavoured with the spawn of the devil otherwise known as Citra hops, but as my drinking buddy Clive reflects, each unto their own. For me there is nothing better than a pint of Harvey’s Best but I can agree that if I was Ice Cold in Alex perhaps a cold Citra-fuelled beer would be fine & dandy. I guess that for someone brought up in Burton and of the Draught Bass tendency my tastes were formed at an early age. An IPA, mild or a porter on a cold night is worth a try but I am a man of traditional bitter tastes (sorry craft beer hipsters).

I’m looking forward to my evening at the Finborough and in future posts I’ll give you my thoughts why tasteless lager caught on, why Pedigree is just wrong, and how I sold gin to old ladies whilst standing on a metal box full of crisps with a twist of salt.