Here we’re going to tell the tale of Stella Artois, a company who’ve ridden the branding rollercoaster more than once. And let’s face it, there are few reputational dips harder to overcome than becoming synonymous with football hooliganism, lager louts and binge drinking (not forgetting THAT nickname).
But they’ve managed to successfully turn public perception of their brand around – not once, but twice.
Here’s how rebranding helped them reconnect with customers – and the lessons we can learn.
The Belgian brewers can trace their roots back to 1336, and Stella Artois itself was first launched in 1926 as a Christmas beer. Whitbread began brewing Stella under contract in the UK towards the end of the 70s, but it wasn’t particularly popular because of its higher price tag.
Enter advertising genius Frank Lowe. Before he took charge of the account in 1981, the branding theme for Stella Artois was strength; with imagery including phonebooks torn in half and taglines like “Stella’s for the fellas who take their lager strong.” The wrong message for the wrong market, it failed to help Stella take a decent market share.
Lowe created the masterful “Reassuringly Expensive” campaign which took the lager’s big negative and flipped it completely on its head. By suggesting that the higher price was a mark of quality, Lowe cleverly positioned Stella as the upmarket choice with taglines like this little gem…
Later, the campaign moved from primarily print to Artois’ beautifully shot and conceived French-cinema style TV adverts. Inspired by Jean de Florette, they became immediately recognisable as Stella Artois, both in style and soundtrack, and scooped many awards during their 11 year run (the last aired in 2002).
In branding terms, they were phenomenally successful, imbuing Artois with continental sophistication and making them perhaps the most immediately identifiable brand in their sector.
Head a little further into the noughties though, and things weren’t quite so rosy.
A decade or so of supermarket discount deals left Stella firmly associated with football hooliganism, binge drinking and the lager lout culture – and facing a far trickier identity issue than 20 years earlier.
It’s been hard to shake that perception. So much so in fact that, after some years of trying and failing to rebrand the original product, the eventual answer lay in abandoning “Stella” to the yobs and reconnecting to their original brand identity of quality and sophistication through a series of new product releases.
These included a lower volume lager marketed under their highly successful “9 step ritual” campaign, a Premium “black label” lager and their “Cidre”, a product launched so successfully with a strong, retro Gallic theme that Artois completely ran out of the apple variety they used to make it.
Why did this approach succeed where others failed? It’s simply because they addressed the disconnect.
The original product, available for so long as a supermarket discount bulk buy, was so far removed from being “reassuringly expensive” that there was no turning back – or not for Artois’ original target market anyway.
Yet the new products were able to reconnect to the strong brand identity created throughout the 80s and 90s – because they were in alignment.
Find the disconnect. A rebranding exercise can easily help you reconnect with your customers – but you need to be aware of any problems first.
Spend time talking to your customers and getting their feedback. Do they feel your brand is a true reflection of your company? If there is a barrier to sales, what is it? Does your branding feel old-fashioned, too corporate or too casual?
If you identify a negative, think how you might be able to turn it on its head.
It’s not really a rebrand, but Reese’s are one of our favourite examples of spinning a problem in your favour.
In 2015, Reese released some particularly misshapen festive chocs which bore an unfortunate resemblance to another kind of log entirely.
It went viral. As criticism poured in on Twitter, Reese’s response was cheeky and genius.
Accusing detractors of tree shaming, they ran a campaign under the hashtags #AllTreesareBeautiful with captions like “we love trees of all shapes and sizes”, “woke up like this #thankyou” and “they look just like their Father”.
The clever use of humour turned the mood around, and Reese’s received widespread acclaim for the way they dealt with the situation.
In fact, this type of approach where you meet a negative head on can be amongst the most successful – because it demonstrates that you listen and respond to your target audience.
(And may we just refer you to the number we chose for this particular observation? We are, we know, hilarious. You’re welcome).
More topically, the way in which Iceland has managed the ban placed on their 2018 Christmas Rang Tan advert is another excellent example of spinning a potential negative around.
Though cynics might observe that it’s highly likely the frozen food giants knew the ad wouldn’t be cleared for broadcast because of the link to Greenpeace, the coverage they have gained has been incredible – and probably far more effective than if they had been given the TV slot. At the time of writing this blog, the advert has had more than 5million views on YouTube.
There’s no doubt that the profile of the plight of the orangutans has been raised exponentially by the campaign and, from a brand perspective, Iceland has managed to successfully position themselves as activists championing a hugely worth cause – something which is sure to resonate well with a large and varied demographic and be unlikely to be forgotten quickly.
Stay aligned with your identity. If it’s a strong enough perception, and you think creatively around the issue, you can reconnect with it even after the darkest of branding hours.
Know when to throw in the towel. If you’re facing an insurmountable crisis with one product, it may be best to throw your efforts into other products through which you can reestablish and maintain the brand identity you want.
After all, the route ultimately chosen by Artois has allowed them to maintain sales of Stella, whilst driving their new products and regaining their image at the same time. That’s a win-win.
We share this tale to show that there is always a way to reconnect your brand with your customers and that by doing so, you can inject new life.
You can even come back from the brink – you just need some preparation and the application of a little clever thought.
We hope this helps give a little inspiration.