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Stella Artois is one of the original flagship beer brands in the portfolio of the global giant now known as AB InBev. Although it was overtaken as the company's biggest beer by volumes in 2005, it was generally regarded as InBev's most important product prior to the acquisition of Budweiser and was the vanguard for expansion into multiple new international markets. Nevertheless, the UK remains its most important market by far, although sales have come under pressure in recent years. Some of these problems were resolved with variant products, not least a Stella "cidre", which proved enormously popular for several years. Stella's "reassuringly expensive" brand identity was indelibly established in the 1990s by a long-running and multiple award-winning campaign by Lowe London. However, Lowe resigned the account in 2008 after part of the business was redirected to rival Mother.
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Stella Artois is now one of three key global brands in AB InBev's portfolio (alongside Budweiser and Corona), and among the top 20 beers worldwide by total volumes. According to AB InBev, global revenues rose almost 13% in 2017, led by increases in the US, Argentina and Brazil. It also took back rights to the brand Australia and launched for the first time in South Africa among other new markets. It is available in 90 countries. In 2014, the group declared net revenues for Stella of $1.5bn; the figure for 2017 was approximately $1.7bn. WPP's Brandz study valued the Stella Artois brand at $9.95bn for 2017, making it the 4th most valuable beer globally after Budweiser, Bud Light and rival Heineken.
Stella is positioned internationally as a premium brew, and indeed even as a craft beer in the US market. Since 2014, AB InBev has increasingly positioned it as the most "sophisticated" beer in its portfolio, and a brew for connoisseurs, promoting it with a number of high-end gastronomic events. However, in its original core markets of Belgium and France, it is traditionally perceived as a mass-market brand. (In Belgium, it has steadily slipped in recent years from the local top-seller to 3rd place, behind stablemate Jupiler and Heineken-owned rival Maes).
The upscale niche was first established in the UK at the end of the 1970s by Stella's UK distributor of that time, Whitbread, with a marketing campaign which included sponsorship of the annual tennis tournament at London's Queen's Club. The "reassuringly expensive" ad campaign was launched by agency Lowe London in the 1980s. Stella's upscale brand values have also been supported in the UK and other markets by a series of promotions linking the beer with arthouse cinema (under the Stella Screen banner) and fine dining. In the US and Canada, a similar concept was used but with a different slogan of "Perfection has its price". Following the launch of a memorable French-themed TV campaign in 1990, Stella's sales rose dramatically, cementing its position as the UK's best-selling premium lager, with a broad appeal to all socio-demographic segments.
As a result of the steady global expansion of InBev, Stella Artois has been introduced into numerous other markets, with further countries added each year. In 2005, following the merger of Interbrew and AmBev, the brand moved into Latin America for the first time, and into Australia under license to local brewer Lion. A key development was the negotiation of a distribution partnership with Anheuser-Busch, who took charge of the brand (and other InBev brews) in the US in 2006.
Despite strong if not spectacular performance in several new markets, Stella's performance in its core UK market suddenly hit a brick wall in 2005. InBev claimed volume increases of as much as 60% in the US and 65% in Central & Eastern Europe, albeit from a low base. However these sales were offset by a sharp decline in the UK (down around 10% on the previous year), resulting from fierce local competition and also an element of over-familiarity. InBev was forced to acknowledge that year that Stella had lost its dominant position in the minds of British lager drinkers and the company sought to re-connect consumers with the brand through the roll-out of other premium heritage brews under the Brasseries Artois umbrella. The first of these was Artois Bock, a darker and stronger German-style bock lager. Its alcohol content by volume is around 6%, compared to 5.2% for Stella. It was followed by lighter Peeterman Artois, a lower strength (4% alcohol by volume) brew. In the first half of 2008, Artois Bock was discontinued and replaced by lower strength Eiken Artois.
In reflection of this enlarged portfolio, the former Stella Artois Tennis Tournament was renamed in 2007 as the Artois Tennis Championships. Later, however, the two partners agreed to end that relationship following the 2008 tournament. Instead, the beer moved in a different direction with the launch of the Stella Artois: Star Over London airship which offered commercial flights over London during summer 2008. However, none of these spin-off beers had achieved the same level of popularity as their elder sister, and in early 2008, Stella Artois was dropped for distribution in UK pubs owned by brewery group Young's because, they said, it "wasn't premium enough". Adding to its image problems, Stella's comparatively high (5%) alcohol content and popularity as a take-home brew had for several years led to an association with drunken public behaviour and domestic disturbances, earning the unfortunate nickname "wife beater". It became clear that a different approach was needed.
In summer 2008, InBev introduced another lower-strength variant, Stella Artois 4%, and selected a new agency - Mother - to handle its advertising. Offended at being overlooked for the campaign, long-established Stella agency Lowe London resigned the rest of the business, and Mother was given responsibility for the whole Stella account. Stella Artois 4% was well received in the UK, and the brand has given risen to other spin-offs in international markets such as Stella Artois Legere, launched in Canada. Eiken and Peeterman were discontinued in the UK at the end of 2008 and the Brasseries Artois umbrella abandoned.
Despite its growing international profile, the UK remains Stella's biggest individual market by far, accounting for around half of total sales. It is the country's biggest-selling take-home beer, although sales have been under pressure since 2012 because of cuts in promotional spending and increases in multi-pack discounting, as well as some degree of cannibalisation by variants. In the UK, these were limited for several years to the lower-strength Stella Artois 4% and Stella Artois Black, an upmarket brew sold only in selected pubs and bars. However in Spring 2011, the group launched a Stella Artois cider - or rather "Cidre". Initial demand for the new variant was very strong, so much so that the company was said to be "running out of apples" with which to make it just 10 weeks after launch. By 2015, though, and a rash of launches from rivals, the "cidre" variant had run out of steam. However, it remains the UK's top-selling alcohol brand, at least in the off-trade market. The regular Stella beer brand had retail sales of £495m in the year to Sept 2017, according to Nielsen figures quoted by The Grocer. That was almost a third more than the next biggest beer (sister brand Budweiser at £380m) and more even than top-selling spirit Smirnoff. However, sales of Stella's variants have crashed. Cidre has falled from a high of over £60m in 2015 to around £25m, while Stella 4% contributed only around another £7m.
The brand's relationship with Mother has also proved fruitful, spawning a series of highly regarded ads. Though these have yet to match the ambitions of some of Lowe's earlier work, they have proved consistently entertaining and innovative. As a result, Stella Artois earned Campaign's award for Advertiser of the Year in 2011.
In a major change of sponsorship strategy, the brand signed up to become the official beer of golf's UK Open Championship in 2014, replacing SABMiller's Pilsner Urquell. The five-year deal gives Stella Artois beer and cidre exclusive pouring rights at the tournament. It also returned to tennis with a new deal with the Wimbledon tournament. In 2015, it became the official beer of the Ascot Racecourse for three years.
In quite a different sort of sponsorship, Stella Artois has since 2015 given its support to the charitable organisation Water.org, which aims to bring clean drinking water to third world countries. It now donates money to the campaign from sales of branded packs and chalice glass purchased by customers. The marketing campaign "Buy a lady a drink" is fronted by actor Matt Damon, a co-founder of Water.org's predecessor charity H20 Africa.
Stella Artois' roots dates back to the early 18th century, when Sebastiaan Artois acquired and renamed the Den Hoorn brewery in Leuven, Belgium. (That brewery was itself first established as far back as 1366, a date still celebrated on the label of each bottle of Artois). Brasseries Artois became one of continental Europe's most prosperous breweries over the following two centuries, although its most successful product was not created until 1926, when Stella Artois was first concocted as a special beer to celebrate Christmas (and was named after the Christmas Star, "Stella" being Latin for star). Stella Artois took its first steps outside the French and Belgian market in 1971, when the company agreed a licensing deal with Whitbread in the UK. Initially the beer was only served on draught in Whitbread's own pubs, but as a result of its popularity was expanded into what is called the "off-trade" in 1976, packaged for take-home sales. However its cheap price and high alcohol content began to earn it a bad reputation, as well as the derogatory nickname of "wife beater".
Rather than maintain Stella Artois as the mass-market brand it was in its domestic market, Whitbread decided to reposition the beer as a premium brew alongside Heineken (for which they also held the local license) and competitor Carlsberg. advertising was managed by Whitbread's existing London agency, CDP, under the supervision of account director Frank Lowe. In 1979, it was Lowe who arranged for Stella Artois to take over sponsorship of the Queen's Club tennis tournament, which was rebranded as the Stella Artois Tournament. When Lowe and several other partners jumped ship from CDP to set up Lowe Howard-Spink in 1981, Stella was among the several brands which followed him. During the 1980s, Lowe's advertising for Stella emphasized the beer's high quality ingredients, describing the beer as "reassuringly expensive". This campaign worked wonders for Stella's positioning, and during the course of the decade, its sales increased at twice the rate of other premium beers, earning it the position as the country's best-selling premium draught lager.
During the 1990s, much of Stella's advertising had been in press or cinemas, but in 1990 the decision was taken to launch a TV campaign to strengthen Stella against an influx of other premium European beers. Having recently seen the film Jean de Florette, Lowe London's creative director Charles Inge (now a partner at CHI) conceived an ad inspired by that movie's rural Provencal setting, and suggested the highly risky approach of filming the ad entirely in French. Developing upon the idea of "reassuringly expensive", the ad first defined the idea that Stella is so good that people are prepared to surrender items of even greater value in exchange for a glass. In the first ad, Jacques, accompanied by the signature theme tune directly borrowed from Jean de Florette, a travelling flower vendor hasn't enough money to pay a bartender for his lunch. He offers a single bunch of carnations for a sandwich, and then his whole cartload for one tankard of Stella. According to company legend, the ad was initially tested with audiences by research company Millward Brown, but the results were so disastrous that they recommended Whitbread to dump the campaign. But Frank Lowe and Whitbread managing director Miles Templeman took the decision to take a chance on the campaign and it proved a surprise hit with consumers.
A series of other equally or even more memorable ads followed, including Red Shoes (1997), Last Orders (1998), War Hero (2000), Doctor (2002) and Devil's Island (2003). All of these adopted the same concept, but with a different punchline, and often with coupled with dark underlying humour. Running times spiralled, from 30 seconds to a full two minutes, and so too did budgets. The World War I epic Pilot, from 2004, called for aerial dogfights, necessitating a lavish budget reported to have hit £800,000. Lowe's final outing for Stella Artois was the lyrical but wryly comical Priests, from 2005. In the mean time, the ads' filmic quality inspired an association with cinema in general and the launch of the Stella Screen film festival sponsorship campaign. In the process, Stella was established as the UK's best-selling premium lager, with volumes jumping from around 600,000 barrels a year in 1990 to around 3.6m barrels by 2003. As a reward, Lowe was given stewardship of the brand's rollout in other international markets from 2003. However the complexity and subtlety of the UK marketing was not always suitable for other countries, and in general non-English language ads have focused on the idea of the pouring ritual necessary to ensure a perfect glass of beer.
Last full revision 2nd April 2018
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