The Nausea of Nostalgia – Beer Brands that Just Won’t Let Go
Wednesday 07 March 2018
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Some brands just won’t die – no matter how successful, or unsuccessful, they may have been. The reason behind this is simple: nostalgia sells. You see it in film and television, with franchises from Spiderman to Star Wars almost constantly being rebooted. It’s a regular occurrence in food and drink too – just look at the McDonald’s McRib – just when you thought it was gone forever, back it comes. The effect of its periodic, yet limited, revival is that people clamour for it, which is amazing, considering the McRib is not actually very good and all you actually wanted was a cheeseburger and a box of nuggets.
Nostalgia is an incredibly effective sales tool. Unsurprisingly, then, the beer industry is no stranger to it either. You might not have heard of Hamm’s, a domestic American lager that emerged from the state of Minnesota, with a history dating back to 1865. You might not find it particularly appealing either. It’s a pretty bland beer that scores just 1% on beer rating site RateBeer.com. However the lager, which these days is owned by MillerCoors, is pretty refreshing and very quaffable – put simply, you just wouldn’t say no to a cold can on a hot day.
It turns out that, in fact, few people would turn a can down. In a blind tasting held earlier this year, conducted by journalist Josh Noel for The Chicago Tribune, it was dubbed by a panel of critics as the best American domestic lager from a field of 16 beers, including Budweiser and Coors Light. The critics described it as having “a very clean malt aroma,” and “clean on the finish [and] balanced.” They scored it a whopping 4.5 out of 5 – a mile away from its paltry RateBeer score.
That’s not the end of it though, because plenty of other people seem to be digging it too – and not in a blind tasting scenario. In fact, in 2017 Hamm’s has seen sales growth of just over 100% and it’s not a blip. Plenty of old school, American domestic lagers are seeing a resurgence, just like Pabst Blue Ribbon did a few years ago. Don’t fear – this is not the death knell of craft beer. It’s simply a sign that often, drinkers can find themselves pining for a simpler, more nostalgic time. As I said before: nostalgia sells.
Follow the Bear
I’m just about old enough to remember the original Hofmeister – mostly thanks to its TV commercials in the late 80s and early 90s. They featured a walking, talking bear who went by the name of George. The character sported a shiny yellow jacket and a pork pie hat. He would slurp pints of the 3.2% ABV lager while performing various bar tricks before closing with the slogan “Follow the Bear”. Scottish Courage and latterly Scottish & Newcastle produced Hofmeister from the early 1980s until the mid 2000s, before the latter eventually fell into the hands of Heineken in 2007.
Due to poor sales, the brand eventually fell by the wayside. However, that wouldn’t be the end of Hofmeister (although sadly it would appear that poor George is destined never to return). In 2017, business partners Spencer Chambers and Richard Longhurst purchased the Hofmeister brand from Heineken. They relaunched it to the British beer market in 2016 and in 2017 it won the coveted “best lager” award at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge.
“It seemed incredible to us that a large, well-loved brand such as Hofmeister just disappeared,” Longhurst tells me. “Whenever we spoke to anyone about the brand, people just smiled and said ‘Follow The Bear!’ So we felt that, as there is such a latent love for the brand, it really should be given some proper attention.”
Proof, then, that the hunger for nostalgia in brands is as strong as ever. However, Longhurst and Chambers didn’t bring back the pale lager quite as it originally existed. And let’s be honest, a 3.2% budget lager was never going to win an award at an international drinks competition…
Instead, the brand’s new owners looked to Bavaria, Germany, one of the world’s great lager producing regions, for the production of the revived beer. It’s now brewed by Privatbrauerei Schweiger at its facility just outside of Munich and weighs in at a premium 5.0% ABV. In fact, bar that it’s still a lager, the newly-launched Hofmeister – now a German-style helles – has little in common with the original (though the label is a familiar shade of yellow, and features a vaguely familiar bear).
“The reasoning behind bringing back the Hofmeister brand after 13 years was twofold,” Longhurst continues. “At the height of its success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hofmeister was one of the top 5 selling lager brands in the UK. “We identified a glaring gap in the UK beer market for an authentic, craft brewed Bavarian Helles . There simply wasn’t a beer on sale in the UK that could claim it was Bavarian, which for many is the home of brewing.”
Longhurst is correct of course – there has been a gap in the UK market for authentic Helles style lagers. That explains the success of beers such as Camden Town Brewery’s Hells, which is based on the famous Bavarian-brewed Tergenseer Hell, along with Lukas, an admirable interpretation of the style from Derbyshire’s Thornbridge.
The revived Hofmeister ticks the right boxes too. It’s soft and biscuity, replete with a light snap of noble hops and a dry, mineral finish. It’s a good beer and I’m not questioning its quality. But I am questioning its uniqueness as a product and how it’s placing itself within the beer market. In this instance, nostalgia is being effectively leveraged as a marketing tool for a beer that sits in the premium lager category, the largest and most competitive sector within the UK beer market.
“We wanted to make the brand resonate with both older consumers and younger beer drinkers who have no recollection of the Hofmeister of yesteryear,” Longhurst says. “To do this we have worked very hard in communicating the provenance and quality of our helles lager.”
Selling a Memory
Would Hofmeister have performed as well as it’s doing if it was released under a new brand name, as a completely new product? It’s difficult to say. For starters the competition it won is judged blind by a skilled team of judges, so the quality is obviously there. However, within the last decade we’ve seen a number of incredibly successful new beer brands spring into life – your Cloudwater’s, Magic Rock’s and BrewDog’s of the world. All of these breweries have also brewed a lager, so there is clearly space in the lager market for smaller, more modern breweries that don’t rely on nostalgia to shift units.
“Nostalgia is a really strong selling point, but nostalgia alone can’t successfully resurrect a failed or failing brand, let alone sustain its sales,” Stephanie Shuttleworth, who runs beer consultancy firm MASH, says. “If the product isn’t good enough, sales will soon slump and consumers will forget about it.”
Shuttleworth comments that those who do remember the brand from its 80’s and 90’s heyday will likely view the memory of that product through rose-tinted spectacles. It’s savvy of Hofmeister’s new owners to update the recipe and tweak the brand just enough so that it both looks modern while still having the power to trigger positive memories within the consumer. However, rather than looking for a gap in the market as Longhurst indicated, in reality they’re chasing the growing sales of popular brands like Camden Hells.
“If consumers try [Hofmeister] now and it matches up to those memories, or even supasses them, it’s likely to win back the strong following it once had,” Shuttleworth says. “Camden [Hells] and the Hofmeister Bear are very different beasts. It looks from here though, like Hofmeister is underestimating the likes of Camden Town Brewery.”
Of course, Hofmeister isn’t the only resurrected brand to have a stab at utilising consumer nostalgia. The former Truman’s brewery, established in the 17th century before closing in 1989, makes up many of the former industrial buildings along London’s famous Brick Lane. In fact, the iconic chimney that towers above much of the East London street, is powerful enough to stir emotions in any beer lover, whether they’ve tried the beers before or not.
James Morgan and Michael-George Hemus reestablished the brand in 2010, moving into their current Hackney Wick premises, known as The Eyrie, in 2013. As with Hofmeister, Morgan and Hemus were able to update their recipes to suit the contemporary palate, with the majority of their focus being on the cask ale market.
The brand had a significant headstart, in that Truman’s once owned many Public Houses within London, and its name still graces the fascia of many a London pub. The moved turned out to be a savvy one, as Truman’s return seemed to blend in naturally, by surrounding itself with the resurgent London brewing scene. Beers, such as their Swift pale ale, are proving to be popular in the capital.
“There's no point in resurrecting a brand with the intent of continuing to grow its reputation, only to then destroy it by brewing terrible beer,” Truman’s marketing manager Ben Watts Stanfield says. “For us, the beer is at the heart of everything we do – it's what drew all of us to work in the beer industry in the first place!
Bring Out Your Dead
Another brand that’s had its resurrection of Lazarus moment was Watney’s. In the late 19th century Watney, Combe, Reid & Co. Ltd was producing a massive 1.8 million hectolitres of beer annually. However it’s perhaps better known for being the perpetrator of the dreaded Watney’s Red Barrel. A keg bitter that was so terrible that it played a key role in the formation of the Campaign for Real Ale in the early 70’s.
Nostalgia, though, knows no bounds. In 2016, a company by the name of Brands Reunited pulled Watney’s rotted corpse from its still-warm grave. The tagline “tastes nothing like it used to” was also presented, which is just as well, because evidently no one in their right mind was hoping for a reboot of Red Barrel. The relaunch seemed to have been relatively small scale, the only resemblance to the Watney’s of the past being the name and the use of its once famous stag branding. You’d be hard pressed to find a can of the reissued beer now though, unsurprisingly, it bombed.
Bringing a brand back to life is not a shortcut to business
, quite the opposite,” Csaba Babak, author of Beer Means Business, says. “On the one hand consumers are open to experiments, but on the other they require the guidance of familiarity and some sensation of loyalty.”
Babak spends a great deal of time analysing the business of the beer industry. He admits that nostalgia alone is not enough to support the resurrection of a brand. Why then, do we see so many attempts to reboot them?
“To successfully resurrect a brand you need to reimagine the beer as a slightly different product that’s close enough to the original so that people accept it, whilst ensuring it has a strong enough edge in today’s marketplace,” MASH’s Shuttleworth says. “This may mean the product itself needs a complete rethink, but that rethink must ensure that the required updates don’t alter the customer experience.”
As the current beer market becomes ever more competitive, it’s likely that there will be many other examples of Nostalgia being used to prise open the wallets of consumers. The likes of Hofmeister and Truman’s seem to have worked out a way of melding a good product with a brand that triggers a memory, which helps win a sale. However, only time will tell if they manage to sustain enough loyalty in the long term.
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