WOKING (Reuters) - When Sue Clark named the near-black Fawcett’s Folly imperial stout the winner of SABMiller’s SAB.L 2013 employee brew-off contest last week, it was not just because she likes dark beer.
The head of the brewer’s European business praised its “360-degree marketing,” which appealed to both men and women and is the type of advertising she is betting on to help stem declines in beer demand.
Appealing to more women is not easy for big beer, as Molson Coors (TAP.N) recently learned with the failure of its female-friendly Animee, which it pulled after 15 months. But Clark says more inclusive advertising, a broader range of beer styles and improving conditions at bars will help.
In the United States, beer accounts for 42 percent of alcohol consumed, Clark said, down from a high of 72 percent a decade ago, before it lost ground to wine and spirits. Trends in Britain and Western Europe are similar, she said, in her first extensive interview since becoming managing director last year.
Beer is losing its core drinkers as slowing population growth means fewer 18-35-year-old men. And underemployment, especially in jobs like construction, means men who fit the profile are often tight on cash. Brewers must look more closely at older people and women, whom they had once all but ignored.
“If you look at all of our marketing it’s been the laddish humor, the sports occasions, the male bonding and friendship,” said Clark, at SABmiller’s office in Woking, southwest of London. “I think we could’ve been accused in the past to a certain extent - at best of not really appealing to women, and at worst of alienating them.”
She cringes at a 2006 Italian commercial for SABMiller’s Peroni beer that implied that women can’t parallel park cars, though that is tame compared to an earlier U.S. Miller Lite ad in which two buxom women rip each others’ clothes off and mud-wrestle in their underwear.
In the developed beer markets of Western and Central Europe and the United States, women make up roughly a fifth of beer sales. Still, shouting at them with purely female marketing may not work either.
“We’ve got to try to keep the humor and the sociability, but you can do that in a way that is appealing to both sexes.”
This can be done, she says, by focusing on the beer itself, such as in a new Peroni campaign that highlights its heritage in an Italian, cinematic style. Rival Heineken (HEIN.AS) has done this as well, with a series of fun ads filmed at exotic parties.
SABMiller is the world’s No. 2 brewer with $34.5 billion in annual revenue and $6.4 billion in operating profit. Clark’s business makes up about 17 percent of the revenue and 12 percent of the profit with brands including Grolsch and Pilsner Urquell.
It’s not just marketing that needs changing, but the drinks as well. Women often like lighter, sweeter drinks, and SABMiller - like every other alcohol company - has been launching flavored drinks, which Clark calls “sweet and stickies”.
She said promising introductions include shandies and radlers, which are low-alcohol drinks mixing beer with lemonade, in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Czech Republic, and new drinks in Poland under the Redd’s name which come in flavors like cranberry and grapefruit pineapple.
Rivals are doing similar things, with Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI.BR) selling Bud Light Lime Lime-A-Rita and Straw-Ber-Rita in the United States, and spirits companies selling everything from gummy bear vodka to maple whiskey.
For the three months ended on September 30, SABMiller posted flat revenue in Europe with a 3 percent decline in lager sales by volume. It remained the group’s weakest region, even though it was an improvement from the previous quarter, when revenue fell 4 percent and lager volume fell 7 percent. European lager volume has fallen in three of the past four years.
Overall, the company’s performance accelerated in the latest quarter, fuelled by emerging markets like China and Africa.
Clark is also trying to work more closely with bars and restaurants to appeal to older drinkers, who are more likely to eat when they drink. Food pairings, new packaging and more sophisticated sales tactics are all part of the effort.
“In the past we might have said ‘How many brollies (umbrellas) can we give you and how many tables can we give you?’ and now it’s much more, ‘Actually, you’d probably be better if we gave you a mop and a bucket and you sorted out your toilet,” she said.
Clark has degrees in biology and business administration. She joined SABMiller in 2003 as a director of corporate affairs, overseeing areas such as investor and media relations.
She has two daughters, aged 14 and 15, and stays in shape with the help of a black UP wristband, which tracks sleep and exercise through an iPad app.
Instead of working in London at the SABMiller head office, Clark works in Zug, Switzerland, where the European business is based. But she rarely has time for hiking, a hobby that lured her to live in Scotland for several years.
In some ways, big brewers like SAB are trying to reap the benefits sowed by small, independent craft brewers who helped shatter old stereotypes of beer by introducing a dizzying array of ales, stouts, wheat beers, porters and pilsners meant to be savored rather than chugged.
According to the Campaign for Real Ale, a British independent advocacy group, the craft beer movement has attracted more women to beer. It says 20,000 women joined the group over the last decade, and now account for 22 percent of its 150,000 members.
Clark, who hails from Derbyshire in the heart of northern England’s brewing country, says she’s drunk beer since age 18, though she did stop at one point.
“I guess I got a bit bored, traditional drinking pubs weren’t particularly interesting, the glassware wasn’t particularly the right size,” she said.
Now, her favorite beers are Peroni, Ursus Black from Romania and Castle Milk Stout from South Africa. Beyond the company portfolio, she favors a cup of tea.
She could not say how successful the industry will ultimately be at getting the gender split of beer drinkers to mirror that of the population.
“Will we ever get to 50 percent? Look, that has to be the challenge, doesn’t it.”
Reporting by Martinne Geller in London; Editing by Giles Elgood