Every now and then you look at the beer industry and finally think that you’ve seen it all; the innovation well has run dry and we have collectively leapt forward so many times that our toes are hanging off the edge of the ideas cliff. But then the latest Eureka moment occurs within range of a lager flipchart and another level is reached. Just such a moment was revealed yesterday from the Molson Coors dream factory, on behalf of their brand Cobra.
A new glass was announced; designed to capture the swirling golden stream in a grooved channel to create a whirlpool effect which ‘more effectively releases flavours and aromas and results in a perfect head’. Yes, the PR company have basically hired a series of fluid dynamics specialists from leading Universities to replicate the effect of a bored bartender swirling a glass while they wish they were somewhere else. But it’s not just about the taste and bouquet of the Cobra – this nifty idea also riffs on something lager producers can’t leave alone.
This grand ‘industry-defining’ announcement related to the one true, Achilles Heel of big beer marketing; Visual Drama. Much like the other kind of VD, this phrase is a totem clung to by those who high-five in meeting rooms every six months prior to being passed on to someone else. Visual Drama is the idea that the product itself doesn’t require improving, but the mechanism for getting it to their customers can be jazzed up to the hilt. And lager companies fall for this ‘theatre of the serve’ nonsense all the time. PR agencies know it is cheque-writing catnip.
The results are played out across counter tops around the world, as if they think we are merely ranks of simpletons with gnat-like attention spans and an in-built desire for something shiny to dull the pain of twenty seconds spent waiting for a lager to be poured. It’s one step away from spinning pump clips or airhorns to honk while waiting for beer to arrive. Also – and far, far more importantly – it attracts us in the first place like so many boozy moths to a particular beer from one billion-dollar corporation over any of the half-dozen others on offer.
So maybe the question is why is it that lager producers are fixated on the act of delivery?
Well, the short answer is because it’s the quickest fix on the depth chart. If Molson Coors want to help the head of Cobra last a little longer, maybe they could alter the grain bill and add a little more wheat than they already do. That takes money, although you can’t imagine fluid dynamicists come cheap (I actually studied that in the Humber Estuary for a while, and every time we plotted a fake oil spill our lecturer named it after the container ship that crashed into and sank his clearly-marked monitoring buoy in broad daylight).
Anyway, this obsession with increasing the impact at point of sale is something I often find myself thinking about as I attempt to pass money to a bartender – or worse, lift a beer back – through a gleamingly be-frosted phalanx of glittering keg towers. It’s like being in a Tuscan hill town. The cricket-bat sized Estrella Damm font is the biggest I’ve seen recently, but all are there to announce that their brand has very much arrived. Fair enough – it does give you an exact idea of what a bar is serving from across the street (or Google Street View, which is one and the same thing these days).
But do we really want visual drama? Prolong the best beer serve and what do you get? More clipped conversation about Gogglebox, or the weather. Maybe it’s a British thing. When I think of the theatre of the serve and visual drama I tend to think of the sense of impending dread when your pint splutters and dies three quarters of the way up the glass and you have to make a second choice on the fly (or the joy when you are cheerfully given the impromptu ‘cask ale schooner’ for the price of a half).
To me, the perfect serve is one conducted quickly, efficiently and in a friendly manner. Adding an unnecessary invention to this time-honoured ritual reduces beer to something as pointless as latte art. Even lager brands that we are supposed to root for because they are genuinely authentic have embraced this desire for flashy gimmics – I don’t doubt for one moment that Pilsner Urquell tastes better with a traditional head poured deftly with a flick of the Bohemian wrist – but I also can’t imagine that people who pour pilsner for the central European drinkers have been doing it that way for hundreds of years without someone from marketing barking at them.
And that’s not to say that big beer manufacturers don’t come up with ideas that are industry-defining. We are all trained to despise AB-InBev from birth, but their Budweiser ‘Born On’ dates were a fantastic idea, and one that I have heard craft brewers state they wish they had thought of first (and ultimately some of them then adopted). It’s just that this Molson Coors glass is so awful it is April-Fool’s bad.
The fact that it is ‘made of science’, whatever that means (presumably ‘lifestyle-ready’ and ‘globally authentic’ had already been crossed off) – and that the gif seems to feature a bafflingly pointless DNA helix in the background are bad enough. “Hey guys, what else spirals? A helter skelter? No – it has to be MADE OF SCIENCE!!!”. But also, the tap that the beer flows from is a ‘Custom Liquid Emancipation Font’, and the glass it fills up has that grooved channel which makes it all swirl prettily but would be much harder to clean, you would have thought.
This is, at the end of the day, just marketing and – bacteria-related sickness outbreaks aside – harmless stuff. But if you want people to truly connect with you, your company and your product, then speak about any of those things. Don’t suck on the end of a pencil and wonder what people’s thought processes are when they stand at the bar and stare into space. Waiting for your beer to arrive is one of the best feelings of anticipation you can have (especially on a Friday after work). Lager companies and their marketeers need to realise that not every moment is an opportunity that needs to be filled.