Bell's toasts its new age: Marketing: the leading scotch gambles on quality

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The Independent Online
FOR ONCE an advertising slogan has some truth in it. 'We decided to give you an even better whisky. Eight years ago'. So run the ads with which Bell's is trying to woo the pre-Christmas buyer. The slogan is only partly true: although all the whiskies in the 'new' Bell's are at least eight years old, the final decision to change the blend was made only three years ago.

In any other business, the product upgrade and the new campaign would pass unremarked. But it represents something of a revolution in the world of whisky - the previous Bell's slogan, 'Afore ye go' was decidedly antediluvian.

'Frankly, scotch has not been marketed recently. We must be prouder of blends than we have been,' says Andy Neal, the marketing manager for all the brands - including Bell's - sold by United Distillers, the Guinness spirits subsidiary, in this country.

He acknowledges that the change represents a gamble: 'We have 20 per cent of the market. If the category goes down, we go down with it . . . Before we relaunched, no one was saying very much and it was easy for customers to drift into buying own-label scotches.'

Many of these are sold at little over the lower legal limit of three years old - the 'old' Bell's was between five and six years old - and none of its competitors are any older. This reflects the costs of financing stocks for an additional two or three years.

Bell's is not trying to get into the market for 'premium' blended scotches, such as Chivas Regal or Johnnie Walker Black Label, or single-malt whiskies, some of which are even younger. But Mr Neal says his team managed to convince the board of United Distillers 'to upgrade the quality and become the quality benchmark in the standard market'.

It was not a simple exercise to reformulate a blend selling 2 million cases in the home market alone. It involved 30 malt whiskies and several of the more neutral grain variety. But Ian Grieve, the Bell's blender, says: 'Whisky's a brotherly business, and we swap whiskies with most of our rivals.'

The difference in the blend - and above all in its age - shows up in the taste. Where the 'old' Bell's was tough, sharp-edged, the new version is much smoother and more mature, while retaining the richness that was the hallmark of the original.

Curiously, this is the first attempt to repackage and reposition a leading brand of blended scotch for a very long time. For a variety of reasons, this, the biggest-selling spirit in the world, had largely neglected its domestic market: the real battles were fought overseas.

Bell's always was an odd man out. It was built up by Raymond Miquel, a ferocious executive who bulldozed the brand into the No 1 spot in remarkably few years.

He was helped by the stupidity of the old Distillers Company (DCL), which removed Johnnie Walker from the domestic market to protect sales in the rest of Europe, and sold all its other brands, from Haig to Vat 69, at any price, neglecting any consideration of brand positioning.

Then came a series of traumas: Bell's was the first scotch brand to be taken over by Ernest Saunders during his eventful reign at Guinness. He then swallowed DCL with its plethora of brands. His successor, Anthony Tennant, spent several years clearing up the brand muddle and sorting out overseas distribution.

This left a gap in the domestic market, which was filled by Famous Grouse, one of the few big brands not in the Guinness stable and one that concentrated on the off-trade (drinks sold in supermarkets rather than pubs) and increased its market share from a mere 8 per cent in 1983 to nearly 23 per cent last year. In the same period, Bell's went from 22 per cent to more than 25 per cent.

The big loser was Allied Breweries' Teacher's, the No 3 brand, which fell from 15 per cent to 7 per cent. All this took place in a market that drifted down in the 1980s and fell off a cliff in 1988, as sales shrank from 13.5 million cases that year to 10.5 million in 1992.

The fall was accompanied by savage price-cutting - even Bell's slashed its price by 50p two years ago, although Mr Neal claims that the drop was not unusual, and compared favourably with the reductions made by other brands.

The earlier growth of Bell's was almost entirely due to hard selling. Mr Miquel was not what you might call a sophisticated manager, scorning market research and the off-trade. But the increasing fear instilled in the average pub-goer by drink- driving laws has led to a swing towards the off-trade, which now accounts for three-quarters of the total. Hence a new concentration on 'persuading customers directly' and an increase in the number of account managers from two to 30.

Mr Neal is aiming at younger drinkers - not youngsters 'but the third-phase drinkers, who realise there's more to life than beer and girls'.

Mr Neal explains: 'We must catch them in the transition from young, free and single - that's when whisky can start.

'We're working outwards from brand loyalists and whisky loyalists to and beyond spirits loyalists. We'll be disappointed if in five years we can't expand the market.'

(Photograph omitted)