Evidence of this came on Friday, when the first advertising in a pounds 10m marketing campaign for Heineken Export broke on national television. The campaign, created by the advertising agency Lowe Howard Spink, adopts the endline: "Heineken Export. The world's favourite import." It is designed to emphasise Heineken Export's international appeal and brand heritage.
In the first of two new commercials, inhabitants of a small Italian village in the 1930s welcome home not their victorious young boxing champion but the bar owner who has returned from his holiday. In the second, Muscovites queue for tickets, not to watch Swan Lake, but to drink at the opera bar.
Heavy investment in television airtime will ensure significant media exposure - a sign Whitbread now plans to turn Heineken Export into a leading brand, says LHS managing director Tim Lindsay. "In the past four or five years, growth in the standard lager market has slowed and stopped," he explains. "Premium brands and even bitter are now more popular, as people discover a taste for stronger beers."
Heineken lager was first brewed in 1863. It has been popular in the UK since the 1970s, when the "Heineken refreshes the parts ..." campaign was created. But what the British drinker knows as Heineken lager is not the same beer Heineken drinkers enjoy elsewhere. UK Heineken lager is a weaker brew, 3.4 per cent alcohol by volume, introduced in the 1950s to cater for the British palate.
The so-called standard lager market for weaker beers enjoyed rapid growth in sales until five years ago. The recession threw into relief what brewers had already begun to fear: that British people travelling abroad more regularly had started to get a taste for stronger, premium lagers. The UK premium lager was born and grew rapidly. Five years on, the standard lager market remains in decline, says Heineken's marketing manager, Richard Evans.
"There is an underlying long-term trend across all age groups, with standard lager taking a smaller share of consumption," he explains. This is why, in 1991, Whitbread launched Heineken Export in the UK: a stronger brew, 5 per cent alcohol by volume. The launch was supported by an ad campaign which featured Stephen Fry as a "smooth-talking bar steward", and the aim was to stress the beer's smooth taste. "Sales of Heineken Export have grown 30 per cent year on year since," Mr Evans says. "But it was not the sort of growth we were looking for."
Research revealed that British drinkers believed Heineken Export was little more than a marketing invention. It lacked credibility, Mr Evans says. So Whitbread decided to invest heavily in building Heineken Export into a leading brand. The first stage was a pounds 3m sponsorship of the Rugby World Cup earlier this year. Next came the new advertising campaign, supported by repackaging to position Heineken Export as the original Heineken beer.
"The object now is to confront people's prejudices," Mr Lindsay says. "Heineken is the world's most ubiquitous beer. This is a great claim to be able to make, and the brand's internationalism was a good starting point for the new campaign."
But what of standard Heineken lager? Whitbread has no plans to let the brand dwindle, Mr Evans insists. "Heineken lager now has a 10 per cent share of the standard lager market, ranked third after Foster's and Carling. The whole point of the new strategy is to get a bigger share of the premium lager market for Heineken Export, but we certainly intend to maintain our 10 per cent share of standard lager, if not build it."
British drinkers' tastes may have changed, but there is still significant demand for weaker beers, he believes. "They will always have a place, not least because it is not socially acceptable for blokes to drink half- pints in British pubs, even if it is stronger beer. They would rather have a pint of something weaker."
The aim is to balance the needs of both brands, he adds. "The next step will be to return our attentions to Heineken standard lager, marketing it in the future through its association with Heineken Export."