Cream-headed smoothie conquers south

FOUR years ago, anyone spouting about a 'straw-coloured' bitter with the 'creamiest of heads', describing a bitter that left a lacy trail behind in the glass and a rich, fruity, chocolate after-taste, would have had to come from Manchester. Nobody else had heard of Boddingtons bitter.

Today, announces Boddingtons Brewery triumphantly, its bitter is recognised nationally as the ultimate 'urban', 'contemporary' drink. In the cask-beer pecking order, it is number three behind Tetley's and John Smith's. Production has risen from 200,000 barrels to 500,000 annually. In 1989, it was not in the top ten.

The secret of its success, says Patrick Langan, the brewery's marketing manager, has been the advertising. The two television commercials known as the 'face-cream' and 'ice-cream' ads, have changed the face of beer advertising.

No longer are beer ads confined to 'love-me, love-my-beer' shoots filmed in pubs. Bitter, once an exclusively male drink for an exclusively cloth-capped drinker, is now being presented as the drink for the modern man, a man under 25 - preferably - who respects his woman, has a flighty lifestyle with lots of unexpected twists and turns and has a sense of humour.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the advertising agency, chose to present a Mancunian couple as their prototype of the modern twentysomething couple. Together, the glamorous couple set up a farce parodying well-known cosmetic and ice-cream advertisements.

At the core of the farce is a theme: cream - ice-cream, face-cream, smooth, rich cream - as in 'the best'.

The locations are unexpected: a bedroom scene and a canal in Manchester. Unusually for beer ads, the heroine is allowed to take centre stage. She defies the usual format - where women are little more than stage-props - and holds her own as a confident, brash and funny partner. The viewers' expectations are confounded when the slick, rich front put up by the couple, slips at the sight of a pint of bitter.

'By 'eck, it's gorgeous,' says the woman in the ice-cream advert - in a broad Mancunian accent. With the back of her hand she wipes away a creamy moustache, smearing her immaculate make-up.

'Our advertising campaign has established a personality for the bitter,' Mr Langan said. 'The humour is appreciated nationally. People identify with the couple. They buy the bitter.'

Competitors argue otherwise: the pounds 6m advertising campaign has helped improve sales, but more crucial to Boddingtons' success is the in-built nitrogen-flush in its cans which has allowed the bitter to be transported as a 'draught' nationally.

What is more, says Robert MacNevin, marketing director for Guinness, the flush device was not Boddingtons' idea: Guinness had draught stout on off-licence and supermarket shelves as far back as 1988.

From being a relatively unknown brand, Boddingtons has borrowed the Guinness idea so successfully that it is now the company's main competitor.

Just four years ago, Boddingtons Brewery, as only the local people knew, was a sleepy, red-brick Manchester institution. Brewing techniques had hardly changed. Its bitter was a truly traditional cask-conditioned ale with '200 years' brewing experience in every pint'. It was popular, but only within the Manchester area. Just 5 per cent of sales were outside the North-west territory.

Then in 1989 the independent brewery was taken over by Whitbreads. 'National muscle' was needed to improve distribution, explained the managers. But Mancunians were riled. 'Boddies', as they call it, was their birthright. It was not to be shared.

In 1991 a press campaign was launched. It focused on the 'take-home draught' and the 'cream' factor. 'Boddingtons - the cream of Manchester' ran the strapline. That was the only reference to the bitter's home town. But last year the television campaign was launched by Bartle Bogle Hegarty with a brief to embrace Manchester the city as well as the Boddingtons the bitter.

The first attempt to personify the modern, Mancunian generation was screened with clenched stomachs. 'We were not sure how well Mancunians would receive the joke about the broad Manchester accent,' Mr Langan said.

'They received it well. They were proud to have their city presented to the rest of the country in a stylish, witty way and they are proud of their accent.

'We have tried to nurture this pride using poster boards. All over town we have Boddingtons adverts. It makes the people feel they are part of a familiar territory.'

They appear to have succeeded. The bitter campaign has a cult following. Not only that: more than 50 per cent of total sales are now outside the North-west. By 'eck]

(Photograph omitted)