When it comes to beer advertising, heritage is one of the common tropes that the viewing public is subjected to (along with the category toppers "regular-guy-gets-improbably-hot-girl" and "fun-party-times"). You know the ads: cascades of fresh barley and hops, a brew master next to giant copper kettles, flowing beer. Sure, the flowing beer part looks tasty but the rest of it disappears into the cacophony of competitive advertising. The reality is, as a selling feature, heritage just isn’t that interesting to a wide swath of people.
But what about when a beer’s heritage is based on a Northern English town whose inhabitants are known for their cutting wit and no-BS outlook on life? That’s the kind of heritage you want to tap into. Which is exactly what Newcastle Brown Ale did when it developed its "No Bollocks" brand positioning. Borrowing the Geordie (as those from Newcastle are called) worldview, in 2012 the brand and agency Droga5 created a refreshing communication strategy that revolved around the very deception, trickery, and nonsense that’s common to beer marketing.
"If you look at the Geordies, they’re very friendly, down-to-earth; they don’t take themselves too seriously, and tell it like it is. We figured that is a really interesting space for us to be in," says Newcastle Brown Ale Brand Director Charles van Es. "We wanted to use that wit and dry sense of humor as our brand voice. We want to be transparent about the fact that we’re marketing to you and the fact that our beer comes from England."
Using their own brand as the punch line, Newcastle’s first campaign under the "No Bollocks" banner set out to send up the sacred cows of heritage advertising. One ad, which featured the torso and obligatory work-weathered hands of a brew master, divulged that the reason they only showed the brew master’s hands was because "she’s not a very attractive woman." Another showed Newcastle’s historic miners enjoying a pint after a long, miserable day of work, which, as the voiceover offers, "is perfect, because nothing sells beer better than old footage of people who had it way worse than you do."
Tom Naughton, Droga5 group strategy director, says that in the agency’s research they commonly heard from consumers that beer ads were ridiculous. "Guys would say, we know why cans that turn blue exist. They exist to sell beer. So why don’t you just cut to the chase? So we said, Let’s pull back the veil on stupid, deceitful, and deceptive tactics, and let people know exactly what we want. We want to entertain you, but we also want your money."
"It also gave us a nice space to separate ourselves from the category, which is completely full of bollocks, like ads that promise you a good time," says executive creative director Ted Royer. "As if a beer can promise you a good time. We thought we’d be the brand to call it out and make fun of it."
It’s a strategy that has helped Newcastle—the ultimate challenger brand—break through the clutter. In the last year the brew has increased its case sales volume by 5% and its Facebook fan base has grown by 684%.
The brand positioning also opened many unusual creative opportunities. "It allowed us to comment on or have a voice in almost anything," says Royer.
While in-bar items such as coasters, tap handles, and neon signs are common to every beer brand on earth, never before have they been used as anything more than a branding opportunity. For Newcastle, Droga5 did much more than slap a logo on these items. The "No Bollocks" positioning allowed them to use these items as revelatory, interactive communication tools.
How so? Tall tap handles were created to say cheeky things, such as "The beer between this one and this one" or "We’re pretty sure taller taps get picked more often." Neon signs bore messaging, such as "A $400 sign to get you to buy a $6 beer."
"We found ways to communicate to people that other people left untouched," says van Es. "It allows us to take a normal situation that people forget to use as an opportunity and have some fun with it. This is beer; it’s supposed to be light and funny—we’re not solving world hunger here."
World hunger might not be on the strategic agenda, but Naughton says the campaign has had a huge impact on the brand’s outlook to potential media. "If you just step back and look at beer and spirits marketing, everything—in-bar TVs, flags, coasters, the T-shirts the bartenders wear—each and every one of those is a chance for us to tell the real story of Newcastle."
In the last year, Facebook has also played a huge role in the brand’s media plan. Newcastle Brown Ale attracted a significant number of new fans and excels at engagement—one Facebook post drew more than 20,000 likes and over a thousand comments and shares; another drew 2,500 comments; and Royer says Facebook has contacted the team in the past to say they’re among the brands "doing it right." Beyond all this, Naughton says, Facebook activities have helped shape future strategy and creative. "We sort of treated Facebook and social as a lab," he says. At SXSW this year, Newcastle introduced the Best Coaster in the World, complete with a laundry-list of social profiles, as a send-up to the race for innovation at the interactive festival. And last year’s Subtexter app allowed people to caption their humble-brag photos of travel, cocktails, brunch, and artistic shots with more genuine sentiments, such as "This is an outtake from the art movie I’m shooting in my head" and "Puppies… I use them to get more "Likes." The app was popular and the bite-size bits of honesty were a hit.
In fact, the one-liner strategy really took off on Facebook, which has helped shape a slightly different creative direction for Newcastle’s 2013 campaign, breaking today. "Last year’s ads had more storytelling. But we learned from social media that the short, punchy ones work best," says van Es.
So rather than tell stories of Newcastle beer’s roots with cheeky transparency, the second installment of "No Bollocks" simply pairs real-life still photography with real funny bits of honesty.
The ads tell how in 1927 Newcastle Brown Ale was handcrafted but "handcrafting was a nightmare," so now it’s handcrafted "with huge, giant machines." Or how great times are guaranteed, "unless you’re having a crap time. Then we can’t guarantee much at all." A particularly pleasing spot shows random, meme-worthy photos such as a piss-take on the people in bars watching the ad with the sound off, "wondering what the hell is going on."
"Beer advertising is a world of sameness. Showing happy and successful people is probably as far from reality as you can get," says van Es. "By using still photography and voice-overs, we’re showing the way people actually look and the way they actually drink beer. We’re not showing fancy roof decks and cheering people looking like they’re having the best moment in their life."
The simplicity of the concept works extremely well creatively, but Royer says it also allowed the brand to create a stronger visual language. "Before we were doing things that didn’t really look like each other and were kind of disparate, but now you can tell they’re a Newcastle ad every time you see it," he says. "We found a way to do it and produce tons of them on our very small budget. We have a library of images so we can be flexible and quickly jump on opportunities."
The opportunities for TV spots will be more plentiful as van Es says that Newcastle will this year be supporting its seasonal blonde, red, and black ales with above-the-line marketing for the first time. Considering previous tap-handle messaging for the Winter IPA boasted "Our least best-selling beer in summer," there’s sure to be more straight-up honest talk.
While blatantly making fun of advertising at its most ridiculous sounds like a fun creative brief, van Es says there’s no-BS behind No Bollocks. "We’re trying to be honest in everything we do. That’s one of the fun things about working with the brand. The voice that we’ve developed—you can express it in everything you do. It’s more than a tagline; it’s a belief in how we communicate."