Sleeping “Brew-ties” – The Value of Dormant Brands in Brewing

Why Brewers Buy Dormant Brands to Exploit Tradition

Brands have always been important in brewing: famously Bass beer was the first ever registered trademark.  Bass’s red triangle trademark even appears in Manet’s painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”.  Brewing is both highly international – famous beers were already exported back in Manet’s time – but also local.  Beer drinkers appreciate strong brands, but breweries are often grounded in the local economy with customers feeling regional loyalty.

Brands constitute key assets for brewing groups, and it is not surprising they are often bought and sold.  The brewing sector is undergoing a continuous transformation.  Many local breweries are no longer viable and are shut through consolidation which creates global giants like AB InBev and Heineken.  At the same time there has been a boom in craft brewing with many new start-ups.  In the UK, for example, the number of trademark applications in Class 32 more than doubled during the 2010s.  But it can be hard for newcomers to find a good brand and there have been several trademark disputes.  In this article I outline the application to brewing of sleeping beauty brand strategies, an approach which TradeYourMark® is active in.

A Range of “Sleeping Beauty” Strategies

The relaunch of sleeping beauties is a key strategy for brewers with a variety of approaches being used for different reasons. Buying an existing brand can be a way to ensure legal security and priority from a long-standing trademark.  New brewers may sometimes want to leverage customer nostalgia for long established brands.  Existing brewers with excess brands due to consolidation may look to monetise brand assets by disposing of the trademarks.

Not all Relaunches of Dormant Brands look the same.  A wide variety of approaches exist. It can be helpful to consider the two dimensions of legal and perceived continuity.  Relaunches can have both legal continuity and perceived product continuity with the original brand.   However, sometimes the original trademarks have been abandoned.  Thus, from a legal point of view the trademark is new, although there may be varying degrees of perceived continuity.  Or a brand can be relaunched after a period of dormancy, attempting perceived continuity with the past product.

Watneys – Legal but not Perceived Continuity

An interesting case of a relaunch which deliberately avoided perceived continuity was Watneys in the UK.   Watneys dates back to the first half of the 19th Century. It was one of the leading beer brands in the 1960s and 70s, backed by lots of memorable adverts.  The beer also had a reputation for being bland and mass produced: one person reminiscing said “you couldn’t give it away in the Sahara desert”.  Watney’s “Red Barrel” was even mocked in a famous Monty Python sketch.   When the beer brand was relaunched, this has been done by leveraging brand nostalgia, but making clear the product was different.  It was explicitly stated that: “the old recipes are gone and replaced with new delicious brews for today’s modern drinker”.  

Building a narrative to create Perceived Continuity

Opposite cases are breweries like Zoeg in Belgium or Montmorillon in France where long lapsed trademarks have been reregistered.  Relaunches have clearly aimed to capture brand history or brand nostalgia from the original product.  Brand nostalgia is where customers fondly recall the product from their youth.  Brand history is applicable for cases where the original product may be largely forgotten, but an interesting history can be told.  Brand narratives are often important in such cases.  For example, one of the (re)founders of Zoeg talks about getting the recipe from the original brewer.  Vaux in Sunderland was relaunched with the claim that the beer was “an important part of city life” for almost 200 years.

Marketing strategies for sleeping beauties vary.  Delphine Dion, a professor at the ESSEC business school, identified three possible strategies for relaunching sleeping beauty brands(18):

  • the revitalisation of the brand, capitalising on its longevity rather than its history
  • a copy of the original brand, without updating its products or image
  • retro-branding, which takes elements of the historic brand and reinterprets and modernises them

For the latter case, she cites the case of Caffrey’s Irish Ale, which used new brewing technology but ancient Celtic imagery.

How can TradeYourMark® help?

We are helping clients search for historic or legacy trademarks which can be acquired and relaunched. TradeYourMark® can help both buyers and sellers of brands to design and implement strategies.  We help sellers to search for possible acquirers and in deciding the best marketing approach and target price.  We help buyers by understanding their business needs and brand criteria, searching for appropriate brands, contacting the existing owners and helping to negotiate the purchase price. 

We fully expect branding to be central to the strategy of brewers, and more generally in the spirit and food industries. To quote Nick Whitehurst, who is behind the relaunch of Watneys, the “vast majority of drinkers buy brands over beer”.