Stella Artois were using film-style, epic ads that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to make nearly a decade before the celebrated Guinness ads.
Stella Artois was a problem for advertisers. At 5.2% ABV it’s one of the strongest lagers on the market. That meant extra duty to be paid making for a higher retail price.
In the 70s Collett Dickenson Pearce had the Stella account. The Frank Lowe left and took Stella with him as a client for his new agency, Lowe Howard-Spink in 1981.
He turned the disadvantage of the higher price into a positive with the tagline ‘Reassuringly Expensive’, used in print through the 80s. You pay more, so you must be getting a superior product, right?
The line was actually an old one buried in some long copy and re-cycled by Lowe – just as the Carling copy came from an old pitch for milk advertising.
Then we come to the 90s. Or rather to the 1986 French film Jean de Florette, the story of rustic Provencal peasants. One of the main creatives at Lowe saw the film and had the idea of using similar scenes to advertise Stella Artois.
So a Belgian brand that brewed its beer in the UK ended up selling itself as French.
The resulting ads were tiny films in themselves, beautifully shot, stylish and impressive scenes of French peasant life – ideal for selling the premium, reassuringly expensive Stella Artois.
Like the Heineken ads, the first research feedback suggested that the campaign wouldn’t work. They were in French, had no huge gags, and were, for ads, quite long narratives.
But Whitbread, who handled Stella’s distribution in the UK, persevered. And after the first ad in 1992 they ran until around 2007, with the old tagline ‘Reassuringly Expensive’.
In sequence the ads were Jean de Florette, Monet, Good Samaritan, Red Shoes, Last Orders, Returning Hero, The Good Doctor, Devil’s Island, Pilot, Whip Around, and Cyclists.
In each case a scene from French provincial life, with its slow rhythms, illustrates the value of Stella Artois by showing what people were willing to give just for a taste.
Lowe picked up countless D&AD Awards, Cannes Lions and so on from the advertising industry.
And the ads helped to transform sales of Stella. In the first 13 years of the campaign Stella sales were reckoned to be up by 500%. Brand Republic reported in 2004 that Stella in 1990 had sold 600,000 barrels, and had now reached 3.6 million a year.
A Stella executive interviewed in the same piece suggests the reason the ads worked was because they appealed to all types of drinker – both average Joe football fan and middle-class hipsters.
But this has to be nonsense, doesn’t it? What sticks out in the ads is how arty they are, how far removed from the blokey world of FHM they seem. It’s an upmarket, cinematic campaign aimed at upmarket drinkers.
What attracted Stella to those who perhaps didn’t appreciate the fine French cinematic feel of the ads was the strength of the stuff, at 5.2%, and the fact it became available in supermarkets in bulk at discount prices.
And Stella ended up a victim of its own huge sales.
What was advertised as a high-end, smart lager ended up the favourite of binge-drinkers nationwide, prized for its capacity to get you smashed as soon as possible. It became known to the press as ‘Wife-Beater’, associated with binge drinking and yobs on the high street shouting at strangers.
And that meant a major image problem for the beer. By 2007 sales were dipping. The next ads ditched the name Stella and ‘Reassuringly Expensive’ was retired for a re-brand.