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AB InBev loses sense of taste

In a fortnightly series, Electric Airwaves' MD analyses how one corporate message has played out through the media.

This is a tale of how brand marketers can become unstuck in the more prosaic world of PR. And of how a PR professional can make it worse.

Jean-Jacques Velkeniers of AB InBev has been chief marketer for Stella Artois in northern Europe for ten years. In this priceless interview with Swedish journalist Jonas Magnusson, Velkeniers has already given the general audience some alienating marketing speak (they are 'conquering the world, market by market, using fantastic brands like Stella Artois').

He then stumbles when Magnusson asks: 'What is the specific taste that has been responsible for your success?'

To which he replies: 'Can we cut there? That's a very difficult question.' The marketer cannot describe what his beer tastes like. He claims he doesn't know the English words, despite his English being excellent, and after a conversation with his PR agent, Natasha, he tells us that it has a 'very refreshing, full-bodied taste that's very crispy. Then there's the bitter after-note that pops into your mouth and makes it unique.' Any beer drinker will tell you that bitterness is a characteristic shared by all beers.

Pulling out three cans of beer from a plastic bag, Magnusson asks Velkeniers if he would be able to pick out Stella in a blind taste test. As he agrees to this, Natasha intervenes.

Rightly so. Leaving aside the damage potentially done if Velkeniers got it wrong, they are not to know if the cans have been doctored in any way or if he is comparing like-with-like.

But instead, Natasha tells Velkeniers, and the audience, that this was not part of the pre-agreed interview script, which while not uncommon in Europe, is probably not known by the audience and makes AB InBev look bullying and evasive.

She debates extensively with Velkeniers, who to his credit is keen to do the test and has to remind the PR professional that 'they are filming everything we say'.

The idea of a taste test is eventually dismissed because Velkeniers is 'not prepared', despite ten years working on the brand.


Takeaway Tips

  • John Humphrys once advised that spokespeople wanting to avoid being trashed by him need only do three things: 'prepare, prepare and prepare'.
  • 'What does your beer taste like?' is hardly a trick question but not one for which Velkeniers has prepared (in a programme about why microbreweries are challenging the big brands). His response fatally undermines him.
  • The blind taste test is a cheap trick and not the first time it has been asked of a food or drink company. But it is the manner of the PR person's intervention that diminishes the marketing director and the brand in the audience's eyes.

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