News analysis: How cider arose from the gutter

Cider, long connected with village idiots, tramps and poor students, has pulled off a stunning turnaround, attracting trenady drinkers and City sippers in their droves. David Quainton asks if the popularity will last

Associations with cheap student booze and teenagers drinking in bus shelters have blighted cider's image for years. Somerset band The Wurzels (I've Got a Brand New Combine Harvester and I Am a Cider Drinker) helped entrench perceptions of the drink as the preserve of country bumpkins.

But in balmy 2006, the fermented apple-based beverage has undergone a cultural renaissance, establishing a foothold in the premium drinks market and disassociating itself from students and down-and-outs.

Now, according to the makers, cider is to be treated like wine and enjoyed at the dinner table, or poured over ice and drunk instead of Stella Artois. The result has been a ten per cent increase in UK cider consumption this year.

Positive association
Simon Russell, spokesman for the National Association of Cider Makers (NACM), says: ‘The growth has been driven primarily by premium brands, such as Magners and Gaymer.'

‘These brands have shown 33 per cent growth over the past year. The biggest success story is Magners, an Irish cider that has quickly established itself despite Ireland having no specific cider heritage.'

Freelance journalist Jonny Goodhall argues: ‘The image of a drunk Irishman is that of someone jolly and charming, whereas a drunk Scotsman or Englishman is less positive. From that basis, Magners has built a successful campaign, trading on a cider heritage that doesn't exist, and focusing on authenticity and taste.'

Indeed, Magners even had a stall at June's Taste of London in Regent's Park, in an attempt to attract a more discerning drinker.

The switch of focus to communicate cider's taste has been industry-wide, and was kick-started in 2003 when Scottish & Newcastle bought Bulmers, owner of the Strongbow brand. Although positive changes did not occur straight away (cider hit a sales nadir in 2004, when a price war forced profitability to new depths), the industry later saw an upturn.

‘Scottish & Newcastle veered away from supermarket discounting and positioned Strongbow as a rival to beers rather than a cheaper option,' says freelance writer Ben McFarland. The response from retailers was to give cider increased shelf space, a move driven partly by lobbying from the NACM. ‘We communicate cider's refreshment, taste and when and where one might enjoy it,' says Russell. ‘I think consumers have also tuned in to our innovation. The packaging and presentation of cider has improved.'

McFarland says the change in direction has made it easier for PR people to place cider in lifestyle and food magazines, where previously it had been ignored. And in-house supermarket magazines, previously oblivious to the drink, are now PR targets.

According to Spreckley Partners associate director Penny Clifton, who runs the agency's Magners account, the brand is aimed predominantly at 18 to 34-year-old professional males ‘looking at an alternative to their usual long alcoholic drinks such as lager'. Campaigns such as giving away cases of Magners in a summer competition on local radio reinforced the link between hot weather and cider.

Overall though, Strongbow remains king. Scottish & Newcastle's cider range - which also encompasses the Scrumpy Jack and Woodpecker brands -  has experienced a 40 per cent leap in sales over the past two years.

Strongbow's PR has centred primarily around supporting its advertising through brand experiential activity. Brands PR manager David Jones says: ‘We have targeted major music festivals across the UK this summer, and cricket's Twenty20 Cup.'

But cider's success has not been simply confined to big names. The entire industry has experienced a resurgence. ‘In part this is cyclical,' argues Mc­Farland. ‘The alcopop generation has grown up and is turning away from brands that squeezed cider in the 1990s.' As Smirnoff Ice, Reef and their ilk lose their appeal, cider is gaining ground.

Health and heritage
Cider has also benefited from the consumer trend to seek more healthy food and drink options. Goodhall argues that as consumers turn away from processed food and soft drinks, they are also turning to cider, with companies trading on ‘providence'.

‘It's more subtle [than the focus on taste] but we are pushing the traceability of cider,' explains Russell. ‘The fact that cider isn't bright green or blue [like an alcopop] is a plus point now.'

But producers have not completely dispensed with the drink's rural image. Alongside the leading city bar brands Magners and Strongbow, the older Aspel, Gayners and Thatchers have an established following and are marketed on their traditional tastes.

‘In terms of heritage, there is no drink brand older than cider,' says Russell. ‘It's not a case of positioning the brands as museum pieces, but proactively recommending those that have lasted for over 100 years.'

But as autumn approaches, cider producers face the challenge of sustaining consumers' appetite amid
falling temperatures and longer nights. Russell says the NACM will strive to ensure consumers keep drinking.

‘Many cider producers have food-matching ideas on their packaging. We're trying to establish it alongside wine because it is produced in exactly the same way, so shares the same nuances,' he adds. ‘There is no reason why you can't drink cider all year round.'

End-of-year sales will show whether this particular PR turnaround has proved to be more than a fad.

CIDER'S LEADING BRANDS

Strongbow Still the best selling (three-in-five pub pints of cider are the Scottish & Newcastle brand); last year introduced a premium range, Strongbow Cirrus.

Magners Aimed at ‘young, affluent professionals'. Forged a strong association with the summer, but this is set to change with autumn push.

Blackthorn Cultivated a ‘dark' image, associating itself with festivals as well as the hurly-burly of Bath's rugby union team, which it sponsors.

Thatchers Produces a range of ciders aimed at challenging wine, with stylish packaging and the message that cider is a wholesome alternative to beer.

Brothers Pear cider with a longstanding festival association.

Gaymer Packaging and marketing matches its variants with different foods, to flag up the tastes of its range.

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