THERE are two ways to react to the arrival of new competition: you can close your eyes, carry on as normal and hope it goes away, or you can evaluate yourself and meet the challenge head on.
Belhaven can justifiably claim to fall under the latter category.
It’s unlikely anyone at the Dunbar-based brewer and pub firm would have been cock-a-hoop when Tennent Caledonian Breweries (TCB) launched a direct rival to Belhaven Best in November last year.
It would be wrong to describe Caledonia Best as a facsimile of its Belhaven counterpart, but in look, appearance, branding and, to some extent, taste, there were certainly similarities between the two.
The message from Tennent’s to Belhaven was clear – you’ve dominated the smooth tasting, low-gravity ale market for too long, now we want a share.
In the big bad commercial world, such developments are ten a penny. But what gave this episode extra spice was that, until then, the two parties had enjoyed a harmonious, mutually beneficial relationship: Belhaven sold Tennent’s through its pubs and wholesale network, and Tennent’s wholesaled Belhaven Best in turn.
Belhaven continues to list Tennent’s, and in fact recently extended the deal, but it seems the relationship has cooled.
What Belhaven might not care to admit, though, is that Tennent’s might have done it a favour by triggering this ‘battle of the Bests’.
Belhaven’s status as Scotland’s keg ale brand leader is undimmed. Tennent’s is making impressive ground with Caledonia Best – just recently it celebrated its 1000th installation – but according to Belhaven, recent statistics showed its share of the market had risen from 51% to 55%.
Belhaven Best has maintained a constant media profile over the past four years and last weekend it upped the ante even further. New television ads for both Belhaven Best and Belhaven Black, the new stout it launched earlier this year, broke during Russia v Czech Republic on day one of Euro 2012, and will continue to be screened as part of a “heavyweight” campaign for the rest of the year.
As the long-standing market leader, Belhaven might argue that these plans were hatched long before the arrival of Caledonia and would have come to fruition regardless. But at the very least I reckon Caledonia’s presence has strengthened the resolve of owner Greene King to retain the top spot for its Best, for which it has ambitions to grow south of the border.
Glasgow-based TCB, meanwhile, says it’s delighted with the impression its own Best has made with consumers and the trade so far. It, too, has taken steps to market its brand ‘above the line’, through its commitment to supporting Scottish barley growers and appointing golf legend Sam Torrance as brand ambassador.
But the big winner, in my view, is the trade. By investing in new brands and marketing, TCB and Belhaven have applied the jump leads to the keg ale market. Taken alongside the burgeoning craft beer scene, it suddenly seems like there’s a lot to be positive about in brewing.