Friday, November 28, 2008
In 1990 Foster’s Lager, owned by Foster’s Group Limited (previously Foster’s Brewing Group) and distributed and marketed by Miller Brewing Company in the United States, began pursuing a U.S. strategy of associating itself with ‘‘Australianness.’’ After a detour away from this marketing strategy, Miller and its Foster’s agency, Angotti, Thomas, Hedge of New York, in 1994 released ‘‘How to Speak Australian,’’ which became one of the longest-running and most popular beer advertising campaigns of its time.
‘‘How to Speak Australian’’ began with spot placements in regional markets and an estimated budget of $3 million. In 1997 Miller made it a national campaign and increased the budget to approximately $10 million. From 1994 to 2001 the campaign’s central idea remained consistent.
TV spots introduced a word or term, such as ‘‘Room Service,’’ and then showed what that term meant in Australia; in this case, it meant a live chicken and a meat cleaver delivered to a hotel guest’s room. Following such arresting redefinitions of commonplace terms was an image of the Foster’s can, labeled ‘‘Beer.’’ The commercials closed with the tagline ‘‘Fosters. Australian for Beer.’’ Print, outdoor, and radio executions followed this basic model, which seemed virtually inexhaustible. Four to six new TV spots were crafted each year, and the consistency of the platform also meant that old spots could be recycled as long as they remained fresh. ‘‘How to Speak Australian’’ won a Silver EFFIE Award in 1994 and a Gold EFFIE in 1995, and the Foster’s brand grew rapidly in the United States through 1998. The campaign remained popular, and the brand continued to grow, but by 2000 Foster’s sales had begun to be eclipsed by other beers in the imported-beer market. Some analysts believed that Miller had missed an opportunity to turn Foster’s into an import stalwart along the lines of category-leading Corona Extra. After the dissolution of Angotti, Thomas, Hedge in 2001 Miller assigned the Foster’s advertising account to Chicago’s J. Walter Thompson agency. J. Walter Thompson made an unsuccessful attempt to reinterpret what was by then a classic advertising campaign, and in the following years Miller continued searching for the right agency to update the Foster’s identity.
In the 1980s the Foster’s Brewing Group (which later bought heavily into wine brands and dropped ‘‘Brewing’’ from its name) set out to make its undistinguished namesake brew stand out from the pack of Australian beers by raising its profile internationally. As the brand attained status outside of Australia, Australians themselves began drinking it in larger numbers. By the mid-1980s Foster’s was at the top of the Australian beer heap, and its international image was strengthened by a series of commercials in the United Kingdom featuring the actor Paul Hogan, then a TV personality trafficking in the supposedly quintessential Australianness that he would go on to parlay into international fame in the movie Crocodile Dundee (1986). Foreign sales became a prime source of Foster’s revenue, and in the early 1990s the company set out to brand itself in the United States by playing up its Australian roots. An unproductive detour away from this strategy was scuttled in 1994, when Foster’s U.S. agency, Angotti, Thomas, Hedge, settled on the ‘‘How to Speak Australian’’ platform that, together with the tagline ‘‘Australian for Beer,’’ would define the brand’s marketing for years to come.
During the 1990s and into the first half of the following decade, Foster’s was distributed and marketed in the United States according to a succession of complex corporate arrangements in which its Australian parent company partnered with the Canadian beer maker Molson and the United States’ Miller Brewing. Although the specific terms of these agreements shifted over the course of the ‘‘How to Speak Australian’’ campaign, Miller was, practically speaking, responsible for Foster’s marketing in the United States. The arrangement allowed Foster’s to take advantage of Miller’s extensive distribution network, but at the same time Foster’s parent company did not have control over the brand’s marketing. This became cause for concern when, because of the terms of the three-way partnership, Foster’s advertising budget was calibrated not just according to its own performance but according to the performance of Molson, whose fortunes were then in decline in the United States. Thus, despite Foster’s sales growth, Miller capped spending on ‘‘How To Speak Australian’’ at approximately $10 million annually through 2000.
As Foster’s beer became established in numerous countries, advertising for the brand was no longer aimed chiefly at Australians but at a broader audience of people who may not have known much about the Australian way of life. In the United States in 1997 the ‘‘How to Speak Australian’’ campaign was directed primarily at male consumers of legal drinking age, 21 to 34 years old, who favored imported beer. That group of consumers had been the main target for the brand’s U.S. advertisements for some time. ‘‘This audience is very advertising-savvy. They want commercials to not only give them a reason to drink Foster’s, but they also want to be entertained. We feel these ads succeed on both levels. Our Foster’s ads try to entertain, show the product attributes, and provide a humorous look into the Australian lifestyle,’’ said Marino. ‘‘Our research shows that Foster’s is viewed as a very unassuming, approachable brand that appeals to both blue-collar and whitecollar audiences.’’
When, in 1997, the ‘‘How to Speak Australian’’ campaign moved from spot and regional placements to become a national campaign, the leading imported beer brands in the United States were Heineken and Corona Extra. In 1997 Heineken ran an advertising campaign to establish the company’s symbol—a red star on a green background—as a widely recognized icon. One print ad featured a red star floating on the Chicago River, which had been turned green for Saint Patrick’s Day. Another showed a star-shaped display of red Christmas lights against green electrical cord. The campaign had been launched in 1996 with a teaser that consisted of a solitary, unidentified red star on buildings and outdoor billboards. The campaign’s broadcast advertisements showed the Heineken star on objects such as sunglasses and cocktail napkins. Actual conversations among people drinking beer in social situations were recorded and then performed by actors for the commercials. In one spot a man expressed his amazement that his date did not know who wrote Moby Dick, and the woman snapped at him in return. In another spot a man boasted about his state-ofthe-art computer system. His companion commented, ‘‘That’s psychotic. What are you gonna do with all that?’’ The man answered, ‘‘I don’t know. Go online. Meet girls.’’ Another spot showed people discussing the significance of a white radiator on display at an exhibit of modern art. The commercials were intended to convey the message that Heineken was ‘‘authentic’’ while faddish microbrews were not. Heineken spent more than $30 million on print and broadcast advertising in 1997, an increase of 55 percent over its budget for 1996. Another competitor, the top-selling import brand Corona Extra, had experienced slow sales during the late 1980s but had seen a 35.7 percent sales surge in 1996. The Mexican beer was marketed in the United States by two companies, Barton Beers and Gambrinus Co., that operated separate regional promotions. The brand’s U.S. advertising, which revolved around fun and sun at the beach, was widely viewed as instrumental in the brand’s rise to the top of the U.S. import market. Corona’s unwavering commitment to this marketing strategy through the end of the century and beyond was rivaled, among beer advertisers, only by the consistency of Foster’s positioning.
The leading American beers during this time were Budweiser, Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Coors Light. These brands, led by the Bud sibling brands, leveraged marketing budgets 5 to 15 times larger than that of Foster’s.
Foster’s U.S. marketers and the agency Angotti, Thomas, Hedge initially grappled with the problem of creating brand awareness in an environment dominated by bigbudget domestic-beer campaigns. The campaign ran during 1994, 1995, and 1996 in markets including San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Denver, Atlanta, and New York. A warm reception and sales gains led Miller, in 1997, to take the effort national, raising the initial budget from an estimated $3 million to the $10 million figure that was to remain constant, with slight variations, through 2001. During this time the campaign remained extremely faithful to the original concept developed by Angotti, Thomas, Hedge. ‘‘What we’re trying to do is position Foster’s for both a domestic audience and an imported audience,’’ Angotti account director Michael Stoner told Brandweek. ‘‘It has an easygoing, laid back personality. We tried to get that through in the ads.’’ The TV, print, outdoor, and radio executions used Australia’s reputation as a refreshingly untamed land inhabited by tough, no-nonsense, offbeat men and women as a corollary to the values Angotti hoped to attach to the Foster’s brand identity.
The 15-second television commercials opened with an announcer saying in a thick Australian accent, ‘‘How to Speak Australian.’’ The announcer pronounced a word or phrase, and then the commercial illustrated a humorous definition. For example, the spot that defined ‘‘room service’’ showed a live chicken and a meat cleaver being delivered to a guest’s motel room. Another early spot showed the Australian definition of ‘‘No’’: a woman casually tossing a man out of a bar. The spots each ended with an image of a can of Foster’s and the caption ‘‘Beer,’’ followed by a close-up of the brand’s logo and the tagline ‘‘Foster’s. Australian for Beer.’’ Similarly, a billboard used a picture of a dagger labeled ‘‘Australian for dental floss’’ and a picture of a Foster’s can labeled ‘‘Australian for beer.’’ The tagline made it sound as if Australians were so fond of Foster’s that they equated it with the word ‘‘beer’’ and would drink no other brand. Although this was not strictly true—Foster’s was, during the 1990s, Australia’s second-biggest beer brand—all of the various executions during the campaign’s life worked together to convey that single brand message. As the campaign became well known across America, Angotti’s challenge became to keep the commercials fresh through consistently surprising and humorous interpretations of the central conceit. ‘‘Witness Protection Program’’ featured a man dressed in a kangaroo suit living with a gang of kangaroos in the desert. In ‘‘Wake-Up Call’’ an innkeeper tossed an alarm clock through an open motel window, striking a rugged male guest, who grinned as he awoke and sat upright. ‘‘Marriage Counselor’’ depicted a woman winning an arm-wrestling match with a man in a bar, after which a referee said, ‘‘That settles it, mate. Her mum moves in.’’ Another spot showed a great white shark with the caption ‘‘Guppy.’’ Each year Angotti typically produced four to six new executions, and because of the campaign’s consistency, commercials from previous years could be reused seamlessly alongside new spots. The campaign became so successful that the parent company of Foster’s adapted it for use in Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Caribbean, and numerous European countries.
The ‘‘How to Speak Australian’’ campaign won a Silver EFFIE Award for advertising effectiveness and creativity in 1994 and a Gold EFFIE in 1995. Consumers tended to be more familiar with the Foster’s brand than any other brand except Budweiser, and Foster’s commercials were the most popular among brands in the category, according to the Australian American Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. Jim Mullahy, senior brand manager for Foster’s lager, said, ‘‘We have a lot of fun with Foster’s advertising, and viewers clearly enjoy that humor. Research indicates that ‘How to Speak Australian’ is one of the most widely recognized and memorable ad campaigns for beer. The strong brandbuilding advertising was integral to Foster’s tremendous sales growth, which has been in the double digits for the last five years. In 1997 alone the brand increased more than 25 percent.’’
Foster’s sales again handily outpaced those of the fast-growing import segment as a whole in 1998, ending the year up 20.6 percent, but 1999 saw the brand’s growth slow markedly, to 9.2 percent. By 2000 Foster’s was growing more slowly than the imported-beer category as a whole, and beer-industry analysts routinely spoke of the brew as a missed opportunity for Miller. Because of the Miller-Molson-Foster’s agreement, Miller had never raised spending on Foster’s to the levels that the immense popularity of ‘‘How to Speak Australian’’ seemed to warrant. By the time this restrictive corporate arrangement was reconfigured in late 2000, analysts wondered whether Foster’s might not have missed its chance for sustained success. Although spending was raised to more than $15 million in 2001 and was projected to rise in future years as high as $25 million, Foster’s was not able to capitalize on these increases. By 2003 the brand was in decline in the United States, with sales losses of 7 percent.
In 2000 Angotti, Thomas, Hedge was dissolved. Miller awarded the Foster’s account to J. Walter Thompson of Chicago, and the new agency crafted a 2001 reinterpretation of the ‘‘How to Speak Australian’’ that applied the original campaign concept to urbandwelling Australians. J. Walter Thompson had lost the account by 2002, however, and its successor, WiedenþKennedy, held the Foster’s account for 10 months without selling Miller on any of its ‘‘How to Speak Australian’’ executions. In June 2004 Miller gave the account to another of its roster agencies, Ogilvy & Mather, which was charged with the job of applying the ‘‘Australian for Beer’’ tagline to escapist imagery of the sort that had propelled Foster’s competitor Corona to its spot at the top of the imported-beer market in the United States.