Ad Breakdown: Stella Artois’ “Reassuringly expensive.”

Lewis Folkard

Lewis Folkard

Suffolk-based conversion copywriter.

Over the past 40 years, there have been some great ads for alcohol brands. Heineken. XXXX. John Smiths. Boddingtons. To name a few.

And as great as these campaigns are, there’s one I feel that’s sometimes left out.

Stella Artois.

From 1981 to 2007, they had the tagline, “Reassuringly expensive.”. In my opinion, it’s one of the greatest taglines ever written. And I’ll explain why shortly.

It formed the building blocks for a great run of ads – all pushing a consistent message. A message that ultimately helped them generate an estimated 600% ROI. Not bad.

Why doesn’t the tagline still run? I’m not sure. But I do know the late 00s were an odd time for advertising. So let’s start there.

The change in advertising

In Orlando Wood’s Look Out, he highlights some of the shifts in advertising (and society) over the years. It’s a brilliant book that I highly recommend you read (no affiliate).

One of the shifts he highlights is that advertising is gradually focusing more on short-term “sales activation” and less on long-term brand-building. 

Both are necessary, but we’re going the wrong way.

Wood explains that this short-term focus is due to changes in brain dominance. “Left-brain dominant” societies tend to focus on linear cause and effect, and they take things very literally. They lack appreciation for their place in time, and in turn, this presents itself in a more ‘short-term mindset’. Advertising included. 

On the flip side, right-brained dominant societies tend to see the bigger picture and understand (and appreciate) their position in time. This suggests a greater appreciation for long-term brand-building ads. 

Wood shares these shifts with respect to art, architecture and music over hundreds of years and pulls out the features most commonly associated with left and right brain dominance. He does the same with advertising. And highlights which features are associated with greater ad effectiveness. Many of which we don’t see today anymore.

I’m not saying social media is to blame for this shift. But it has likely accelerated this pull to a “left-brain” society. 

Note how social media really took off in the late 00s. And this great tagline was removed at a similar time. Coincidence?

Disruptive vs distinctive

A “left-brained” feature of advertising is the desire to “shock and mock”. To disrupt and stand out at any cost.

And to an extent, this isn’t bad. Because in the short term, you do need to stand out. And disruption is one way of doing that.

But many advertisers often confuse being disruptive and being distinctive. There’s a difference.

They overly rely on constantly disrupting the “scene” when they should be relying on being distinctive.

In its barest form, distinctive is not about being or saying something different. It’s doing/saying something similar thing but in an original way.

Take comparison sites as an example. There are lots of them. But Compare the Market found a distinctive way of presenting what they do – with a couple of meerkats.

Similarly, cat food. How many cat food brands do you know? They all do the same thing. But Felix stands out because of “Felix the cat”.

Or even tea bags. PG tips made themselves distinctive by using “pyramid” tea bags rather than round ones. Same product. A different way of presenting it.

Credit: The Telegraph

Distinctive, familiarity and the long term

The very nature of being distinctive means you have to think bigger picture. You can’t rely on constantly disrupting the scene – and instead have to rely on pushing a stand-out (distinctive) message consistently.

And this consistency breeds familiarity, which in turn breeds trust. 

For brand building, this is vital. Here’s why:

  1. It minimises the risk associated with choosing you vs your competitor.
  2. It deepens the connection with your audience and makes you more “mentally available”.

Les Binet and Sarah Carter explain this well in their book “How not to plan”. 

“Most effective advertising works by building emotive associations at a less conscious level. This takes time and, above all, consistency. So new communication builds on what’s gone before.

…a relentless pursuit of novelty leads to money wasted. Advertisers spend precious management time developing new ideas. And ROIs fall as people are subjected to a flurry of inconsistent campaigns. Our econometric work on Felix showed the advertising becoming more, not less, effective over time. That’s the virtue of consistency.”

But because agencies and clients switch about so much, long-standing campaigns don’t get a peep. 

What agency is going to want to keep an existing campaign running? How can they make their mark?

They can’t. And that’s why advertising (and brands) are suffering.

We need more distinctive familiarity. More long-standing campaigns.

Building a brand helps with sales activation

So if you’re consistent in your advertising, you contribute towards building a more recognisable brand. 

What makes this particularly potent is its effects on short-term advertising.

Because we can’t deny that most brands need “sales activation” ads – i.e. the more direct response style stuff. They’re still important.

And a recognisable brand actually makes sales activation more effective. You’ve already laid the emotional foundations, and planted the seeds – now it’s time to reap what you’ve sown.

I’m going to paraphrase a quote from Orlando Wood’s “Look out” because he explains it much better than I can.

“In an age of digital advertising (with most being digital/sales activation), reduced mental and physical availability, brand-building advertising will become more important, not less.

Brand-building advertising needs to be interesting to people who might not know anything about your category (or brand) yet. And emotional strategies are key for this. They play an important role in orientating and sustaining attention. They also help with long-term memory.

It reduces your search costs, improves your conversion rates, and prevents people going to aggregator websites. If you operate in a fast growth category and are at a stage in the category life cycle when innovation is prevalent, thus favouring short term effects, then you need to invest more in brand-building advertising. In this digitally transformed world, the optimum brand:activation split is more likely to be 75:25%.”

So this means you need to run long-standing campaigns with a consistent but distinctive personality.

Does long-standing mean fewer creative opportunities?

No. At face value, you might think this cuts off your creative potential. But in reality, it does the opposite. 

It empowers you. 

It gives you a foundation to build on. A lens to view the world.

And most creatives agree that having some kind of ‘restriction’ actually helps encourage ideas. 

Analysing the tagline

Okay, so we now know the importance of a long-standing campaign. Let’s dig into an example of one.

Stella’s “Reassuringly expensive.”

The line was written by Geoff Seymour in 1981. And it actually wasn’t meant to be a tagline. It was buried in the body copy.

But Sir Frank Lowe allegedly spotted it and recognised its potential.

So he took it to the client, Whitbread & Co (who we’ll refer to as Stella moving forward).

And surprise, surprise… they didn’t like it.

They didn’t want to highlight the fact they were expensive. They thought it’d work against them.

But this is a prime example of a distinctive asset. Nobody else was trying to push their high price. And by doing so, they stood out – despite being basically the same as every other beer brand.

Sir Frank Lowe remained persistent and got his way. And the line stuck.

And what a great line it is. It taps into two clever psychological biases – that our expectations change our experience and the placebo effect.

We assume something expensive will be better than something cheap, making Stella more desirable. And because we go into drinking Stella thinking it’s a luxury beer – and it’ll taste good – our experience tends to align with it.

Which it did – and sales rocketed.

Here’s what the IPA said

“Using new effectiveness measures a 600% return for Whitbread’s investment in advertising of £3.3m was calculated. In a fickle market, consistency was shown to be of enormous benefit.”

A close-up of one of the ads

Okay, so email subscribers got a whole run of ads showing how the campaign ran over a 10-year period. 

I’ll give you one of the ads here. But to make sure you don’t miss out next time, sign up for my newsletter here. You’ll get insights not shared anywhere else. And it’s free.

Anyway, here’s an ad from 1992.

So, as you can see, they’re playing up the fact they’re expensive. Not trying to hide away from it.

It’s quite topical (the cost of living was rising). But it doesn’t need to be – a great example of how freeing a consistent lens and personality can be.  

Over the 25 years or so that this tagline was in use, they pushed the same distinctive message but repeated it in a variety of different ways across their campaigns.

And it worked a treat.

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