Quick Spot: Newcastle's New Ale

18th November 2014

Discovering how a familiar product brand is perceived in a foreign country can often be a surprising experience. Some years ago I stumbled across the US website for Newcastle Brown Ale. It was so far from my own experience and associations of Brown Ale, it took a moment for me to register that it was promoting the same drink that I had frequently avoided as a student.

The site was beautifully designed and featured a number of full screen videos showing good looking American twentysomethings enjoying Brown Ale in the warm sunshine of a New York dusk. The core of the site was designed to look like a hip East-Coast bar with rollover sections telling the history of Brown Ale, the story of how it had made it to America and even how to use Brown Ale in cooking recipes. It was a website that could have been expected for a premium, artisan beer brand. (Unfortunately, the full desktop version of that site is no longer up but a poorly retooled mobile variation is still available to view – Newcastle Brown)

The website was an indicator of the high esteem in which Newcastle Brown Ale is held in parts of the US (Clint Eastwood is famously a Brown Ale drinker). It is such a strong brand there that parent company, Heineken, announced the launch of a new bottled ale this month utilising the Newcastle name to spearhead the marketing campaign. Two videos were released featuring former Star Trek actor and blogging fan favourite Wil Wheaton extolling the virtues of the new brew.

The new Newcastle Scotch Ale is being launched in America this month and will be available for a limited period until February next year. It is actually the first of a new range of ales resulting from Newcastle’s collaboration with other European breweries. It is not being promoted in the same young American, aspirational lifestyle manner as Brown Ale – the Wil Wheaton adverts are more reliant on humour and seem to be aimed at genuine ale drinkers. But the branding and packaging are very strongly aligned with Brown Ale and are clearly intended to appeal to the same audience. Tellingly, these ‘collaboration ales’ will only be available in the USA.

The most interesting aspect of this is the opposing perceptions in different countries of the same product. In the UK, Newcastle Brown Ale had a resurgence in popularity with young drinkers during the late 80s and 90s when it became a favourite with the growing student population. Despite this, it is still broadly seen as a grown-up, working man’s brew steeped in the North-East’s industrial heritage, intrinsically linked to Tyne & Wear and still viewed here with pride and affection. In the US, it is seen as a ‘trendy’ premium imported beer, as attested to by the design and branding of the aforementioned website. The power of branding to build (or alter) perceptions of a product or service is no more clearly illustrated than with Newcastle Brown Ale. The product is the same, as is the name and the packaging. But Heineken is able to market and sell it successfully to two entirely separate, and demographically divergent, markets. Show an American how and where it is served in the UK and they’d likely be as surprised as I was when I first found that website.