Why VB is no longer Australia’s favourite beer
Virgin Buster, Vomit Beer…call it what you want, but everyone has an opinion on it. Depending on your point of view, it either tastes like amber nectar urinated straight from the gods, or it tastes just like urine without the gods’ involvement. Now is an important time in VB’s history, as for the first time in who knows how many years, it has been dethroned. It no longer holds the title of Australia’s number one beer. That crown has been given to a long-time rival XXXX Gold. While many Queenslanders, who are surely celebrating the success of their drink of choice, would tell you that XXXX Gold has overtaken VB due to the quality of the beer I can assure that this is not even close to the actual reasons. Below I will outline the five major reasons that VB is no longer the beer that it once was.
1.The rivalry with XXXX
First of the bat I would like to start with the inexplicable rivalry with XXXX in the first place. What is it with this VB Gold? I would like to meet the marketing genius who came up that idea and inundate them with empty threats.
If you are going to imitate something, then at least you should imitate something that’s worthwhile. That’s why there are so many Beatles and Rolling Stones cover bands out there and (hopefully) not many Wham! imitations. Everybody outside of Queensland knows that XXXX is inferior to pretty much every other beer made in Australia and it is only the poor Queenslanders who have fooled themselves into thinking otherwise. You can’t really blame them though, they don’t really have the mental acuity to know otherwise. After all, “why do they call it XXXX? Because Queenslanders can’t spell beer”.
Defend VB all you want, its strongpoint has never been (and never will be) its taste. In the past – at least in Australia – the actual taste of beer has taken the backseat to it being cold and being manly. In the flavour department, it had very little competition. Despite what many of those who are devoted to one particular brand might say, all of the big name Australian beers taste substantially the same with the sole exception of Coopers which looks and feels like drinking mud (delicious, delicious mud!).
The problem is that the taste of beer has never been important to Australian until very recently. In fact, what has drawn many to their drink of choice probably lies in the fact that, for many, the beers are near undrinkable. What better way to show your masculinity than to drink something that tastes like it has been filtered through dirt (for Coopers this might actually be the case)? It makes sense ‘real men’ like their coffee black, their cigarettes strong and their beer as tasteful as brake fluid. Even the name “Bitter” makes this clear. Some may say that VB is called a bitter because of the English bitter but this is total BS. English bitters are ales and VB is a lager.
Drinking beer has always been a sign of masculinity the commercials and the drinking culture can attest to this. Women were traditionally not even allowed into bars and instead had their own designated ‘Ladies Room’ which allowed them to drink tea and sew or whatever it is that ladies did.
In fact for many even today, beer is solely the realm of males. Recently a New Zealand bride caused a stir at a Bride of the Year competition when a photo of her was released drinking a beer. Many called the photo “disgusting” and that it was a “terrible way to portray the event in the paper”. The bride in the photo however did not see what all the fuss was about. She said:
“So what if I enjoy a Tui over drinking wine and I haven’t hurt anybody doing that. Only a lot of jealous people would be negative, at the end of the day we are meant to be ourselves.”
So, what does this tell us about trans-Tasman drinking cultures? Clearly that it is still not 100% ok for a female to crack open a beer to enjoy – especially while wearing a wedding dress, the epitome of femininity. I think that people should stop worrying about whether a woman is drinking a beer or wine and focus on what is important: the real crime here is that the bride was drinking a Tui – a terrible beer even by New Zealand’s already low standards.
VB has always marketed itself as a drink for real ‘men’. Its most famous commercial, known as much for its slogan “A Hard Earned Thirst…” as for its plagiarism of The Magnificent Seven’s theme tune, makes it clear who VB’s target audience is. The ad shows a group of dirty and sweaty manly men doing manly things like surfing, rowing and working on heavy machinery. There are various versions of this theme but there is one common point: real men like to relax to a VB.
“The best cold beer is Vic”
The problem with this point of view is that today it no longer sells beer and VB don’t seem to realise this. To a lesser extent, consumers are choosing what they drink because it makes them appear manly. I say “to a lesser extent” because the example of the Kiwi bride clearly shows that many people do still think this way. The fact is that as beers become available in more varieties that consumers tend to choose their drink of choice for a growing number of reasons. Drinking plain European and Japanese lagers shows others that the person is a classy and sophisticated individual, low carb beers lets others know that you have no taste buds, drinking small boutique brews means that you are an ‘expert’ on beer and are to be avoided at all costs and drinking Fosters tells people that you are a tourist.
Avoid at all costs.
The times have changes but VB’s marketing strategy has not. Beer drinkers have many choices to decide between and no longer appreciate being bullied into buying a product. This, surprisingly, seems to be the basis of VB’s entire marketing strategy. A recent commercial does exactly this. In the video, a number of men do things that are decidedly unmanly. They use hand cream, order pink cocktails and get their chest waxed. In fact these men are so effeminate that the only way to save them is to give them a big dose of testosterone in the shape of a beer. This commercial was released in 2010 when VB was still Australia’s most popular drink and just two years later as I write this, they have lost that title. I am confident that commercials like these are part of the reason for the decline.
Drink this or else you’re a pansy.
VB originally started out at 4.9% which, by Australian standards, made it the strongest beer of its kind on the market. Many devoted beer drinkers – myself included – deluded themselves that drinking VB was better value for money. The extra .3% that you got out of a VB compared to a Carlton Draught surely had some effect! Soon VB announced that it was changing its recipe to accommodate tax increases or some bullshit like that and VB soon dropped to 4.8% Us beer drinkers kidded ourselves that this amount was insignificant. ‘What difference does 0.1% have?’ we asked. Not much we hoped. We consoled ourselves with the fact that VB was still the strongest beer of its kind on the market, although by a smaller margin.
When in 2009, it was announced that VB’s strength was to be dropped to 4.6% it caused a furore. Beer drinkers hit the streets in number not seen since the Vietnam War to protest this sacrilege. VB was now the same alcoholic strength as Carlton Draught, an unforgiveable sin. VB’s dwindling fan base pleaded with CUB to return the drink to its former glory but this fell on deaf ears until years later.
In October 2012, CUB announced with its tail between its legs that it was retuning VB to 4.9% “to improve sales”. Months later, after the return to VB’s original strength and the introduction of a more retro look for its labels, it was announced that for the first time in ten years, VB had actually increased in sales. The people had spoken…and we were right!
VB can’t be solely blamed for their decline in sales as beer drinking in Australia is at a 60 year low. VB can however be blamed for slyly inflating their prices. Traditionally a very cheap beer, VB’s price has slowly increased to be around the levels of premium brews.
To be perfectly honest, the low price tag was what first attracted me to VB. As a poor uni student I had only a small amount of money to spend on beer and the more money I spent on fancy shit, the less beer I had. Quantity over quality was my throught process and I’m sure this is the exact same thought pattern for the majority of VB’s market. As mentioned above, taste is certainly not the beer’s strong point and if consumers were drinking beer for the taste then VB would have gone off the market years ago.
When supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths decided to sell VB for $28 a slab, Carlton United Breweries (CUB) stopped supply of their beers to them. CUB’s defence was that selling the beer at such a low price was done to protect “the brand equity – the image of our brands”. As a VB drinker, I find this a joke. VB has always been, to me, the cheaper alternative to premium drinks and this is an increasing trend with drinkers. While up until recently the most popular beer in Australia, its market share has dropped dramatically in the last few decades and is now at about 13 per cent. To worry about protecting the image of a brand whose “image” is that of a cheap and ubiquitous alternative is absurd.
Despite the best efforts of large supermarkets, today a slab of VB will set you back close to $40. This figure is ridiculous when you can buy a supposedly better “premium” beer for the same price. Many of these premium beers are imported from overseas (but less and less nowadays) which raises a question: “if Heineken can brew a beer, package it and ship it all the way to Australia and sell it for $40, then why the hell does it cost CUB the same to import a beer from Carlton to Richmond?”. If VB wants to regain the crown of Australia’s favourite beer then they would be wise to reduce the price.
Note: I am aware that many international beers are brewed under licence in Australia, however this is not necessarily always the case.
There is a revolution underway in Australia and consumers are becoming more discerning and more picky. Instead of remaining loyal to one particular brand, beer drinkers are branching out and are now increasingly drinking a wider variety of beers and this is hurting the larger brands such as VB.
According to an article by www.drinkstrade.com.au, over the last ten years, beer consumption in Australia has remained “more or less static”. Despite this change, beer drinkers are not drinking any more beer, but they are drinking what nearly everyone imagines to be ‘better’ beer. The consumption of ‘premium’ beer is growing by 15% each year and in the total packaged beer market accounts for nearly 20%of sales.
In addition to the data, I do not know one person who exclusively drinks one particular brand and certainly nobody who drinks VB exclusively. The fact is that brands say a lot about the person drinking it and it is just so much cooler to drink a Little Creatures over crusty old VB.
The end of an era?
CUB has recently gone to great lengths to increase the strength and alter the labelling to be more reminiscent of what it used to be. While this is an excellent start in retaining and re-attracting their loyal following it is not enough in what I believe is a futile exercise. The increasing number of brands out there, although they are being bought up by large conglomerates, give consumers the choice to buy alternatives to the largest name brands such as VB. This increase in choice means that consumers can no longer be bullied into buying a particular brand. In my opinion, VB’s best course of action would be to focus more deeply on nostalgia: reintroduce the classic theme and the “hard earned thirst” slogan, while forgetting about the silly rivalry with XXXX. The fact is that there is an ever increasing choice of international and boutique beers out there for consumers to choose from. Beer is no longer a blue collar drink, the advent of cider and boutique beers means that it is now acceptable for white collar workers and even – God forbid – women, to drink beer. VB should accept its fate that it will never regain its former glory an hope as best as it can that it retains its position as a cheap staple, and that it doesn’t go the same way as other forgotten brands such as Swan Draught.