Thursday, October 25, 2007

Baltika WOM

You’re gonna start thinking that Signalwriter is a beer blog – back-to-back posts about the world’s oldest beverage and all. Sue me.

This is really about word-of-mouth, WOM for the uninitiated.

I ran across and sampled Baltika (“The famous beer of Russia”) when Barbara and I had dinner at a new Houston restaurant, Bohemia. Don’t rush, despite the B4-U-EAT reviews; but it had several varieties of this Russian beer. I had the Baltika No. 9. It turns out that [a] the number on the label indicates the alcoholic strength of the beer and [b] the Baltika line includes 2-9. No. 9 was a fine pale beer…and strong like bull. Reminded me of a Bulgarian beer I had in Athens last year, but crisper.

Last week, we attended the birthday party of artist Howard Sherman, at his Commerce Street Art Warehouse studio. We brought some beer along for the party and gifted him with a smuggled-in bottle of He’Brew Monumental Jewbilation beer.

He pulled out a couple of bottles of Baltika No. 4 which is a dark beer with 5.6% alcohol: very tasty. I like a dark beer. He said a friend of his turned him on to it and he’s been drinking it for the past few weeks. There’s a No. 6, a porter that I’d like to try, and No. 8 is Baltika’s wheat beer. (Jewish beer, Russian beer...maybe we can have a progrom.)

Off I went to the website (by Web Design New York), which has a pleasant Flash opening with balalaika music. Along with Baltika Beer history and descriptions, there’s a long segment from CNBC’s “Lunch Break.” Somebody really did a great PR job on this: the talking heads taste-tested Baltika against Heineken and Beck’s on camera and had some fun doing it.

So here’s this broad line of beers from Russia. I get the impression that its US marketing is mostly WOM, backed up with a good website and some decent public relations activity. There’s an opportunity for premium imports here in America, though beer sales are “sluggish” domestically, according last week’s Wall Street Journal. The same article (October 18, 2007) notes that Baltika could end up being owned by the giant Danish brewer Carlsburg, because of consolidation efforts.

How come? Economics. Jean-Francois van Boxmeer, Heineken’s chief executive, said in an interview last month that the beer industry today takes so much capital, it isn’t worth the expense being in many of the world’s markets unless your company is either the No. 1 or No. 2 player.

Baltika is the No. 1 selling beer in Russia. Its website proclaims, “…the OAO Baltika Brewery is in no way inferior to the world’s leaders in beer production.” I suppose the question is, will WOM be enough to make Baltika Nos. 2-9 a bigger player in our market? Likely not. But if the brand gets big-brewer horsepower (and advertising) behind it, there’s no reason why it can’t be right up there with the other premium Euro-imports. Besides, it’s good beer.

1 comment:

Cameron Wallace said...

I've been to Russia a few times, and like all the good Muscovites have had more than my share of Baltika 7. "It's Not Just For Breakfast Anymore" might be a good slogan for the home market.

The challenge that Heineken faces is to not force the beer to stand on the novelty of the brand alone. I think back to those insipid Smirnoff Ice ads from a few years ago, with Yuri and Georgi sitting in the snow, wearing coyote pelts and drinking malt liquor. Russia is no longer a snap-frozen anachronism, and Baltika is on par with Stella Artois and Konenbourg 1664 for quality and former brand obscurity (not to mention horsepower.)

Let's hope Heineken takes the high road with this brand, and makes it great on its merit. Then we can all talk about how we knew Baltika before it was cool.