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The British beer brand that broke America

In the wake of the Super Bowl, we explore Newcastle Brown Ale's irreverent marketing approach with its brand director, Priscilla Flores Dohnert.

There are a number of British exports that have achieved notable success in the US — The Beatles, Sherlock Holmes, Gordon Ramsey and bacon to name a few — but none are quite as surprising as Newcastle Brown Ale's entry into its famously competitive beer market. Traditionally seen as an unfashionable, hearty ale, largely consumed by working class men in the north of England, it's taken on a new lease of life on the other side of the pond. Simply dubbed 'Newcastle' — as opposed to the UK's slightly less inviting 'Newkie Brown' — the American perception of the beer is a much smarter and stylish one, resulting in a target market that is far younger and a brand image that's very different. As of 2013, Newcastle was the ninth most imported drink in the beer category, and the most imported ale, with the US accounting for more than half of the brewery's output at certain stages in its recent history. 

Over the last couple of years, the brand has taken aim at one of the most watched, most lucrative and most American of events — the Super Bowl. Armed with an irreverent tone of voice and an underdog mentality, its output has been loud, brash and as a result, rather effective. "Newcastle’s platform is simple," explains its brand director, Priscilla Flores Dohnert. "We’re the No Bollocks beer. We’re beer lovers who want to share that love with our friends while having a little laugh at the expense of overblown marketing."

Despite being owned by Heineken since 2008, its marketing approach has been the creative result of a budget that isn't as high as you might expect. "We don’t have the large media budgets that some of our competitors have," Priscilla notes, "so we need to be savvy about how we keep Newcastle Brown Ale front of mind. Our goal is to use celebrities and create entertaining, kick-ass storylines that can help get us buzz and word-of-mouth sharing to amplify our message organically." Those storylines are handled by Droga5 in New York, named as Adweek's Agency of the Year 2014, and an outfit with a growing reputation for high-impact campaigns. 

"We’ve been working with Droga for a few years now. They introduced our 'No Bollocks' campaign in 2012, and everything you’ve seen from Newcastle since then is a part of that approach. Our Independence Eve campaign from July, which imagined what it’d be like if the Brits had won the Revolutionary War, was a Droga5 production, too. That was a big success — Stephen Merchant, Elizabeth Hurley and Zachary Quinto really helped make an impact in another big beer-buying season."

"We don’t have the large media budgets that some of our competitors have so we need to be savvy about how we keep Newcastle front of mind"

Its 'If We Made It' campaign, which was launched in the lead up to last year's Super Bowl, followed in the footsteps of Oreo's famous 'You can still dunk in the dark' tweet as one of the best examples of hijacking the hype around the game. After releasing a cinematic trailer for the great ad campaign that they would have made if they had the budget, Newcastle and Droga5 then followed it up with a collection of storyboards of the ad that never got made, and a clip of Anna Kendrick ranting about how she was let down by Newcastle after agreeing to be involved in the ad they were never actually going to make.

This year, Newcastle cranked the tongue-in-cheek approach up a notch with its 'Band of Brands' campaign, fronted by the deadpan actress and comedian, Aubrey Plaza. "It was a pretty wild idea – “What if we could get other brands to help pay for our Big Game buy?” The past year has just brought the 'sharing economy' into the real world for many Americans, so we figured we’d get a laugh out of the idea of companies trying the crowdfunding thing. It was a great way to connect with like-minded brands that don’t take this marketing stuff too seriously. All of our partner brands have loved it, and the reaction on social media has been very positive."

With a relatively low-key presence the rest of the year round, the Super Bowl has become Newcastle's major trump card — a fact that's supported by its recent release of a trailer for 2016's big game ad, providing Newcastle with 52 weeks to build the hype. But why the fascination with the Super Bowl? "Beer is a very important part of Big Game celebrations and therefore this is a really important season for us. Our campaigns help make us part of the conversation, so Newcastle is front of mind when the beer purchases are happening. We’ve found our voice as a brand that knows how to have fun and laugh at the whole dog-and-pony show of advertising, so what better time to do it than around the Big Game?"

It's an approach that seems to be working. Last year saw double-digit increases in awareness and trial intent for the brand, and in markets where they had in-store display support and broad distribution, they saw sales spike in the weeks following the Big Game. Although the ads may not be your typical Cannes Lions award winners, last year's Super Bowl effort earned Droga5 and Newcastle a whopping 13 of them, and the 'If We Made It' campaign was named best ad of 2014 by Adweek. As for Priscilla's advice to other brands looking to achieve similar success, it's as straightforward as you'd expect it to be from the brand director of Newcastle Brown Ale. "Have more fun. Think of ways to be smarter and more impactful with the resources you have. Don’t ask for more — more ads, more buys, more tweets, whatever — ask for better."