The pub – a local institution that needs protecting

Posted on January 5, 2012

Local pubs are true heroes of local communities, but they are closing down at an alarming rate. Localised brand strategies could play a huge role in their survival.

I’ve worked with several well known pub brands over the years, covering premium ‘gastro-pubs’, traditional village pubs and good old fashioned local boozers. Probably the most common theme throughout has been overcoming the quadruple challenge of high taxes on alcohol, the smoking ban, discounting by supermarkets and, most recently, the drop in disposable income. According to market researchers CGA Strategy, in the period between December 2008 and June 2011, some 3,444 pubs closed down at a rate of almost 4 a day. There’s no doubt that these are worrying numbers, but CGA’s figures also revealed that there were 1,528 new pub openings during the same period, which is perhaps a sign that there is still hope for an industry that is such a vital part of British culture.

The British pub is an institution in transition. Yes, many have closed, but those that have survived and in some instances thrived, are very different from the kind of pubs that existed just 5 to 10 years ago. In that time, initiatives such as the smoking ban have significantly altered the make up of customers, and prompted the development of more family friendly establishments with a wider focus than alcohol and cheap food. The rise of the gastropub is a case in point, and so too the increasing number of pubs being awarded Michelin Stars, something unheard of until very recently.

My attention was recently caught by an article I read on the increasing incidence of rural pubs setting themselves up as village shops and even adding local community services to their remit. It’s part of a long term initiative set up by Pub is the Hub, a not for profit organisation created in 2001 in association with HRH The Prince of Wales, to help local communities protect and run their local pubs.

Rural communities, and this country’s rural way of life, face unprecedented challenges … the country pub, which has been at the heart of village life for centuries, is disappearing in many areas. Providing services from the pub, such as a post office or a shop, keeps an essential service in the village.

Although the focus of Pub is the Hub is rural, many of its principles are applicable to the pub sector as a whole. There is no other industry that holds the concept of local any closer. The fact that ‘the local’ is common terminology for the nearest pub is testament to this but it’s not something that is reflected very clearly in the marketing strategies of the industry’s major players.

The pub sector is well suited to both localisation and localism. Customer relationships are almost always with the pub, the landlord/lady or local geography rather than the chain’s owner or a brewery, providing almost perfect conditions for the localisation of national communications campaigns. This involves more than just appending websites and local collateral, such as menus and POS material, with the pub name but analysing local socio-demographic data to make sure that the right kinds of ales, food and even pub nights are in tune with local tastes. In a tremendously challenging and competitive marketplace, it could make all the difference when it comes to customer loyalty.

(I originally wrote this article for lovelocal.uk.com, a blog by EMO, the UK’s leading brand localisation agency, with whom I have worked on numerous occasions. For more information, please visit their website at emo.uk.com).

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