As drinks brands sometimes do, Magners quickly became a cult phenomenon among Scots, who adopted the unusual consumption practice of pouring it over ice into a pint glass.
Though Magners’ marketing team was derided for encouraging the habit, they always claimed it was actually a consumer-generated trend. Either way, a coincidental run of good summers saw over-ice cider become the big drinking craze as Magners headed south to be one of the fastest-growing brands of any type, and changing the mainstream cider market for ever.
Matthew Langley, brand manager at Westons, says: “Magners benefited by arriving into the category without the baggage of what did and did not work in the UK cider market and was able to innovate in a way that caught many of the existing players off guard.
“So, while we would still be looking at a more premium cider marketplace today, the route to get here would have looked a lot different.”
Until Magners arrived, cider had become associated with PET bottles, 15% extra-fill packs, street drinkers and teenage rites of passage.
As Henry Chevallier, partner at Suffolk cider producer Aspall, notes: “Above all else, it made it not only socially acceptable but cool to drink cider.”
Suddenly, cider packs started to look chic, drinking it became fashionable and buying it became more expensive. As it did so, the market grew and fragmented as suppliers scrambled for sales.
Niche players such as Brothers and Aspall became more confident, established ones like Heineken/Bulmers pushed out new products to preserve market share and over- seas players from Sweden and South Africa moved in.
But a busier market meant smaller pickings for Magners. Sales slid as competition intensified and recent years have seen a succession of sales peaks and troughs, unconvincing flavour developments and dwindling marketing support as other markets took priority.
Ad Dynamix figures show that Magners’ UK advertising spend dropped from £4.1 million in 2010 to £1.5 million in 2011, though the company said last year that it had increased support in 2012.
Simon George, channel director for wholesale and convenience at Magners GB, says of 2013: “The new above-the-line campaign this year will focus on the sociability and spontaneity that has always been at the heart of the brand, getting people together for a Magners and creating great moments.
“Magners really changed the cider market when it launched and, since then, the brand has created some unique campaigns that have helped to keep Magners front of mind and maintain its share of voice in the category.”
Rivals recognise the positive legacy Magners’ first decade has left and that its ups and downs make their life easier.
One industry insider describes it as a “wounded brand”, but adds: “Never say never. It remains a potentially great brand. There is a lot of latent love for it among older consumers. It has just lost its way.
“It was never first to market with anything other than Original and, over the past few years, the brand has lost any connection it had with younger consumers.”
Chevallier at Aspall suggests: “Consumers have seen through the advertising to a certain extent, but Magners has seriously lost its raison d’etre as a brand since the launch of [draught only] Magners Gold. It confused consumers too much and they found other ciders to drink.”
George at Magners says: “As a business we are constantly looking at how to continue to grow the cider category through innovation and NPD will continue to play a significant
role in the months to come.” Many in the industry point to C&C’s single cider status with Magners as one reason for its struggles, something the acquisition of the Gaymers portfolio in 2010 was set out to address.
“One problem is that the single brand can no longer support the scale of the business and the expectation which has grown up behind it,” says one source.
In the on-trade especially, where portfolio selling is key, a Heineken stable of Strongbow, Bulmers and Jacques still beats Magners, Gaymers and Addlestones hands down.
There’s been an attempt to refashion Gaymers as a funky fruit cider, but Gaymers, Olde English and Blackthorn are all ciders from the pre-Magners old school that, crucially, unlike Strongbow, went unsupported for many years under previous owners and have a lot of ground to make up in terms of credibility.
Langley at Westons suggests forgotten brands could prove to be saviours. He says: “C&C has many heritage brands in its extensive portfolio that are ripe for a relaunch into a marketplace demanding provenance, heritage and authenticity.”
But another industry insider suggests that C&C’s eyes had been taken off the ball in the UK and turned to the lucrative potential of exports to the US. C&C’s acquisition of the Vermont Hard Cider Co and the US brand Hornsby’s signal its ambitions across the pond.
C&C’s own most recent trading update put Magners UK volumes in decline by just under 16% in the nine months to the end of November.
So is the game up for Magners, and are others going to reap the long-term benefits of the new ground it broke for the cider category?
Rob Calder, marketing director at Kopparberg, says: “The most important changes Magners delivered were driving the value back into the cider market and reminding people that there was a great category out there to be discovered.
“Whether it’s fruit cider or craft cider or mainstream canned cider, every part of the category has benefited in the past six years.”
But he argues that Magners was merely the catalyst for change rather than the architect. “The long-term trends were always there for cider to grow – the natural content cues, the sweeter taste profile, the lowering of the abv via ice.
“These all tapped into macro trends which would have been exploited eventually, although perhaps by a range of brands rather than one enormous seismic explosion.”