Aussies slug it out for beer stake

By DITA DE BONI

Supermarket shelves displaying Crown Lager and Carlton Stripe alongside iconic Kiwi brews are a cheery site for visitors from Australian brewing company Carlton & United Breweries.

Carlton reps are visiting New Zealand to watch a few holes of their new sponsorship baby, the Crown Lager NZ Golf Open.

The company aims to align the brand with New Zealand golf - mirroring the beer's profile across the Tasman - and bask in the glow of huge sales growth several of its exports to this country enjoyed in December.

Supermarket sales have proven a saviour for Carlton beers, which have struggled to establish themselves against New Zealand market leaders Lion and DB despite the international profile of Fosters and Victoria Bitter brands.

Brewery-aligned liquor outlets have refused to stock Carlton Stripe since the product was introduced, and while the brewer has managed to place product in the new bars and restaurants sprouting up around Auckland, it has had trouble breaking into the beer-drinking heartland.

"[Our beers] have traditionally been strong through independents, but we've had problems getting distribution to the 'blue collar mate's pubs,' and especially getting Carlton Stripe onto the taps at those pubs," says marketing vice-president Paul Kennedy.

The lack of franchise problem still exists, although as with most breweries Carlton sees supermarkets providing a more level playing field.

The company sells a variety of beers in New Zealand, although Carlton Stripe and Crown Lager are the most important brands.

They are supported by a team of 50 Carlton reps, who Mr Kennedy says are "patiently building the brand names -- you can't knock the established Kiwi brands off their perch in five minutes."

Carlton Stripe -- a "mainstream" beer headed straight for the shorts-and-Swanndri set - had been specifically developed for New Zealand markets by Carlton and had the requisite dark, malty, sweet taste, as well as the lower alcohol content, Kiwis prefer in their everyday beer.

It was launched in New Zealand in 1998 and promptly caused DB and Lion to lower their prices, sparking a price war that causes bad feeling between the players to this day.

Crown Lager, a premium beer marketed at "everyone and no one," says Mr Kennedy, has been in New Zealand since the mid-eighties and has benefited the most from supermarket sales, targeting a more sophisticated market.

Overall, Carlton Stripe has clawed out a 4 per cent share of the mainstream beer market and Crown Lager just over 10 per cent of the premium beer market, giving the company current gross (retail) revenues of $55 million a year from New Zealand.

Even so, Australia's largest brewing company is still a small player in New Zealand.

Despite pouring over $3 million into the launch of Carlton Stripe in 1998, the company says it is too early to speak of returns on investment on that brand yet.

But Carlton is heartened by a 90 per cent growth in sales volumes of Carlton Stripe over December, with Crown Lager up 150 per cent in the same month, which has contributed to an overall business growth of 3 per cent in the year-to-date.

The "phenomenal" growth is seen as a portent of things to come, according to Mr Kennedy, an expat Kiwi and ex-Lion Nathan man.

Although he admits supermarket sales will plateau and drop back from a rush on festivity buying, he is adamant supermarket sales have breathed life into the industry.

"Australia sees New Zealand as a very exciting market, with a lot of opportunity yet for growth," he says.

"If New Zealand was a state of Australia, it would be the fourth biggest market."

While the New Zealand competition seems like a David and Goliath scenario, in Australia the company's situation is much more a meeting of equals. Lion and Carlton are slugging it out for market share across the Tasman, with Lion pre-eminent in Queensland and Western Australia and Carlton holding Victoria, the Northern Territory and Tasmania.

Competition between the two breweries in New South Wales has reached fever pitch, where Lion-owned brands -- including NSW mainstay Tooheys - and Carlton have almost equal market share.

"Beer wars are alive and well in Australia," he says.

Back here, Mr Kennedy says the large New Zealand brewers are more likely to be "obsessed" with each other than with Carlton, but "they will have to keep their eyes on us."

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