They say there's no such thing as bad â¨publicity, and that's certainly a view that Slater's Ales would endorse. The Staffordshire brewer saw sales of its "Top Totty" brew double in early 2012 after Labour MP Kate Green objected to the beer being sold in the House of Commons on the grounds that its name and branding were demeaning. Many pubs placed orders as a result of the press coverage.
However, not all controversies over the way a beer presents itself end as happily for the brewer. Jody Scheckter, the ex-Formula One champion who now runs the Laverstoke Park Farm organic food range, is facing a battle with alcohol industry watchdog the Portman Group who ruled the branding on his beers must be changed.
There is intense pressure on the drinks industry to ensure that the name, branding and labelling of alcohol products is seen to be responsible. Even though the major brand owners have done the hard work in terms of compliance, many operators still see the appeal of offering their own-label beer or wine.
In summer 2012, the Mitchell's & Butlers-owned Nicholson's brand launched its own cask beer, Nicholson's Pale Ale. The beer, brewed for the group by St Austell Brewery, now accounts for almost one in five pints of cask beer sold by Nicholson's, and is expected to pass the half a million pint sales mark over the Christmas trading period.
While the beer's name may sound uncontroversial, Ben Lockwood, Nicholson's assistant brand manager, says: "Putting the Nicholson's brand on a pump clip is quite a big step for us, because many of our customers may not even know that they're in a Nicholson's pub.
"We wanted to put something on the bar that our customers could become loyal to, as they're loyal to our individual pubs."Working with St Austell ensured that all â¨the branding conformed to regulations, while the beer, described as "a contemporary twist on a traditional cask beer" has built a strong following among the brand's younger, urban clientele.
Mitch Adams, licensee of the Thatcher's Arms freehouse pub in Mount Bures, Essex, believes authenticity is the key to an own-brand beer. He says: "If the pub's name is on the pump clip, then I think customers have the right to expect that the pub has been involved in creating the beer."
Adams has collaborated with local brewers to make beers served at regular beer festivals through the year. The most recent is Anne Downes, brewed by Adams in collaboration with Colchester Brewery. "It's named after someone who owned the pub in the days when it was an ale house and beer was brewed on the premises."
Adams confesses he didn't make any official enquiries to check that the name complied with all the rules. "But it's an issue I'm aware of," he says. "I often see a dubiously-named beer and ask myself how they got away with it."
One way to ensure conformity with the rules is to work with a labelling specialist. Wholesaler Booker offers a wine list service that allows businesses to put their own label on the front of the bottle, with the back label meeting legal requirements as well as offering a description of the wine.
The Beeches pub, in Ashby, Leicestershire, uses the service for its Beeches-branded house red, white and rosé. Manager Jane Reid â¨says: "It's a personal touch which customers â¨really like. Booker has been very supportive â¨in working with us, and we sell a lot of wine this way."
A pale ale called the Writer's Block was specially brewed to celebrate the opening of the Broad Chare pub in Newcastle in May 2011. Formerly a theatre box office and operating alongside the Live Theatre, the pub is run by chef and restaurateur Terry Laybourne's â¨21 Hospitality Group.
Having built his reputation on serving fresh, locally sourced produce, Laybourne says: "I wanted a house ale that would sit comfortably alongside the range of bar snacks we were in the process of developing. I also saw an opportunity to demonstrate a point of difference when launching the Broad Chare."
The beer, brewed by award-winning Wylam Brewery, now accounts for around 40% of cask ale sales at the pub.
Do's and Don'ts of â¨own brand development
Ross Bennie, chief executive of drinks development specialist Capricorn Brands, offers some tips for successful own â¨brands.
â- Assign dedicated staff to focus on the creative, logistics and quality control of the operation.
â- Invest in design - a relevant and suitable label makes that choice more appealing to the consumer.
â- Be realistic about volumes - large enough quantities must be sold to justify the investment in time and the financial risks associated with stock levels and production.
â- Customer inertia and lack of brand familiarity are hard perceptions to overcome without proper training for front-of-house or bar staff.
â- Talk to front-of-house staff - they are best placed to know what the consumer wants/buys/needs.
â- Be prepared to change the labelling or â¨the liquid in order to respond to new â¨trends.
â- Don't just focus on the margin, look at â¨the whole cost, including the risks associated with overstocking and the â¨time involved.
Former Formula One champion falls foul of Portman Group
A child's drawing of a farmer has recently put the role of the Portman Group (see below) into the spotlight. Former Formula One champion Jody Scheckter, who now runs an organic food and drink business, has described a ban on the labelling of his beers by the group as "nonsensical".
A decade ago, Scheckter's four-year-old â¨son drew a picture of his dad in the green wellies and overalls that Scheckter wears while working on the Laverstoke Park Farm estate in Hampshire. The drawing, renamed "Mr Laverstoke", has become part of the branding for the estate's products. Five years ago, the range expanded to include an organic ale and lager, with Mr Laverstoke appearing in front of a hop vine holding a glass.
The beers have sold more than 170,000 bottles, with on-trade stockists including Bistro Bruno Loubet in Clerkenwell.
However, following a single complaint from a member of the public who had come across Laverstoke Park Farm Lager in a supermarket, the Portman Group ruled in October that the image could appeal to under-18s. Unless Scheckter changes the labelling, he faces seeing stockists withdraw the product to avoid breaching the Portman Group Code.
Scheckter is adamant that the change is unnecessary, especially in light of the panel's comment that while the image "would be unlikely to appeal to older children, it would be likely to have a particular appeal to younger children."
He also believes he has been singled out while bigger brand escape sanctions, citing a decision in September that a promotion for Pernod-Ricard's Absolut vodka brand using images by comic artist Jamie Hewlett did not appeal to under-18s.
Scheckter says: "I don't think anyone in their right mind believes four-year-olds are starting to drink beer because of our label. As a small company, we cannot afford a nationwide advertising campaign to relaunch the product so the potential for our losses is considerable and it may mean that it is no longer viable for us to produce our award-winning beers."
Portman Group chief executive Henry Ashworth responds: "No producer is exempt from the rules of the code. The impartiality of the Independent Complaints Panel and their decisions should not be called into question."
Scheckter has now contacted the nine drinks companies that fund the watchdog, calling for reform of the process. He insists: "I have no intention of bowing down to the Portman Group. In my opinion, it is because they are not challenged that they make such nonsensical decisions and I hope the retailers who have responsible and intelligent buyers will stand up for what they think is right rather than kowtowing to whatever the Portman Group dictates."
The Portman Group - Alcohol marketing arbiter
The Portman Group (www.portmangroup.org.uk) was established in 1989 by the alcohol industry, with a brief to promote sensible drinking and help prevent alcohol misuse. In 1996, when the arrival of "alcopops" on the UK market prompted concern about the way brands were being promoted to younger drinkers in particular, the group's role expanded to include alcohol marketing, and includes issues such as naming, packaging, merchandising, and sampling.
In 2006, the Portman Group's educational funding and resources were transferred to a new charity, The Drinkaware Trust, leaving its most high-profile role as the arbiter of what is acceptable in terms of alcohol marketing. The group acts on complaints received, which can come from members of the public or interested bodies such as Alcohol Concern.
Decisions are made by an independent panel, currently chaired by Sir Richard Tilt, a former director general of the Prison Service. The panel makes its decision in the context of the Portman Group's code of practice, which has just been revised, with the latest version coming into effect in May 2013.
While the Portman Group's rulings are not legally enforceable, the industry widely sees self-regulation as preferable to statutory controls over alcohol marketing. In practice, brands which are judged to have breached the code are not stocked by on-trade and off-trade retailers unless the breach is remedied.
An operator considering launching its own alcohol brand can submit details to the Portman Group to ensure it complies with the rules. The group offers the following advice:
What is the process for submitting a new brand for consideration? Producers should contact the Portman Group's free and confidential Code Advisory Service by eâ'mailing details of the product or promotion to firstname.lastname@example.org. They will advise whether there are any elements of the creative which could be a problem under the code. It is best to get advice at the earliest stage in developing the product.
How long does the process take? Advice requests are usually processed within 48 hours.
Is there a direct cost for submitting a brand? There is no cost. The Advisory Service is free and confidential to all alcohol producers and their agencies.
Are there guidelines for brand designers available? There are detailed guidance notes on the code rules available from the Portman Group website.
What are the most common problems with brands submitted? While advice given by the Code Advisory Team is confidential, problems arise if there is a particular appeal to children, or the promotion is potentially encouraging excessive or irresponsible drinking. Marketers should also take care not to imply that the drink itself could make you more popular or successful or enhance other physical qualities.