Star lager beer, an iconic brand in Nigeria, promises the good life: warm, humorous friends, happy and energetic music, and an inspired and vivacious attitude toward life. This, the brand has learned, not only promotes the product, but also grows loyalty and goodwill among its consumers—a prudent means of selling beer, and an important one when it comes to brand strategy.
Star lager beer, 60-years-old, is brewed and marketed by Nigerian Breweries Plc in Nigeria. It commands the biggest market share (60 percent) in the local and West African beer markets. Nigerian Breweries is an affiliate company of Heineken, and the brand is brewed to the standards of Heineken of the Netherlands.
The first bottle of Star rolled off the bottling line of Nigerian Breweries at Iganmu, Lagos, on June 2, 1949. Little did the early brewers know that it would become the powerful brand it is today—especially considering the intense competition from imported brands of beer at that time.
Nigerian Breweries has grown since the coming of Star lager. Today it operates five brewery plants in different parts of Nigeria and brews and markets quality brands while delivering superior customer satisfaction in an environmentally friendly way. Star lager remains its flagship brand—making the biggest contribution to turnover and profit—in a portfolio of seven other brands of alcoholic beverages, malt and soft drinks.
The October 2008 edition of Nibrew News, the company’s in-house monthly magazine reports Nigerian Breweries’ CEO and managing director, Michiel J. Herkemij, as charging the company staff to think quality first. “We need to set the pace in the industry through superior quality. Simply put, it is quality that continues to set us apart.”
Star lager is a sparkling, smoothly textured, clearly light beer with a beautifully retained head and is easily drinkable. And this brand, in content and container, continues to demonstrate Heineken’s core values of respect, enjoyment and passion for quality—but with an African context.
Challenges from the Beginning
At its inception, Star lager faced considerable challenges. First, the fledgling Nigerian Breweries that produced Star had to compete against popular imported brands. Because the palates of Nigerian beer drinkers were accustomed to the taste of imported beer brands, Star lager had to build trust with the minds and tastes buds of Nigerian consumers.
Furthermore, brewing in Nigeria—from bottling to packaging—was difficult, especially since there wasn’t a bottle maker operating in Nigeria then. Management of Nigerian Breweries employed two strategies to address these challenges. One: it devised a unique sales method that made Star lager readily available to consumers. Two: Heineken dispatched its technical director, J.A Emmens, to Nigeria in 1950 to ensure compliance with Heineken’s quality standards. In his report to Amsterdam, Emmens wrote: “The brewery looks good…the beer itself is really excellent…comes closer to Heineken’s beer in terms of quality than any other beer from any of our other foreign breweries.”
Modern day challenges are even tougher and more complex. Maintaining market leadership is demanding, and Star faces increasing competition from other market challengers led by Harp lager, from the stable of Guinness Nigeria Plc, another Nigerian brewery affiliated with a foreign brewing giant. Also, product counterfeiting and adulteration remain problematic, forcing breweries in Nigeria to differentiate by changing the contours and shapes of their bottles, the main form of packaging their beverage brands.
In 2000, Star lager introduced new bottles to the market, and in 2007, the drink was rolled out in cans to broaden market appeal. However, distribution and logistical challenges remain high in a market where heavy-duty delivery trucks and vans are ravaged by bad roads and poor infrastructure. Breweries also spend heavily to run their power generating sets because the public power supply is not steady.
Religious faith is another challenge. The increasing number of born-again Christians in Nigeria who do not drink alcoholic beverages is a force to contend with. Also, Sharia, the Islamic code, frowns on alcohol consumption and has restricted the sale of alcoholic beverages to certain markets—particularly in northern states in Nigeria with large Muslim populations.
Star lager survived almost lethal economic policies like the era of managing returnable bottles, state price controls on finished consumer products, the regime of raising duties on imported malted barley and sugar (the main raw materials), and the substitution of imported barley with locally cultivated grains—like sorghum—for brewing beer in the mid 1980s.
Felix Ohiwerei, veteran staff of Nigerian Breweries for more than three decades and then-MD/CEO of the company, looks back at that difficult period: “Obviously, my biggest challenge, and perhaps achievement, was the task of piloting the company through a rather difficult period of transition from the use of imported malted barley to 100 percent local materials, because if we had failed, the company may not have survived.”
Star is heavily promoted in annual musical concerts in Nigeria. The cities of Lagos and Abuja continue to host the annual Star Mega Jam to strengthen bonding with loyal consumers and promote excitement. American hip-hop artists Usher, Kanye West and T-Pain have been featured in this Jam, thrilling fans who attend the concerts to enjoy the brighter life.
Star Trek is another musical promotional platform sponsored by Star lager. It features primarily Nigerian musicians who tour through various cities entertaining fans. Edem Vindah, brand communications manager for Nigerian Breweries, explains this strategy: “The proposition is to continue to share the brighter life wherever we are.” He adds that the 2008 experience reflected the core values of Star, which are fun, brightness, sociability and celebration. Sampson Oloche, senior brand manager for Star lager, explains the 2008 event offered fans the opportunity to trek with music stars and was enjoyed by both groups.
The profile of Star lager rose in March 2008 when Campaign, a western magazine, featured Star lager’s commercial (on cans)—the first time the magazine featured work on a Nigerian brand. The magazine noted that “Star…is looking to consolidate and extend its market leadership with a new commercial that was filmed in the US, and given its finishing touches by a UK post production team.”
And for three years running, the National Institute of Marketing of Nigeria has awarded Star lager the Brand of the Year Award in the lager category.
Another reason for the brand to celebrate.