How a little hard pressed creativity with the core business hit the mark (twice)

The Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1960

Harold Macmillan was right on the money when he talked about the winds of change. 

In 1960, they were blowing strong, and they weren’t just signalling the end of the British Empire but also beaching fading flotsam like the News Chronicle, Farthings and National Service. The winds were also bringing us surprising new stuff like Coronation Street, black plastic dustbin bags, and an achingly cool TV advert for a new presentation of a very old drink. 

Cider fermented from the juice of apples and pears was probably first introduced by the Normans and soon developed strong roots in the west and south west of England. It wasn’t always a rustic habit. There had been a time in the 18th century when, thanks to John Scudamore and the cider apple he grew called Redstreak, English cider became, at least momentarily, quite the fashion in European society.

But it’s the Bulmers of Credenhill, Hereford who more than anyone succeeded in bringing cider permanently out of its farmhouse bucolic haze and into the Major League of international drinks brands. Cider has always been a somewhat schizophrenic drink. On the one hand, it was known as an easy drinking alcohol for debutante drinkers, and on the other, for an altogether harder, more edgy glass, characterised by park bench drinking and the street legend of the Snakebite. Over successive generations, the Bulmer family proved to be skilful brand managers and created two differently positioned brands to represent this dichotomy. The first was called Woodpecker, a copper coloured, medium-sweet cider made by Percy Bulmer in 1894, which featured as its pack icon a little Green Woodpecker. This will be familiar to many ageing Baby Boomers would have taken it in flagons to parties 50 years ago. 

Strongbow, launched in 1960, was a very different proposition. Made with bitter sharp apples and a little culinary fruit to tame the tartness and the tannins, Strongbow was an attractive presentation of the more adult side of the cider box. Named after one of the great medieval Marcher families famous for their prowess at biff and bang along the border, Strongbow was launched with a black and white TV ad by Leo Burnett which starred a cool, Bond-like archer whose draw and subsequent release symbolised the brand’s ability to cut through thirst. The advert also introduced the double-arrow-thud-thud which has since served as a superb brand Mnemonic and identifier.

Soon, Strongbow became the premium dry cider that took on the lagers which all the major brewers were now investing huge amounts of money in. In a bigger long drinks game of share-of-throat, Strongbow grew aggressively by successfully innovating in packaging formats (keg, cans, PET bottles) and to a lesser extent with brand derivatives and line extensions, and became the prime engine of HP Bulmer’s growth in the UK and far beyond.

The Brand Historian has always had a soft spot for Bulmers, having worked for the company and its portfolio of brands since his rookie days in 1977, and especially when in 1986, it became a founder client of The Value Engineers.  The cider market has had its ups and downs over the years. Like the rolling border hills which surround Hereford, cider sales will no doubt continue to rise and fall as fashions and seasons change, but I am quite sure that Strongbow will be refreshened by the prevailing winds of change and those famous arrows will hit the mark once more.

A Bulmers 1960 Playlist:

Woodpecker Yellow Dot Bikini Brian Hyland

Strongbow Apache The Shadows

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