An Odd Solution to the Schleswig-Holstein Question?

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1978

Donald Pleasance was surely one of the most characterful of all British character actors. In a long career, he created a veritable gallery of movie villains including Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Doctor Crippen, Heinrich Himmler and Thomas Cromwell. Terrence Pettigrew wonderfully describes the Pleasance magic like this:

“He has the potent combination of eyes and voice. The eyes can be mournful, but they can also be sinister or just plain nutty. He has the kind of piercing stare which lifts the enamel off saucepans.”

He was also a brilliant stage actor winning various awards including one for his Robespierre inspired nerd in Anouilh’s Pauvre Bitos. Even in a more agreeable role such as the mild-mannered POW in The Great Escape, Pleasance played a forger. With such an interesting hinterland, it was inevitable that the world of advertising would soon call on his services.

In The Bluffer’s Guide to Marketing, the Brand Historian’s official manifesto, co-written with Dr Graham Harding, I described my early career at an advertising hot shop in Paddington called French Gold Abbott. Here I worked on Swedish cars, British intelligence, and German lager. The German lager was Holsten Diat Pils, and in 1978 this Hamburg bottled beer got the Pleasance treatment at an interesting moment in the UK Lager Wars.

Hamburg is one of many towns in Germany with a long history of brewing. A proud member of the Hanseatic trading League, its brewing rights were guaranteed in mediaeval times by Duke Adolph III of Schleswig-Holsten, still remembered as the black knight who appears in the Holsten brand identity on bottles and cans.

In the 1970s, British Brewers were engaged in killing off high effort, unreliable real ales and driving drinkers to 3% lightweight, easy drinking so called standard lagers. The market for these was growing rapidly and there followed a race to find new premium segments and also existing European lager brand assets that could be plugged into the UK market.

Holsten Diat Pils stood in powerful contrast to the pretty bog-standard lagers that were driving the lager market. Stronger, drier (but with a hint of sweetness too), Holsten Diat Pils had been originally brewed for diabetics. Packing a 5.8% punch after all the sugar had been turned into alcohol, it was also of course, despite the name, packed with calories. The brand had been available in the UK from 1948, but it came into its own in the 1970s when, with the distribution clout of Grand Met, it became one of the defining brands of what came to be known as Premium Packaged Lagers. Holsten did this by building an effective coalition of regular drinkers which included students, slimmers, headbangers and even real ale renegades. This was at least in part a consequence of the brilliant launch advertising which Holsten and French Gold Abbott created drawing on the services of Donald Pleasance.

In one of the best examples of edgy brand positioning, the ads featured Donald Pleasance sitting menacingly, drinking Holsten Diat Pils with a pet crocodile looking on. This was Blofeld. This was a beer story seen through those eyes and told in that voice. This was the Odd Lager. Could there have been a better star to light the blue touchpaper for Holsten Brauerei? Soon there was an extremely valuable new market sector called Pils and Holsten was fighting off lots of contenders for the Pils crown.

But in 1978, French Gold Abbott, Holsten’s agency and my first home after Oxford, was beset with trouble at the top. In the space of months, Messrs French, Gold and Abbott had all left to set up new agencies. Michael Gold took with him the FGA Holsten account supremo, Mike Greenlees, to form GGT. This agency would take Holsten in a very different creative direction.

It would be another 28 years before I worked on Holsten again and that would be after the proud Hanseatic brewer had fallen into the hands of the neighbouring Danes. The black knight was now fighting alongside Carlsberg in a new phase of the world beer wars and I was working with the team in Hamburg and Copenhagen.

But for me, 1978 remains the special time. I can still picture Holsten’s highly-charged yellow, red and green livery flashing oddly bright in the autumnal brownness of the late 1970s.

Music with which to drink the night away:

Baker Street Gerry Rafferty

Essential reading matter:

Daft about Lager Rohan Daft

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