There are stupid marketeers, and there’s AB-InBev. The Belgo-Brazilians have decided to rename one of the oldest beer brands in Britain, Bass pale ale, a literally iconic IPA, as “Bass Trademark Number One”. It’s a move so clueless, so lacking in understanding of how beer drinkers relate to the beers they drink, I have no doubt it will be held up to MBA students in five years’ time as a classic example of How To Royally Screw Up Your Brand.
The move is predicated upon the red triangle that is found on every bottle of Bass pale ale, and on every pumpclip of the draught version, being the first registered trademark in Britain. The generally accepted story is that after the passing of the Trade Mark Registration Act of 1875, when applications to apply for trademark registration opened on January 1, 1876, a Bass employee was sent to wait overnight outside the registrar’s office the day before in order to be the first in line to file to register a trademark the next morning, and that is why the company has trade mark number one. There is no evidence for this story: but it is certainly true that a label with the triangle on it, and the words “Bass & Co’s Pale Ale” is indeed the UK’s Trade Mark 1, having been the first to be registered on New Year’s Day 1876.
So why now rename a beer that has been around since the 1820s, when Bass first started brewing a bitter pale ale for the Far East market, after an event that happened when that beer was already 50 or more years old? Because AB-InBev is flailing around for a way to rescue the beer, once the most famous in the world, from the miserable position it has been in since, to be honest, long before what was then Interbrew acquired the Bass brands in 2000. Some idiot marketing focus group got together and tried to think of a unique selling point for the beer: and the only one they could come up with was that it bore the UK’s first registered trade mark.
As Pete Brown has already remarked, this is pretty much a result of the AB-InBev mindset, which knows far more about trademarks than it does about beer. Bass pale ale is a beer with a fantastic heritage: it was, for more than a century, a hugely highly regarded brew, globally as well as in the UK (my grandfather told me that before the First World War, he and his pals would scour North London looking for pubs that sold draught Bass), so much so that it suffered more than anyone else from lesser brews being passed off as the red triangle beer. That was one reason why Bass was so keen to register its own trademark as speedily as possible.
Before we continue, here’s a panegyric on Bass from a book published in 1884 called Fortunes Made In Business which will show you how much Bass was an icon:
It is no extravagant assertion to say that throughout the world there is no name more familiar than that of Bass. A household word amongst Englishmen, it is one of the first words in the vocabulary of foreigners whose knowledge of the English language is of the most rudimentary description. And while the cognomen of the great Burton brewer is of cosmopolitan celebrity, there is no geometrical figure so well known as the vermilion triangle which is the trademark on his bottles. It is as familiar to the eye as Her Majesty’s visage on the postage stamps. It would, indeed, be a difficult task to say in what part of the earth that vivid triangle does not gladden the heart of man. Thackeray contended with great humour that far as the meteor flag of England may have carried the glory of this country, the fame of her bitter beer has gone farther still. The word “Bass” is known in places where such names to conjure with as Beaconsfield, Gladstone, Bright, Tennyson and Dickens would be unintelligible sounds. To what corner of the habitable world has not Bass penetrated? He has circumnavigated the world more completely than Captain Cook. The sign of the vermilion triangle is sure evidence of civilisation. That trade mark has travelled from “China to Peru”, from “Greenland’s icy mountains to India’s coral strand”. There it is in Paris or St Petersburg, Madrid or Moscow, Berlin or Bombay, Brussels or Baalbec, New York or Yokohama, San Francisco or San Stefano, Teheran or Trichinopoly. You meet the refreshing label up among Alpine glaciers. and down in the cafes of the Bosphorus; among the gondolas of the Grand Canal at Venice, the dahabeahs at the first cataract on the Nile, and the junks of China. It has reached the “Great Lone Land”. It has refreshed the mighty hunter camping out in Wyoming, Montana or Dakotah. It sparkles before the camp fire of the Anglo-Saxon adventurer out in the wilds of the Far West, and its happy aroma is grateful to the settler in the Australian bush. When the North Pole is discovered, Bass will be found there, cool and delicious.
Bass actually started using the red triangle for its pale ale “many years before 1855”, according to the evidence given in a court case in New Jersey in 1899, when a brewery from Newark called Christian Feigenspan was accused of imitating the Bass trademark. From 1855, casks of draught Bass pale ale carried either a red triangle, a white one or a blue one, depending on whether it was made in the Old Brewery, the Middle Brewery or the New Brewery at Burton. All bottles of Bass pale ale, however, carried only the red triangle, on a label originally designed by George Curzon, a clerk at the company’s London agency, in February 1855.
Curzon’s label was soon imitated: at a parliamentary hearing in 1862 for a trade marks bill that was never passed, the company’s London manager, Thomas Cooper Coxon, told MPs that he had in his collection forged Bass labels from Bremen, from Paris, from Dublin, from Glasgow and from Liverpool, while he had heard of fake Bass labels being sold in Melbourne. At the same time, Coxon said, he had heard that retailers refused to take back empty Bass bottles if the labels had been defaced, the implication being that they were being refilled with inferior beer, recorked and sold to the unsuspecting as genuine Bass.
Even before the Trade Mark Registration Act, trademarks had some protection in law. At Brighton Quarter Sessions in October 1866, John Yeomans, described as a brewer’s agent, was charged with applying or causing to be applied “the trademark of ‘Bass and Company’ to certain bottles containing beer, such beer not being the manufacture of the said company, with intent to defraud Michael Thomas Bass and others … the jury found the defendant guilty, and the Recorder sentenced him to six months’ imprisonment, remarking at the same time that he had made himself liable to imprisonment for two years.”
Bass continued to be the beer of connoisseurs, and the brewery continued to look after it. The Burton Unions were abandoned in the early 1980s, but even 20 years ago, Michael Jackson could write: “The brewery likes the malt for Draught Bass to be made from a single variety of barley, grown in an identifiable stretch of countryside.” After Interbrew won the Bass brands but lost the Bass brewery in Burton to Coors, however, the draught version ended up being brewed at Marston’s brewery in Burton, the bottled edition at the (relatively modern) Salmesbury brewery in Lancashire.
And now the marketeers are about to stuff this formerly famous beer completely by giving it an atrociously nonsensical name, instead of promoting it on its true heritage as THE example of a British India Pale Ale. “Why are you drinking that beer?” “Well, it was the first registered trademark in the UK, you know.” “Tremendous – I must have a pint of it myself straight away.” I’m not sure which is more contemptible: the stupidity of AB-InBev’s marketing department, or the AB-InBev marketing department’s own belief in the stupidity of the people it wants to drink its beers.