The McEwan Sessions

By The Drum, Administrator

May 5, 2005 | 8 min read

When Scottish & Newcastle announced its plan to close the historic Fountainbridge Brewery in Edinburgh last February, beer enthusiasts were up in arms. Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale group, publicly voiced its concern that McEwan’s – once one of S&N’s flagship brands, but rarely marketed for the last five years – would be dumped as the brewer moved its operations to the nearby Caledonian Brewery.

However, Scottish Courage – the UK division of S&N – had other ideas for the brand. At the Marketing Excellence Awards on 22 April, the brewer scooped the Business Excellence Award for Marketing Achievement in a Large Enterprise for its McEwan’s Sessions campaign, beating Miller Homes and Scottish Power. It is now one of two finalists to go on to the ‘final’ in London.

The ethos of McEwan’s Sessions is simple: get people into pubs to hear traditional music and drink McEwan’s ale. Sound easy? Not with the ale market suffering a market decline for many years and a common brand perception of a fuddy-duddy, ‘old man’s drink’.

Many people assume that the McEwan’s Sessions project started as a PR driver when criticism was levied at S&N for closing the Fountainbridge Brewery, however the idea actually came from a project in 2003. “Brian Sharp [managing director at Scottish Brewers, Scottish Courage’s on-trade arm] and I did a project with VisitScotland to promote pubs generically, and as an important part of tourism,” said Graeme Atha, managing director at Crak Marketing, chairman of the Scottish Marketing Association, and the project co-ordinator and marketing consultant for McEwan’s Sessions. “It was a fifty-fifty funded project with Scottish Brewers, Scottish Courage’s on-trade arm, and VisitScotland.”

The project consisted of a small booklet guide to great pubs across Scotland, with a particular focus on traditional, community pubs.

“We thought of moving that on generically to focus on an aspect of pub culture and these traditional music sessions in pubs, seemed to be a niche in the generic broad sense of pubs,” he said. “One of the key experiences when you go abroad is the pubs and the locals. When you go somewhere, you want to go where the locals are. VisitScotland did research that showed that what tourists actually wanted from Scotland was social engagement, and we weren’t providing that.”

Implementing the campaign wasn’t as easy as you’d think. Known for their apathy, many publicans take a lot of convincing to try new things, something the brand acknowledged.

“Pubs know they’ve got to add value to the experience,” said Atha. “It’s scary the amount of pubs that are up for sale. They’ve got a smoking ban about to kick in and there’s licensing reform, so it’s not easy in the pub trade at the moment. You can no longer just open your pub and expect people to come in. You’ve got to work at it.”

The Scottish Brewers’ brand development team identified 100 pubs across Scotland that would be suitable for trial sessions, and each series of sessions were programmed over a three to four week period. To maximise local community take up, the sessions were clustered geographically. Scottish Brewers’ PR team at Citigate Smarts and the PR department of VisitScotland informed local press about events to increase footfall, and details of each session were posted on a specially created microsite on the VisitScotland website, the URL of which was printed on posters, banners and in ads. VisitScotland also ensured details of sessions were included in any promotional literature where appropriate.

A link with The List magazine created ‘The McEwan’s Sessions Traditional Music Guide – with VisitScotland’, which carried details of musicians involved in the sessions and of all the venues. Fifteen established traditional music festivals across Scotland were approached and sponsored by McEwan’s, which included a reciprocal deal for Scottish Brewers to approach potential new customers.

A big part of the strategy was to reclaim McEwan’s brand heritage of community and quality, so the branding embraced this with a strapline saying ‘McEwan’s Sessions – a legend in your local’.

“From a cultural point of view traditional music adds value to people’s experience,” said Atha. “It’s so much better than watching MTV or karaoke or a quiz night. It’s not obtrusive, or in your face. The obvious contrast for traditional music is between Scotland and Ireland, but in Ireland music is in most pubs, and you get this experience everywhere. Here, the norm is no bands in pubs, except for only every now and again.”

To ensure pubs were busy, Scottish Courage merchandised each outlet itself using bunting, banners, beer-mats and flyers. Bar staff were also given branded McEwan’s Sessions t-shirts.

The sessions themselves were free to customers and publicans, with Scottish Courage paying for promotional work and even the band. Choosing the latter was an important part of the project, as no-one would stay to see a rubbish band, therefore negating the project.

“There has to be a consistent level of quality which is why we got involved with the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland,” said Kirsty Larson, assistant brand manager on McEwan’s at Scottish Courage. “It gives the project credibility, and we know that they know what they’re doing. They want obviously to encourage traditional music; and we’re keen to establish a relationship between people running the pubs and musicians.”

Atha agrees that it can be difficult for pubs to do this on their own. “There’s no ‘traditional music’ category in the Yellow Pages,” he said. “Pubs who have music know the musicians, or know someone who knows them.”

TMSA co-ordinates the sessions, finding musicians to fit the pubs’ requirements.

The McEwan’s Sessions concept was launched at The West End Festival, in Glasgow, in May, with Capercaillie as the headline act, with other bands playing throughout the two-week festival. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival was also used as well to showcase traditional music in an otherwise traditional-music-free festival.

St Andrew’s Day in November was identified as another opportunity to promote sessions in a normally quiet month.


Clearly, there is no point running a campaign if the effectiveness isn’t tracked. “Scottish Courage doesn’t just do things for promotional reasons, it has to be accountable and deliver volumes,” said Atha. “We have very specific objectives. As long as we show a return on investment, Scottish Courage is happy.”

Scottish Courage evaluated all the sessions in its customers’ pubs, in particular looking at sales of other Scottish Courage brands as well as McEwan’s brands. A 3.8 per cent uplift in McEwan’s sales was discovered, with increased sales on the other brands too. With the involvement in the music festivals, new distribution leads were also identified.

“The ale market has been down overall year-on-year, and McEwan’s is down six per cent year-on-year,” said Larson. “We did an evaluation following the sessions and worked out the majority were ordering additional kegs for the sessions.”

Trade evaluation of the 100 participants showed that 82 per cent of outlets found the sessions increased traffic, and therefore sales, while 93 per cent of outlets were keen to be involved in the 2005 programme. Independent research commissioned by VisitScotland, through The Progressive Partnership, found that 64 per cent of the 133 interviewees recalled McEwan’s as the sponsor. VisitScotland’s research also showed that the programme was introducing many people to traditional music, with 37 per cent of respondents admitting to never having heard live traditional music in pubs before.

Millward Brown’s tracking study from December 2004 found that McEwan’s is the brand with the greatest familiarity and genuine heritage in the Scottish ale market.

The future

Part of the trade evaluation research discovered that 78 per cent of the publicans involved were willing to part fund the programme in 2005, showing its success. For 2005, publicans will be asked to fund one-third of the cost of putting on the bands by putting £20 towards the cost of a single musician, with the brewer putting £40. A maximum of £1,000 per outlet has been pledged.

“Last year the focus was about getting sessions up and running and seeing if it would work and improve our trade relations,” said Larson. “This year we’ve got a lot more buy-in from pubs and we’re expecting the pubs to do more of the work.”

“The natural evolution is that it pays for itself,” said Atha. “But for pubs to go from paying nothing to paying the whole cost is too much, so we’re doing it gradually. I think what’s made this a success was that it’s real. We didn’t create something; we just reflected it. There is an incredibly vibrant culture in the traditional music sector. And it’s not all old fogies with beards; it’s young guys who bring world influences to it. It’s not Jimmy Shand or the Corries.”


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