As an academic my work takes me on many journeys to many places. This weekend Lancaster University was the host, where I attended the Mobilities, Literature, Culture conference (and many congratulations must go to Charlotte, Marian and Lynne for staging such an excellent couple of days).
There were however other delights to be sampled in Lancaster, and on the Thursday evening I ended up at the excellent and cosy Ye Olde John O’Gaunt, a home for good real ale, live music most nights, and brewery memorabilia, which includes a healthy beer mat collection. Beer mats are disposable items, there to rescue tables from drips and spills, to add colour, and to be cast away when worn out. But they can also act as powerful marketing tools, putting a brand or message in front of users repeatedly. The decision by Tim Martin, the founder or Wetherspoons, to print 200,000 beer mats during the Brexit campaign calling for UK to leave EU is case in point: it got a single message to many thousands of people quickly and efficiently. For historians, beer mats can therefore act as a window into the messages brewers want to convey, and their marketing strategies.
It is at this point that I should mention Watneys Red Barrel. The name is infamous amongst drinkers, this 1960s beer remaining a watchword for ‘crap’. The reputation is such that if you type ‘Watneys’ into Google, the first thing that comes up is ‘Watneys Red Barrel.’ The beer’s fame also has had resonance through the generations. My close friends talk about it with disdain, despite being too young to have ever tasted it. I too treat the beer as a comedy product, and on seeing this beer mat at Ye Olde John O’Gaunt duly posted it on Twitter to elicit a response.
It is nonetheless too easy to sweep Red Barrel under the carpet as simply ‘that crap thing we don’t have to tolerate any more’, and indeed there are numerous problems with the post-barrel memory. Firstly, Red Barrel was initially promoted as a premium product, and it was found on the QE2 and British European Airways flights. Also, the really dire beer was its successor, Watney’s Red, but even this was only around between 1971 and 1975, it being roundly rejected by punters and then discontinued.
It is also important to remember that Red Barrel was promoted through sophisticated and well-thought out marketing strategies, that tried to shape consumers’ discretionary choices by tapping into cultural understandings of the age. Firstly, as the beer mat shows, there was an attempt to connect it with the recent memory of the camaraderie of wartime, the slogan ‘Roll the Red Barrel’ being a riff of the popular wartime song ‘Roll out the Barrel’. The beer was therefore by association hoping to promote itself as part of a culture togetherness and fellowship, something that perhaps was designed to appeal to established beer consumers.
On the other hand, at a time when the consumption of beer amongst the younger generation was falling, Watneys sought to evoke the idea that Red Barrel was relevant to them by connecting it with the growing interest in popular music. This is highlighted by the musical notes on the mat, as well as the details being clustered round a centre and the black background, all of which appear similar to a vinyl record. Beyond this, Watneys pushed the association with popular music further by getting the (moderately famous) band The Scaffold drinking the stuff.
In addition, the mat also offered users a chance to win £50. This is more straightforward marketing device, as competitions have been used through the ages to entice users to make a purchase. Although, I have not been able to find out what one had to do to win £50, that’ll remain a mystery for now.
Overall, these are only some quick thoughts, but this one beer mat can tell us a lot about the strategies that Watneys were using to sell Red Barrel. Thinking more broadly though, it also highlights how both brewing and marketing historians can learn a lot from beer mats, and should perhaps do more than simply stand glass on them.
 T.R. Gourvish and R.G. Wilson, The British Brewing Industry, (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), 563.