If You Don’t Get Boddies, You Don’t Get Beer

A look at the rise of Boddingtons, and the advertising campaign that launched it onto the national and then international stage.

In the past few weeks I've mentioned beer-related advertising campaigns once or twice so I thought I'd share one of my favourites with you. TV commercials are often thought of as something to be avoided, and to be honest many of them are dull, uninteresting or just plain awful which is why so many of us set our PVRs to skip the ads when we're recording a TV programme, but we've all got favourites from the past and if you're like me you can sometimes idly waste an hour or more watching ad breaks from the past on YouTube. Sad but true. But I reckon that beer has been responsible for some of the most creative and memorable advertising campaigns.

I guess most of you are familiar with Boddingtons, even if you've never tried it. I had never heard of it until the late 1970s when I visited a friend who had recently moved to Manchester. It was one of the first beers to open my eyes to good, honest cask-conditioned ale after all that gassy keg bitter I'd been drinking in London for the past four or five years. I actually ended up living in Manchester for a few years not long afterwards, and the beer was a big part of my decision to move north.

A little history: The Strangeways Brewery was founded in 1778 but it didn't become Boddingtons until 1853 when Henry Boddington (who had joined the company as a rep and gradually rose to the position of partner) became sole proprietor of the business. And business was good. Boddingtons grew to become the biggest brewer in Manchester, and over the following decades it prospered as a family-owned independent brewery until bought by Whitbread in 1989.

Boddingtons had always been a regional brewer, largely unknown outside Lancashire and surrounding counties, and Boddingtons Bitter (which had always been a cask-conditioned beer) was very highly regarded. Soon after its acquisition of the brewery, Whitbread decided to make Boddingtons a national brand, and this is where the advertising part of our story begins.

A London-based advertising agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, was engaged to develop a campaign, and one of their copywriters came up with the tagline "Boddingtons. The cream of Manchester" - a reference to the smooth, creamy head that Boddingtons was noted for, and 'cream' as in 'cream of the crop'. Pretty soon some very clever and creative images started to appear in magazines and on billboards, such as this:

and this:

and my favourite:

Not long afterwards a couple of television commercials aired, based on the same theme. Before you watch the first one you need to view this to get a frame of reference. It was a TV ad from the 1980s for an ice cream cone called Wall's Cornetto.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty took that idea and ran with in spectacular fashion, creating one of the most popular British TV ads of the 1990s

Then they focused their attention on a style of advertising normally used for upmarket perfumes; the kind of commercial you rarely see outside the Christmas season, depicting incredibly wealthy and sophisticated folk in lavish surroundings, wearing expensive outfits that you and I can only dream of:

I think the swan is a touch of genius.

Then there was a change in direction. Continuing with the 'cream' aspect of the beer, BBH picked a relatively unknown lingerie model - Melanie Sykes - who had a broad Lancashire accent, and continued to spoof yet more styles of advertising, such as car/running shoe commercials

Commercials for sunscreen

Click here. Embedding, sadly, disabled.

And those surreal 'Calvin Klein Obsession' commercials

The ads strongly promoted Boddingtons as a product of northern England, not just with the "Cream of Manchester" slogan, but with references to Blackpool, chip fat, 'trollies' (a colloquialism for mens' undergarments) and with much use of the phrase "By 'eck!" ('goodness gracious!'). Both Boddingtons and Melanie Sykes did exceptionally well from the campaign. Boddingtons went on to become a global brand which today is owned and marketed by AB Inbev, and Melanie Sykes used the success of the ads to launch a career as a TV presenter.

Unfortunately the Boddies star has dimmed somewhat in the past few years. The Strangeways Brewery was closed in 2005 and demolished a year or two later; production of cask Boddingtons was contracted out to another Manchester Brewery - Hydes. All other Boddingtons beers are now made at a brewery to the north of Manchester and in Wales. AB Inbev (and Interbrew as it was before the acquisition of Anheuser Busch) have let the brand slide somewhat, having hardly promoted it at all in the last five or six years.