In this extract from his new book, Beer Nation: The Heart & Art of Kiwi Beer, Michael Donaldson tells the story of Tui's legendary billboard campaign.
Craft brewer Kelly Ryan, whose career began at Tui's Mangatainoka Brewery, is adamant that Tui's "Yeah right" billboards are 'the single best advertising campaign in New Zealand".
"It turned Tui around. When you look at the sales graphs, they just took off. I grew up in Taranaki, and when I left in about 2003, it was DB, DB, DB, and when I came back, everyone was drinking Tui - it was massive."
The Tui story is possibly the greatest example of a beer- marketing success. It all started with a group of young glaziers in Taradale, Hawke's Bay.
Tui is the second-oldest continuously running brewery in the country, beaten only by Speight's. The brewery is more than 120 years old, but has changed hands several times along the way. It's reported that brewery founder Henry Wagstaff boiled a cup of tea from water in the Mangatainoka River, thought it was the best he had ever had and made the mental leap to a brewery, thinking the best water would make the best beer.
He established his Wagstaff Brewery in 1889. The original beer was known as Wagstaff. Said to be full-bodied, smooth and malty, it was popular in the pubs of Woodville and Pahiatua.
Wagstaff sold the brewery at the turn of the century, when Henry Cowan renamed it the North Island Brewing Company.
Cowan began to make the beer known as Tui East India Pale Ale, and in 1923 the brewery was renamed to reflect what had become a popular and award- winning beer. The famous seven- storeyed tower was added in the 1930s, albeit without lifts or stairs.
Yeah, right, you might say, but it's true. Those necessities were added later.
There was little development during the next three decades, even though the brewery was once partially owned by Guinness, which took a 5 per cent share in 1960 as Tui became the first brewer of the famous Irish stout in New Zealand. (It was the only way Guinness could overcome the restrictive import controls of the time.)
Things changed again for Tui in 1969, when Dominion Breweries, which was rapidly expanding outside Auckland, took it over. DB bought Tui the same year it acquired Westland Breweries.
"When we took over the Tui Brewery, the quality was appalling," recalls former DB general manager Ross Warren. "The cellar was covered with mould. It was a disgusting, dirty mess and [head brewer] Morton Coutts, of course, could see the potential for what we could do down there. We put in a complete new brewery and Tui has been a success ever since.
"The accountant thought we'd made a mistake when [in] one week we made more than their previous year's profits."
A modern brewery, increased profits, new cans, stubbies - yet by the mid-1990s Tui was still little- known outside the Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay regions. Two little words changed everything.
The Tui story begins with Sarah Ottrey, who started at DB in 1993.
"I joined DB as a central marketing manager after six years with Unilever. At the time, DB and Lion both had three regions - Northern, Central and Southern. It was just post-deregulation and we had a new paradigm when it came to marketing beer.
"Some people would say it was all downhill from that point, but I actually think we started growing up about then, especially with beer, which has become a lot more sophisticated since then. Our beer culture has grown considerably."
Under Brian Blake, DB Breweries was taking the first steps towards "understanding its brands" to make up lost ground on Lion Nathan, which had been quicker to broaden its portfolio.
DB had seen the success of Speight's and began to nationalise its own regional brands, notably Tui and Monteith's.
Unfortunately, no-one outside the southeast strip of the North Island had any idea what Tui was about. It was a tiny brewery, producing about 100,000 litres of beer a week. DB's Auckland brewery now makes about 100,000 litres of Tui a day.
"To start somewhere, you have to have your brands anchored," says Ottrey.
"Just like Speight's is anchored in Otago, Tui is anchored in the Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay with the Mangatainoka Brewery at its heart. It was a tiny little brand that in all its 100 years had had no marketing. I'd been working on big brands known around the world like Persil, yet I hadn't met a brand people were quite so passionate about as the people in Hawke's Bay were about Tui. It was like they owned shares in it. They were stakeholders."
The marketing team visited the brewery, where they were met with quizzical looks and, as Ottrey reports, comments such as, "Oh, we've done some major marketing things with Tui - we've put it into cans. Who in their right mind would put something like beer into an orange can? But we realised it was a real bloke's beer, for farmers, shearers. It was a great leveller and it hadn't pigeon-holed itself.
"We thought there was something in there, something around provincial irreverence, an ability to poke fun at itself and others, but [something that] at heart was down to earth and quite pragmatic and didn't have any pretence. The trick was how to capture it and bring it to life."
To get to know their brand better, Ottrey and two young advertising creatives from Mojo, Richard Maddox and Sean Cummins, jumped into a car and took a road trip through the Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay for three days and two nights, talking to drinkers, visiting pubs and conducting focus groups.
"Towards the end, the three of us were shouting a group of young glaziers at their workplace in Taradale, and there are a couple of guys who clearly remember being part of this group and they still stay in touch," Ottrey says. "They were young - 21, 22, 23 - and they were sledging each other and ribbing each other and they were quite witty guys.
"As usual, there's a young kid with a freckly face who doesn't have a girlfriend and doesn't own a car but owns a little motorbike. The others are giving him a hard time about it and he says, 'Actually I don't need a car, I can fit 12 girls on the back of that motorbike,' and the other guys are going, 'Yeah right!' And so he stood up and showed how he could put a crate of Tui on the back, and we were rolling around on the floor laughing.
"Afterwards, we were shooting pool at a pub and saying, if you could capture that camaraderie, the wittiness, the promise of a good time but the safety of being with your mates and bring it to life . . .
"When we got back to Wellington, we found ourselves still saying, 'Yeah right' to each other, and Sean said, 'Why don't we blackboard this?' "
Initially, says Ottrey, the "Yeah right" concept didn't go down well with management, "because they thought it could get too irreverent and offend people, but one of the reasons it got through is because we didn't have any money, so we said, 'We'll get four billboards in the Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay and we'll just paint them out every month - that's really cost- effective'."
And so a good idea and a low budget resulted in billboards that have been part our lives for almost 20 years, and Tui has so appropriated the words "Yeah right" that any use of them immediately conjures up the black and orange of Tui.
The first two billboards read: "We're off to Auckland for the holidays - Yeah right" and "No jeans, no singlet, no jandals - Yeah right". The Auckland holiday billboard was so popular it was continually stolen, prompting Tui to replace it with a billboard that read: "If you keep stealing our billboard, we'll raise the price of beer - Yeah right".
Ottrey left DB in 2001, occasionally coming back as a consultant, yet she feels inextricably linked to the billboards.
"It's like I've raised a child and I'm not beyond calling the marketing team or the CEO and saying, 'What's that all about?' if I don't like one. Those of us involved in it still talk about it. The longevity of it is unusual."
Beer Nation, The Art & Heart of Kiwi Beer, by Michael Donaldson, is published by Penguin. RRP $44.99.
- Sunday Star Times