Keeping your brand visible while banned from sales – Castle Lite

by Louise Burgers. What do you do with your brand plans for 11 African markets under varying stages of lockdown; and restrategise when your product is also banned during the biggest crisis to face the world in 100 years?

by Louise Burgers. What do you do with your brand plans for 11 African markets under varying stages of lockdown; and restrategise when your product is also banned during the biggest crisis to face the world in 100 years?

South Africa is the only country in the world that banned alcohol sales entirely during its hard lockdown to fight this pandemic. The reasons have been well documented; and as South Africa moves to level 3, alcohol sales will be allowed for home consumption only, under limited trading conditions. Those conditions will be clarified ahead of June 1, 2020, when South Africa moves to level 3 to open up most of the economy and mitigate the economic effects of locking down an entire country for two months and suspending most business activity.

The effect on the global economy has been catastrophic, we know, and economic recession is in store for most countries. Many are already jobless or have been forced to take salary cuts of up to 50%. The challenges for brands banned from selling at all under #lockdownSA has been a complete disruption and for alcohol brands, which had to deal with a Government narrative that pointed to risky and unsafe behaviour from consumers allowed to drink; it was particularly challenging.

Restrategising, reassuring, rebuilding

For Castle Lite, which holds top spot in the beer market in South Africa and is the most loved beer brand according to the Brand Power survey, it required a total rework of all brand strategy for the entire year – while uncertainty continues.

Silke Bucker, Castle Lite Brand Director.

Castle Lite brand director, Silke Bucker, told Retailing Africa it has been a challenging time. “Castle Lite is the biggest premium beer brand on the African continent, we are in 11 different markets. This wasn’t just an impact here in South Africa, we had to change plans in 11 different markets, because as you know, the regulations are different everywhere. It had a huge impact. We were on quite a strong trajectory before lockdown; we had just announced Cardi B coming to South Africa; so we had our plans set in stone for the rest of the year.

“We always have flexibility in plans because if something happens, you have to evolve, but nothing as massive to prepare us for what Covid has brought. We were able to look at the Chinese and South Korean model to look at what may happen. Other markets in lockdown were still able to buy alcohol for home consumption.” Cardi B’s concert has been moved to December 5. It is at The Dome in Johannesburg, which holds 18 000 people. But given the trajectory of the virus in South Africa, there is no certainty that it will go ahead.

Another concerning variable that all the alcohol brands are monitoring, is that when alcohol sales opened up in other markets where there were restrictions, like in India, there was mayhem, akin to Black Friday sales. During the last week or so, once it was announced that alcohol would again be for sale under level 3, Castle Lite has changed its brand messaging to one of safety, encouraging consumers to drink responsibly. Despite sales being prohibited under the hard lockdown levels 5 and 4; Castle Lite chose not to go dark, instead working with its agencies to craft the right messaging according to consumer sentiment. This required a total shift in brand messaging and strategy, says Bucker.

“This is a very interesting product to work on. We are a lighter beer, very little calories and our carb count is extremely low, but with the taste of an actual beer at 4% alcohol. We are very edgy; we rely on innovation a lot to drive our premium cues. We are a lifestyle brand. We are vocal in hip hop and partner with many hip hop artists around the globe.

“My strategy [going into lockdown] on Castle Lite, was that even though we couldn’t sell any product, I know how important this brand is to consumers. Not just because they like the product, but because we are a lifestyle brand and we bring a lot of light heartedness to consumers’ lives. We didn’t want to disappear. Many brands don’t have the balance sheet to carry them through a time like this. Brands also need to understand where they fit in. If you are not clear on your purpose as a brand and the role you play in your consumers lives, then it is going to be hard to remain relevant at a time like this. We are all about entertainment, so we did some live stream stuff and brought out collaborations and tried to bring content into consumers’ homes, that they wouldn’t have experienced at a live event, such as #Castleliteunlock and the live stream for three different shows at #Castleliteunlocksinbedwith.

Consumer sentiment

What Bucker said was crucial, was monitoring the mood of their consumers during the two months of lockdown, as the mood went from hopeful, scared, lost, bored and frustrated. This meant that brand messaging had to be extremely sensitive to the changing consumer dynamics and needed to be appropriate at the right times.

“When we sat with the agencies and we reworked the content for these two months, it was important to first establish the different phases of lockdown. If your content isn’t aligned to the phase your consumers are in, then you are just going to irritate them. That was really important for us, to understand what our consumers were going through, and to be respectful of how people were feeling. That was the basis of everything we did. It was solely based on entertainment and keeping people busy. We also reworked some of our brand messaging, so it didn’t show people drinking, but ended with a responsible message, like: ‘We’ll dance together again. #StaySafe’.”


However, as people got frustrated that they couldn’t buy alcohol under lockdown level 4, the debate on social media became polarising and anger began to surface, and it didn’t matter what the brand did, people were frustrated. It was an interesting dynamic to navigate, Bucker says.

“Now, going into this next phase where we can sell again, the majority of my communication will be focused on responsible drinking and  responsible socialising. As brands we must play this role now. I won’t switch to a ‘buy now/discount’ campaign; it is about enjoying our product responsibly, as this is the only way we will get through this next phase.” This is illustrated by the new out of home branding Castle Lite put up at key outdoor sites this week in metropolitan areas, based around the Kendrick Lamar lyrics: “We’re gonna to be alright”, to inspire and reassure consumers, which is what Bucker says all brands should be doing. A message of positivity is what is required now.

She is surprised at some of the large brands, particularly FMCG brands, that continued selling under lockdown and with normal advertising in these abnormal times; when consumer behaviour has shifted radically, to a need for safety and security first. Brands have to market differently during a crisis such as COVID-19, she says: “Our strategy going forward right now is not about pushing beer and saying drink, drink, drink. It is more about humanity; and having fun, but in a responsible way.”

‘Do what is right, rather than right for the brand’

There is still uncertainty about what the rest of the year holds and if events will event be allowed. She is parallel planning and has five different campaigns ready to go. Agility is what is required right now, more than normal.

On key brand learnings during this time, Bucker says this has been the ultimate test about how agile brands truly are; and how brands truly understand their consumers. Social listening and Google Analytics allowed them to monitor consumer sentiment and the decisions their consumers were making; and if as a brand, they even wanted to take part in the conversation. A big learning for her, was that they are usually driven by brand purpose and strategy; but in this crisis, they have been guided by how consumers are feeling. “That is quite a shift from our long-term strategy. When you speak to corporates now, everyone talks about being agile, how resilient your team and agency partners are. This is now about what is right; versus what is right for the brand. This is a different approach, rather than business as usual.”

When asked what she would take away from this time,  Bucker says she believes we have tried to do what is right and give ourselves, as a country, the best chance we had to overcome this pandemic. She was heartened by the massive kindness that we all witnessed at the start of lockdown; but was saddened to see the conversation change as people lost their jobs and went hungry. “We don’t know what the full impact of Covid-19 will be. We don’t know what the full impact on our brand will be; if we will recover this year. There is no denying that this has been really tough. It is the right time to try get back to some sense of normalcy, but to be responsible and keep others in mind.”

Brand responsibility

Bucker said this is not about brands or profit at this time; but about what is right for the country and for consumers. What she is concerned about is that there are few role models left for people to look up to and brands have to move into this space and visually demonstrate the “right thing to do”. Brands do shape popular culture, much like movies do, and she believes brands need to take responsibility right now in helping and reassuring their customers, because brands do have influence and can play an integral role in making consumers lives better through their actions and appropriate messaging. “We will get through this together and we need to be kind to each other and remain responsible.”

AB InBev, which owns the Castle and Castle Lite beer brands, is one of the largest corporate contributors to the tax base and has over 250 000 people who directly rely on it for employment. The company was concerned at the negative narrative initially under lockdown that emerged around alcohol consumption; and tried to shift that by being proactive with brand messaging under lockdown; also donating marketing budgets to the Solidarity Fund for Covid-19 business relief; raising funds via live views of campaigns; and using the distilled alcohol excess it had to make hand sanitiser which was donated to hospitals and the police force; and they also used plastic from their crates to make face masks. “We have been quite active as a company trying to play our part in this pandemic and in the last couple of weeks, our conversations also shifted to make sure we talk about the positive side of the industry and what we do.”

And as far as the pineapple home brewing saga goes, Bucker said she enjoyed watching the story unfold as it was amusing and very much part of South African culture; but that it gave her the  “horries” (horrors) at the unsanitary conditions in which some homebrews were being cultivated.


Louise Burgers (previously Marsland) is the Publisher and Editor and Co-Founder of She has spent over 20 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She has specialised in local and Africa consumer trends and is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger in the next decade.

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