What's happening to the great British pub?

What's happening to the great British pub?

Pete Champion, I-AM group partner & creative strategy director, London asks what’s happening to the great British pub (co-edited by Oceane Daigneau Frugier)

For generations, pubs have been at the heart of community life in the UK. Our TV soap operas revolve around fictional Locals that have become iconic: The Rover’s Return, The Queen Vic, The Woolpack. These exist at the hub of community life; the venue to gather and share all life’s joys and dramas.

But in reality, all is not well with ‘the Local’. The British people’s relationship with pubs has changed, manifesting a trend that’s similar to the impact we are seeing on our high streets, from retail to banking and restaurants. The traditional pub is under threat. A range of pressures are forcing closures and transforming the very nature of what a ‘pub’ actually needs to be in order to remain relevant.

The notion of ‘social’ is now inseparable from ‘media’, so that in this digital age online communities to many have become as or more important than the tangible experience of ‘society’. In addition, the places or hubs that we now favour to gather in, across all regions in the UK, have shifted towards the likes of ‘third-place’ coffee shops such as Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero and other independent cafes. In urban centres, newer bars are becoming preferred over pubs for social get togethers, underpinned by the craft beer and gin revolutions. At the same time, younger generations – although not without their contradictions – are generally leaning less than their forbears on alcohol as an essential part of their socialising, striving for healthier lifestyles overall.

The pubs that have successfully responded to this dangerous shift, have as a dominant movement done so through food-driven re-positioning – shifting from their original purpose as a default and ad-hoc community gathering place focused on the bar, to become pre-defined ‘let’s eat out’ destinations. Inspired by lesser or greater degrees by the notion of ‘Gastropub’, they have become restaurants surrounded by the peripheral trappings of what used to be a local pub.  But for traditional ‘locals’ wanting to stay true to the notion of pub-first, the challenge is even more complex.

As a creators of ‘brand experiences’, as well as dedicated lovers of the good old-fashioned pub, we are both concerned by the idea of losing them as a lynchpins of communities, as well as fascinated to understand if there is an experiential ‘formula’ to what made pubs such wonderful communal experiences in the past. If so, could this be modified or updated to keep them as an important thread in the fabric of our evolving society? 

How can pubs continue to play a relevant role in our new and future social landscape? Can we identify some key experiential principles of that fit our new community needs & desires ­– to help ensure a positive future for these icons of British culture.

Dark Clouds Over The Local

To start with, the British pub has never been just a place to drink. Instead, it has been a unique social centre at the heart of villages, towns and cities. A study published by The Telegraph, identified that villages with a thriving local pub have more community spirit and stronger local businesses than those that do not. The Institute for Public Policy Research (2014) also concluded that pubs boost the income of other village businesses by around £80,000 a year but also generate up to £120,000 worth of “social benefit” to rural areas.

Throughout history, ales and beers have been a staple of the British diet, making the pub a space that appealed to the masses consequently creating the perfect place for networking and socialising. At the core, the pub has always been about the people that it serves, providing services wider than just the provision of drinks to the locals.

Sadly, since the turn of the millennium more than 25% of UK pubs have closed down (ONS, ‘Economies of Ale’ 2018) and according to The Campaign for Real Ale, these latest figures have been felt by communities across the country, showing the sociocultural impact these establishments have had.

At first the decline was blamed on the high alcohol taxes, the smoking ban and recession, leading to supermarkets undercutting the pubs with their cheap bulk booze offers (British Beer & Pub Association, 2018). Then, the 2008 financial crisis compounded the problem – one in four of the pubs that managed to survive up to that time have since closed.  Small pubs (10 staff or less) have borne the brunt, with larger chain pubs actually on the rise (The Drinks Business, 2018). JD Wetherspoon have added a further 720 pubs to their portfolio over the last 20 years. These larger companies also consolidated their portfolios, expanding to sites with big kitchens and private function rooms.  All pubs are facing challenges, but it’s the independent Locals feeling the pinch the most.

Macro-economic factors do not explain everything, of course. It is also crucial to acknowledge evolving consumer tastes and trends. According to YouGov poll, 4.2 million people have said they would take part in Dry January this year, which is an extra 1.1 million (35%) from 2018. Drinking habits have massively changed, with the number of adults who say that ‘they drink alcohol’ being at its lowest level since surveys began in 2005, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS, 2017). Additionally, half of adults have tried non-alcoholic substitutes, and over 50% agreed that non-alcoholic beers have become ‘socially acceptable’ (!) in the last two years (OnePoll Survey, 2018), It’s no surprise then that non-alcoholic beer now counts for 2% and rising of Europe’s beer production by value (Brewers of Europe, 2018). Add to this the unstoppable popularity of coffee, ice cream and the like, and it’s clear that the historical pattern of booze at the heart of social structures is not to be taken for granted.

Many have associated these lifestyle shifts with the much-examined ‘millennials’, suggesting they are to blame for the death of pubs – but the truth is, in common with other industries that struggle to maintain contemporary relevance, many pubs have not proved quick to read and adapt to the values and tastes of newer generations.

These challenges show how critical it is for pubs – if they are to remain significant in UK culture – to develop their sense of community, relevance and meaning in the social landscape – and to consistently deliver rewarding experiences orientated around these ideas. 

Looking for hope in a pint glass  

Realistically, is there a solution to this pub crisis? Are there insights that could help reinvent the pub experience so that locals can continue to be important to society?   To answer that key question, it’s worth a look at trends in where people prefer to gather in recent years and consider why.  

Firstly, it’s simply undeniable that the coffee revolution has set the agenda for the new social hubs: 81% of people visit a coffee shop at least weekly. Britain’s growing coffee habit means the market is now worth £9.6bn a year in over 24,000 outlets (Allegra Project Café, 2018).  

This is not only driven by Starbucks, Costa, Nero and their ilk. The ‘artisan’ trend, manifested by independent roasters and craft breweries elevates the importance of the core product and its back-story. This phenomenon has been gaining momentum since the mid-2000s becoming prevalent in the UK market, spawning smaller ‘5th Wave’ branded chains with ‘artisanal’ as the platform of their brand, such as Gail’s, Grind, Blackbird Bakery, Caravan and Black Sheep Coffee amongst others. All target the discerning millennial looking for premium-quality and service that expresses a lifestyle choice.

The big coffee brands are of course keenly attuned to this, rigorously focusing on consumers’ developing priorities. They respond by innovating and developing their own offers with ever more creative, design-led upgrades to their experiences with their product provenance and quality as the hero.

Many pubs might learn from this and realise they have a trump card to play: the value of being independent (in millennial speak ‘authentic’), the true stories of craft and passion behind their beers, ciders, spirits and food – and how that can translate in their experience. More directly, neither would it hurt if they became just as good as the branded coffee houses, at serving the top-quality brews customers now seek out wherever they go.  Rapidly improving bean-to-cup machines now make this possible without the need to train a fleet of craft baristas.

The Earl of Essex in Islington, a traditional historical pub, refreshed its appeal by introducing a micro-brewery within the space. A simple but effective instance of the craft-artisan experience complimenting an independent pub setting, creating a reason to visit beyond its heritage alone.

In the same sense with urban bars and new alcohol brands, those that have deliberately conceived a brand positioning and strategy, and translated this creatively as memorable experiences, are successfully engaging with younger audiences – perhaps the antithesis of the traditional pub citizen.

The craft beer brand BrewDog has opened a series of bars incorporating Beer Schools. These bookable experiences offer guests a selection of four BrewDog Headliner samples as their ‘crewmember’ leads a guided tasting session. For up to two hours, they will talk about the style, explain the flavours and the history of beer and discuss the variety and background of craft brewing.  The décor is stripped back and urban, but relentlessly in-tune with the brand image.

Arguably a pioneer of beverage brand experience elevated to the ultimate, the Guinness Storehouse Experience has for years set the benchmark.  It has inspired many an imitator including a range of gin and whisky distillery tour experiences.  Serving as a cultural museum and a brewery tour, the destination on the site of the original brewery in Dublin allows guests to get involved in various activities, from the 3D Guinness Storehouse maze, learning how to pour the perfect pint, to a sophisticated sampling experience in The Tasting Rooms designed by Bompas & Parr. This concept is inspiring in the way it approaches consumer engagement from the celebration of the product through to the legends surrounding it.

Coming back to the traditional pub environment, larger chain Fuller’s has approached its brand strategy by acknowledging both traditional values of pub-culture as well as engaging multiple generations through both physical and digital channels. Its social initiatives are important to the brand, focused on giving something back to the communities that support their pubs and inns, by supporting local events and charities. Along with sponsorship of carnivals, school fetes, fundraisers and a number of sporting events, the pubs aim to serve as more than just a commercial venue – when severe flooding hit Staines, Middlesex, The Swan Hotel handed out free hot drinks to displaced local residents and even played host to the local doctor while the surgery was submerged.

Its campaigns aim to communicate how Fuller’s is a typically English multi-generational brand. We can see this through the social media campaign ‘Confessions’, which showed people come clean to their dads about secrets they’d kept to themselves, over a pint of London Pride. Filmed in The Hand and Flower, Hammersmith, the unsuspecting dads had been told they were going to a beer tasting, but their children revealed the truth on camera – producing a series of touching moments involving both young and older generations. Another campaign which modernised the interaction with their heritage product was their #MadeOfLondon campaign – followers of London Pride on Twitter had an hour to claim their free pint, when they spotted a pint of pride being shared. The campaign was brought to life by Londoners whilst showcasing the iconic locations across the city. This successfully engendered a true sense of community, specific to being a Londoner.

Of course, pubs and brewers don’t have to be big to develop initiatives that attract or benefit communities. Independents such as Hackney Church Brew Co is one of many to include a ‘beer hall’ to its brewery, but its approach to the experience is inviting to all and gives back to the local community by partnering with Hackney Church. This partnership supports the Lighthouse Project, a lunch concept for vulnerable locals who can drop in for a hot meal and a friendly chat on Wednesday’s. In addition to the brewery tours, they have a taproom and a dining area – the food concept aims to pair and showcase season-ingredients led dishes cooked over live-fire.

Other examples include community-owned pubs, such as The Anglers Rest in the heart of the Derbyshire Peak District, which serves as a café and a post office as well as a pub to cater to varying needs of the local-residents. Visits to the pub whether for a pint, coffee or a stamp help sustain the community. The Centurion offers a range of social activities for the different age groups within the community – accommodating birthdays, funeral wakes, coffee mornings and school PTAs amongst other things.

These independents blend the traditional brewery space and pub venue with leisure, social cohesion and hospitality, so as to appeal to a larger audience whilst also providing support to its community from employees to customers.

Similar to inns that incorporate the pub experience, hotels and members clubs’ are also developing experiences that seem rooted in the role local pubs once played, but carefully re-invented and very deliberately designed for today’s customers. A key reference point, the Soho House Group has managed to create a global community around their cool and subtly consistent hospitality venues. Not unlike pubs, clubs have been around for a long time, but the sector appears generally to have worked harder to reshape propositions based on the acquisition and loyalty of young customers. These Members’ Clubs have further developed the aspirational-quality of being part of its specific community. More than status it has become about lifestyle - Soho House has accomplished this seamlessly and on wide scale. “It wasn’t born out of rebellion, but out of need. We all like to be surrounded by like-minded people, and at Soho House it’s not just about the spaces: we’ve put gymnasiums into them and there are clubs within clubs and a members’ events programme.” says Nick Jones, Founder of Soho House Group.

One of the more recent brand extensions, Soho Farmhouse situated 90 minutes away from London is a country side retreat for the Soho House target groups. It has acknowledged its members need for an out-of-city-break location as well as offering larger venue spaces to hire for weddings and other events. Soho House caters to the travellers, freelancers, creatives and guests with more nomadic lifestyles, who are looking to build a community and network on a global scale.  Across all its venues, the Soho House group offer key ‘anchor’ experience elements – it’s a formula, cleverly designed to feel unlike a formula.

Long Live The Local

The above examples and references demonstrate that there will always be demand from consumers for warm, hospitable and well considered venues to socialise, eat, drink and get together. From bars, brewery & craft beverage concepts, members clubs, and cafes, it is the experience, the sense of community, the integrity of product and an environment that responds and relates to the lifestyles of its audiences that make them an attraction and destination choice.



  • Pete Champion is one of the original founders of I-AM, the branding and retail interior agency.   He  has over 20 years’ experience in pioneering innovations in brand environments. He has worked on retail strategy and sector-leading concepts for KFC,Ben & Jerry’s, Oman Arab Bank, Société Générale, C.P Hart, Armani, Diesel, Adidas, The UK Post Office, Beck’s and Costa Coffee. 



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