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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Beer and marketing

I didn't mean to sound too critical of the multinational I mentioned yesterday - it's what I expected them to do.  At that scale, it is about branding first, brewing second.  And when your brewing all takes place inside shiny sealed closed tanks and happens at the push of a button, there's not so much you can talk about anyway. Small brewers undoubtedly have an advantage when there's a sense of a guy who brews the beer, who has a sort of marriage to it, and who can show you the insides of how it's made if you talk to him or, even better, visit his brewery.

But many small brewers often go too far the other way and seemingly reject marketing as somehow evil.  I've - hopefully - recently worked my last day inside an ad agency because a great deal of what I had to do there made me feel dirty.  It wasn't the process, the craft of marketing itself that was the problem - it was the kind of people it attracted, what they will do to get on, and what we were all obliged to do when unpleasant companies gave us the money that paid our frozen salaries and Martin Sorrell's £60m bonus.

Sorry, this is going to turn into another long post - too much pent up blogging over the last few weeks!

If you take the tools of marketing and use them in a good way, they're not evil.  Marketing does coerce people, but 90% of the time it does so with their consent.  People are marketing-savvy, and choose to either play the game or not.  And we live in a branded age - it's simply how things work.  If you choose not to play, you go invisible, or look very dated and stuffy.

When I first started writing about beer, I was really pissed off with CAMRA in this respect. Prominent CAMRA members frequently wrote about how people only drank lager because they had been brainwashed by big brewers with shiny ads.  What an insulting, snobbish, elitist thing to say - "you proles have no individual will, and you are too weak to resist this mass social conditioning - whereas I am immune to it, because in some way, I am cleverer than the masses."  And by refusing to play the marketing game, standing outside it, these people by default made CAMRA seem like a very stuffy, geeky organisation filled with the kind of people you wouldn't want to associate or be identified with.

I've learned a lot about CAMRA over the last six or seven years. The organisation is modernising itself and learning to play the game, and at central office at least, there are people who are forward looking, PR-savvy, and are very effective at engaging with the broader world.  I've also learned that CAMRA is a loose umbrella that holds many divergent opinions.  The vast majority of members are ordinary, decent people who really like good cask ale and - gasp - occasionally, on the hot day, might have a pint of Heineken instead.  But I have also met a great many hardcore nutters who clearly wear tinfoil hats when they're not releasing vile silent-but-deadly farts as they raise their personalised pewter tankards at beer festivals. You still hear these people saying lager is evil, that people who drink it are stupid, neither realising nor caring that they are actively discouraging new converts to cask ale by their appearance and behaviour.  It's fantastic that CAMRA membership is about to break the 100,000 barrier.  But in the context that there are 7 million regular cask ale drinkers in the UK, it's obvious many still feel the organisation doesn't represent them.

(My only remaining gripe with CAMRA central on this score is that the weird, unpleasant anthropomorphic people with pints growing out of their heads is a long way past its sell-by date.)  

This is all a hideously overlong and rambling prelude to saying, 'Hurrah!  The SIBA Business Awards are back!'  SIBA is a trade body for small and independent brewers in the UK.  The vast majority of the beer these brewers make is cask ale.  It could very easily have become like CAMRA of old, a fogeyish trade body mirroring the consumer movement.  But it hasn't. Big brewers want to join SIBA.  It's rapidly becoming seen by many as the major voice for the brewing industry.  And while they celebrate great brewing at their annual conference, as of course they should, the business awards celebrate best support of customers, best use of PR, best use of new media, best packaging, best launch etc.  

What these awards demonstrate is that effective marketing doesn't require the multi-million pound budgets of the big four multinationals who dominate the British market.  I write regular features for the Brewers Guardian showing how tools like great label design, viral marketing and effective use of PR can be done by any brewer of any size with a little effort and time.

People like Stonch have blogged consistently about how depressing it is to see beers with names like 'Old Pisshead' or pump clips featuring scantily clad women.  It makes the whole industry, and the people who drink their products, look like twelve year-olds.  On the other hand, look at Thornbridge, Brew Dog, Wye Valley, Otley.  Brew Dog may be loved mainly for the bravery of its brews, and Thornbridge also brew beers that, as they say, are 'never ordinary'.  But all four of these breweries give as much love and attention to creating modern, contemporary design - design that's bringing in new people to try their beers.  They are all experiencing soaring sales.

So if you're a brewer and you're not entering the SIBA Business Awards, you need to ask yourself why. If the multinationals spend more time thinking about marketing than brewing, it's because it works for them.  There are only a few breweries who are excellent at both brewing and branding.  And look how they take off when both are great. 

11 comments:

Darren T said...

Great post, Pete. Speaking as a marketing (and publishing) professional, I was especially glad to see you rejecting the age-old (and highly inaccurate) 'marketing = advertising' maxim.

Marketing is a much-maligned and misunderstood umbrella-term for a whole range of communication methods which - once you strip away all the money and gloss and tricks of the trade - mainly equates to 'story-telling'.

Marketing is the process of telling your story - or the story of your product or service or 'brand' - and by doing so hoping to find people whose preferences, self-image, personal values etc. your story speaks to. Some folks prefer big brands, some stick to independent labels and some refuse to be persuaded or swayed by marketing at all - it's all about how they see themselves and how they want others to see them. It's about their story and how well your story fits in with theirs. And hopefully, the folks who find your story interesting and attractive will become customers and, in time, fans and advocates.

That's why the new breed of brewers like BrewDog, ThorBridge etc. are doing so well - they're not just producing great beer, they're telling the story of that beer - explaining why they do what they do and why they love doing it so much - via their blogs and websites and interviews and public events. And that story resonates with a large number of people for whom craftsmanship, quality and good taste are far more important - in terms of their own story, their own set of values - than mass-produced cut-prices and sacrificing quality for quantity.

Absolutely fascinating stuff, for me, anyway. But like I said, I'm a marketer by profession, so it's all a big part of my story...

Alan said...

Good points, Pete. While I am turned off by underly thought-out branding, Darren's point about story telling is right. And the same point that needs to be made in relation to any consumer's group as much as producers group.

The absence of a North American version of CAMRA and the stories it could tell has left the field open to well-intentioned but private interests like BeerAdvocate ("rock on EVERYBODY!") and the Brewer's Association ("Hooray for - and never question - every member's product because we are all celebrities") cornering the market on the discourse. Result so far? Higher profit, low volume, big bomb, beer as wine brewing rather than quality session beers that require greater connection with more consumers as well as a longer term view. And don't dare question price rises.

The same applies to the equivalent of the brewers who might be SIBA members here. From New Glarus in Wisconsin to my local Church-Key there are great small brewers who focus on the local and their story. But they have to make their case not only against the macro-brewers but also against the (odd) extreme or (embarrassing) "brewer as rock star" stance that has developed (perhaps by initial necessity) to stake a place for craft beer.

It isn't enough to tell the story but to tell stories by fostering discussion - if the brand wants to integrate itself into the wider community. For all its annoyances, a well-tuned voice of a group like CAMRA's fitting into the overall story telling goes a long way to ensuring that discussion is integral, complex and interesting.

Darren T said...

Alan - absolutely right about the key importance of ongoing discussion. The real power of a good story lies in the willingness of others to re-tell it on your behalf and because they find it genuinely interesting, not because you've dumped a press release in their laps and hoped for the best. Again, that's where the smart brewers with discussion-enabled blogs are benefiting most, by encouraging conversation and engaging with their customers and fans.

And of course, there are independent online communities springing up, (such as The Aleuminati, which I'm a member of, but just haven't had enough time to actively participate in) and I suppose, to an extent, Ratebeer.com - which does seem to be more about the scooping / ticking than the discussing, although again, I haven't had time to participate there either, so I may be doing them a disservice.

Pete said...

Good points all. So hopefully we can have a laugh at ourselves with this, that popped up this morning on my feed from www.theonion.com

World's Worst Person Decides To Go Into Marketing

JULY 31, 2008 | ISSUE 44•31
NEW YORK—Twenty-three-year-old Louis Deenan, undeniably the most detestable, loathsome individual ever to walk the earth, willfully decided Monday to devote his miserable life and all of its awful ambitions to the field of marketing. "I think it's the career path that will best utilize my networking skills and my ability to think outside the box," said Deenan, whose smug, gloating tone and shit-eating smile just make you want to punch his goddamn teeth in. "So I'm definitely thinking marketing. Either that, or PR." Deenan's mother refused to comment on why she didn't abort the despicable pile of human excrement when she had the chance.

Bailey said...

I heartily agree with this observation:

'Prominent CAMRA members frequently wrote about how people only drank lager because they had been brainwashed by big brewers with shiny ads. What an insulting, snobbish, elitist thing to say - "you proles have no individual will, and you are too weak to resist this mass social conditioning - whereas I am immune to it, because in some way, I am cleverer than the masses."'

People aren't passive, and you don't have to have a degree to comment intelligently on and criticise advertising and marketing materials -- just watch telly with my Mum and Dad for an hour or two for proof of that.

Jeff Pickthall said...

I'm going to get one of those foil hats - because you can read my mind!

TIW said...

As a designer, what depresses me is the inability of some brewers to have a decent pump clip or bottle label. They just look so off-putting, even if you know the beer's a good 'un. When I've had a few jars I even start toying with the idea of ringing them up and offering to do it for free.

Bailey said...

TIW -- that's funny! I often have the same thought.

Leigh said...

Hi pete - I recently blogged about this too - it really is simple - create eye-catching design and people will drink your beer. REally, people are that fickle. Especially when it comes to beer.

"Eddie Rowles" said...

It's fantastic that CAMRA membership is about to break the 100,000 barrier. But in the context that there are 7 million regular cask ale drinkers in the UK, it's obvious many still feel the organisation doesn't represent them.

I'm not convinced about this at all - there are millions of football fans regularly attending matches and who dislike the way football is headed but how many of those actually join any of the consumer-type football bodies, such as the FSF? A very small percentage indeed.

It seems most people are happy to moan about things but not to step forward and join a campaigning group.

Stono said...

but doesnt the "Magners effect" demonstrate very well that with 30million euros of marketing (they were quite shiny ads), you can create, however briefly, a very successful brand new group of consumers for your product.

and with the best will in the world thats not a group of consumers most small independent brewers have hope of connecting with, even with the support of organisations like SIBA and CAMRA.

it ought to be the quality of the product your selling, and not the size of the marketing budget which is the major factor of success, and yet it rarely works that way.