Comment - Beer - Marketing For All: A Guide
The list of commentators on just-drinks just keeps on growing. Earlier this week, we unveiled Ray Rowlands, who will look at soft drinks & water. Next up, we welcome Pete Brown, a renowned blogger on all things beer whose knowledge of the brewing industry sets him in good stead to cast his eye over the brewing landscape. Pete starts his journey with just-drinks with a marketing moan, though.
When I was a kid, I used to love beer advertising. Growing up in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was too young for Monty Python, and would have to wait a few years before alternative comedy became “the new rock ‘n’ roll”. So, I filled the gap with beer ads.
When a new one came on, my friends and I would rush to school the next day to chant the lines at each other and act it out in the playground.
Today, neo-prohibitionists and health professionals tell us that exposing minors to beer advertising encourages under-age drinking. None of the countless studies that have been commissioned to prove this point has ever been able to establish a causal link, but hey, they’re health professionals, right? It must be true.
When I was a kid, those beer ads didn’t make me want to drink beer. When I started trying to get served in pubs at 15 it was because, like everyone else, I wanted to look grown up and serious. The beer ads were childish and funny.
No, the beer ads didn’t make me want to drink. They made me want to do something far more damaging to both my psyche and to the planet. They made me want to work in advertising.
I enjoyed my advertising career right up until the point when I realised that, in a small way, doing my job well meant detracting from the total sum of human happiness in the world rather than adding to it. When someone is happy with the stuff they already have, the only way you can make them want more stuff is to make them less happy with what they’ve got. Good ads make people slightly less happy. They persuade people that they can only get that happiness back by buying stuff. This may be necessary to keep the economy afloat, but I no longer wanted to be part of it.
Good beer ads, however, remain the exception to this rule. Good beer ads cheer people up. The best make you smile at each other, whether you’re eight years old or 80.
But, you don’t make beer ads just to be nice to people – that’s a pleasant side-effect. You make beer ads to build strong brands. And, the greatest beer ads build brands people adore. They can transform businesses, sometimes even give life to entire market segments.
So, I’m at something of a loss when I see brewers deciding that, instead of making funny, brand-building ads, they try to promote their brands with bogus product claims, misleading information, or downright abuse of the word ‘innovation’.
I was invited to begin this monthly column for just-drinks on the basis of a blog post in which I ridiculed the latest new product launch from one of the UK’s leading beer brands in a particularly childish, vindictive, and therefore highly effective manner. just-drinks is a far more grown-up and serious corner of the internet, so I won’t be repeating my juvenile pranks here. But, as a full-time beer writer with a shady advertising past, there was a serious point behind my attack.
Copying something that was first done five years ago, something that has become a market generic, and then describing this not just as innovation, but as category-leading innovation, is nonsense that does no one any good, least of all the brand in question.
It’s not the first time I’ve gone after this particular brand. And, given that it’s a brand I used to work with, people have asked me why I hate them so much. Do I have some personal reason to pick on them?
Not at all. It’s just that they keep sending out press releases that are insulting to the intelligence, about products that almost always turn out to fail.
To prove it was nothing personal, a week later I posted about another brand owned by a different corporation, in the US this time, that claims on its website to be different from other beers because it adds hops to the beer near the end of the brewing process. Given that late hopping is absolutely standard practice in every single beer style the world over - apart from wheat beers and Belgian Lambics - this is an inexplicably pointless lie.
But, increasingly, mainstream commercial beer brands everywhere are straightening their ties, combing their hair and asking to be taken seriously, as premium, crafted products, and I’m not sure why.
Maybe its part of a general trend to premiumisation, or a desire to look more responsible.
Maybe they’ve exhausted all the jokes for the ads, or can no longer get away with telling those jokes on TV in an ever more tightly-regulated environment. Maybe the surging popularity of craft brewers, talking about ingredients and flavour, creating genuine innovation in beer, has spooked them.
All are valid concerns. But for me, trying to invent premium products stories or bogus innovation is the wrong response. When any beer brand launches a product that has a slightly different can or a 0.1% difference in abv and tells the consumer this is earth-shattering innovation, the consumer laughs or, at best, shrugs. When a mainstream beer tells us it’s special because it has hops in it, or that it’s brewed with a unique yeast strain, or has won some ‘famous’ global beer competition where you only have to enter to get a medal, craft beer fans who are used to wood-ageing, international collaborations and new hybrid beer styles, who judge at real beer competitions, find it all ridiculous, and they blog telling everyone just how ridiculous it is.
The mainstream beer brand marketer might now say: “But our drinkers aren’t craft beer drinkers, and don’t read beer geeks’ blogs.”
Yeah? Well, firstly, why are you saying this kind of stuff to them then? Secondly, only a moron underestimates his consumer.
Thirdly, I promise you that every single beer marketer who says “our drinkers aren’t craft beer drinkers” has a presentation on a hard drive somewhere with a pyramid in it, or maybe a bell curve, which describes how opinion formers pass on tastes to opinion leaders, who pass them on to the early mainstream, who pass them on to the late mainstream and so on. The mass-market imitation-pilsner drinker may never directly cross paths with the wood-aged imperial stout drinker, but everyone who drinks in a group knows someone more knowledgeable about beer than they are, all the way back up the chain. Information and frames of reference flow down. And, in a social media age, when we’re increasingly suspicious of corporate bullshit in any form and ever more keen to expose it and laugh, information flows quicker every day.
So please. If you brew a – let’s say ‘delicately flavoured’ – mainstream lager that is no different in taste or production process from your competitors, please don’t try to convince us that it is. Stick to what you’re good at. Build charismatic brands that charm us, that delight us, that get us talking and laughing together. Because at the end of the day, that’s the main reason any of us drink beer, whatever our tastes.
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