Comment - Beer - Everybody's Talkin' and No One Says a Word
Here, in the early-21st Century, we are surrounded by progress. Look around, it's everywhere, simplifying our actions, our movements, our days. So, why is it, Pete Brown asks this month, that progress in the field of beer marketing has made things just that little bit more complicated?
Back when I was still an ad man, thrilled to be working on beer brands, I learned a very valuable lesson. I was spending New Year in a rented cottage with my mates John and Allan and our respective partners. It was the first time we’d seen each other since my whole 'beer thing' had happened, and they were both thrilled and amused when I showed them a copy of Marketing magazine, quoting me as a ‘beer expert’.
This led to a discussion about the various merits of beer, which culminated – as all such discussions do – in someone asking me what my favourite beer was.
“Well, it all depends on the usage occasion,” I replied.
There was silence in the room for a few seconds. Then: “Er, the what now?”
Immediately, I realised my mistake. “The, er,” I mumbled, “Look, just forget I said it, what I meant was … ”
But it was too late. For the rest of our holiday, I was ‘Mr Usage Occasion,’ the butt of most jokes in the house. We went out to the pub for several ‘usage occasions’. Indeed, we had a massive 'usage occasion' on New Year’s Eve itself.
Behind the amusement, there was genuine disapproval – I’d taken something fun and informal, and made it analytical. It brought home to my closest friends that, at work, I studied their habits and behaviour in this dispassionate language. If they hadn’t taken the p*ss out of me so ruthlessly and effectively, it would have created a barrier between us.
Since then, I’ve always done my best – not always successfully – to avoid using industry jargon where it’s not welcome.
I was reminded of this lesson earlier this month, when I went to the press launch of some new beers. We were told about the strong "head winds" in the market, and how this necessitated moving into"‘innovation white space" that would help people "navigate and explore" the "beer category", making full use of "fixturisation". We were then introduced to a "serious trilogy play" that would hopefully "disrupt" both the core market and its "adjacencies".
I won’t name names because, even though this mangling of the language is truly horrfying, it’s pretty typical. (By the way, if you can’t see what the problem is here, you’re in urgent need of a holiday.) I constantly receive press releases telling me how this or that product is "taking new steps to interface with the consumer at the point of purchase", often with the intention of 'maximising share of throat" or recruiting "new adorers".
Why don’t they tell me – a journalist who they are trying to interest in the story – that they’re trying to interest drinkers at the bar to get more of their business or to make them like that particular beer?
I think there are three reasons.
The first, obvious, one is that we live in a world of jargon. Cringeworthy acronyms and hideous manglings of meaning spew from every corner of the corporate world.
The second, I believe, is laziness. Having developed a strategy or product using internally familiar terms, there’s simply no effort made to translate it into external facing language, a lack of regard for how the intended audience speaks, or expects to be spoken to.
The bigger a brewery gets, the lazier it becomes on this regard. Two years ago I contributed to the book 1001 Beers to Drink Before You Die. For each entry, I had to request information from the brewery. When I approached a small or medium brewer, even one that had marketing and PR people, I was put in contact with the head brewer. If I went to a large multinational, I was forwarded to the marketing department, who were often unable to answer the specific questions I had. They would tell me that their beer was the "preferred beverage for aspirational young opinion leaders" who were "seeking to liberate the potential of good times", or some equally wearisome and meaningless brand positioning statement, and would be unable to tell me anything at all about the beer itself.
Sometimes they’d even send me positioning documents, full of brand essence wheels, consumer segmentations and mission statements, and nothing about ingredients, history or interesting stories. Given that I’ve worked in marketing, I could make sense of these documents – I’ve been guilty of writing them myself in the past. But, they’re supposed to be internally facing, a brief from which to write external communication, be that a 30-second TV ad or a trade press release. They are utterly bewildering to my fellow journalists who are lucky enough not to have shared my advertising background.
There’s an important, third cause of jargon as well, specific to beer – and that’s credibility. Everyone thinks they know all about beer, because they go to pubs and bars and drink it. When I worked on pensions or washing powder, I had to spend weeks learning how they worked, what went into them. How could I advertise them otherwise? People don’t do that with beer. It’s "just beer". It’s therefore commonplace to find people stewarding a global brand who feel they don’t need to learn the difference between ale land lager, or what hops actually contribute to their product. It’s "just beer".
And, that means some people need to create a more specialist language to discuss it, to make it sound like a proper job. If we did just talk about "making your font look more attractive on the bar", it might sound too much like common sense, not difficult enough. "Enhancing brand presentation at point of purchase" sounds far more professional and clever.
I’d argue that the mainstream language I’ve used above is just as precise as the technical lingo. So, the jargon isn’t actually helping anyone communicate better. But does it do any harm? If it makes insecure marketers feel cleverer, what’s the problem?
I believe the problem is that it blinds people to what is special about beer. Mentally, it commoditises beer, places it in a standardised framework of business and branding. By doing so, it clouds your understanding of what’s really happening out there in pubs, bars and supermarkets. It makes it harder for you to think about your product and category in the same way your consumer – sorry, drinker – does. And surely that leads to poorer decision-making.
And that’s not clever at all.
Sectors: Beer & cider
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