Comment - Beer - Hey, You! Don't Drink That! Drink This!

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Dare you drink one of your competitor's brands? Pete Brown dares you, but believes that those that choose 'truth' instead are doing their brands a disservice.


Picture the scene: You work for a major multinational brewer, representing Brand A, entertaining your customers in a hotel bar. The bar stocks Brand A, right next to your main competitor, Brand B. When your boss asks everyone what they’re drinking, you reply, “You know what? I fancy something different. I’ll have a bottle of Brand B, thanks.” 

I think anyone who works in brewing would consider this a bit of a faux pas. 

Now, consider a different scenario: You’re at a friend’s stag party. You’re on your own time, and work is the furthest thing from your mind. One of the guys comes back from the bar with a bucket full of frosty Brand Bs. You take one, and pose for a group photo with it in your hand, all of you raising your bottles to the camera. That photo appears on the groom’s Facebook page. 

In this scenario, have you done anything wrong? 

Or consider this: You’re on two week’s annual leave, in a beach resort in Greece where the only beer available is Mythos. (And no, Mythos is not our hypothetical Brand A). You have a cool one sitting next to your sun lounger, and gosh, isn’t this a coincidence, here’s comes your boss, walking down the beach, sporting a flip-flop/Hawaiian shirt combo. He sees you take a swig from your Mythos.

Does he have any right to be angry with you? 

These three examples are all hypothetical. I would like to think that they are rhetorical - that, when you are representing the company, of course you are supportive of the company’s products, but that, when you’re off the clock, on your own time, you’re free to drink whatever the hell you like.

I’m slowly gathering stories, though, that suggest some brewers believe that, as long as you are employed by the company, no matter where you are, or who you are with, you drink their beers and no one else’s. 

On one level these are “I know this one guy who …” -type stories. They’re difficult to corroborate. No one who fancies a future in this industry would go on the record to state the facts, and no employer who doesn’t fancy being sued for blatantly unfair and restrictive employment practices would admit to this being official policy.

On the other hand, there are too many of them to ignore. 

There’s the maltster in the Pacific north-west who attended a craft brewers’ dinner along with every other brewer in town, and like every other attendee, was cajoled into wearing the branded polo shirt of the host brewery, only to receive a phone call telling him that if he was ever spotted again wearing competitive merchandise, he would be fired. 

There’s the master brewer in Western Europe who attends regular dinners where a dozen of his peers taste each other’s brews in turn and critique them – all except him, looking miserable as he refuses any other beer apart from his own. 

And, there’s the salesman in Asia with whom I spent an off-duty, off-the-record afternoon, who eagerly told me all about the local brews I should try, but then stuck to his own brand all day, insisting it was the beer he preferred to all others, even though his facial expression and body language screamed otherwise.

Each of these stories relates to what is now the same brewery (you could probably work it out if you didn’t already know). So, even though I had no proof, I was curious as to whether this was official practice. A few weeks ago, I was attending an awayday held by another major multinational brewer, and found myself talking to someone who had recently moved to that company from the one I’d been hearing these stories about, where he’d held quite a senior position. So I asked him straight out: in that company, what would happen to you if you were seen drinking a competitor’s product? His answer was immediate and emphatic. 

“Oh, that’s a career-ending move.” 

Even if you were on holiday, when the company is not paying you to represent them? 

“Absolutely. If you don’t want to drink their beer over all others, all the time, you obviously don’t want to work for them.”

Let’s count the ways in which this is wrong.

Firstly, it makes employment a kind of indentured servitude. The company is not just buying your time and intellectual property; it’s buying a bit of your soul, your free will. It’s treating talented, responsible professionals like unruly children. In a phrase currently much overused and debased by stroppy teenagers, it’s an abuse of human rights.

Secondly, how is anyone – brewers in particular, but anyone involved in making, marketing and selling beer – supposed to have a realistic view of how your beer stands relative to competitors if you’re never allowed to compare them?

Thirdly – and this one is key even to corporations who think things like employee rights or the appreciation of the product are for whimps – it doesn’t work. The whole point of this restrictive policy is to turn your employees into brand ambassadors. But coercing them has the opposite effect from the one you’re after. When you drink with some poor schmuck who is too scared to drink anything other than his own brand, you feel sorry for him. No one really believes that anyone loves their company’s products so much that they want to choose them over all others, every single time. The impression created is that the beers must actually be pretty poor if you’re threating the poor guy (either covertly or openly) that he’d better drink them, or else.

Of course, not all multinational breweries are equal. I know a senior executive for a different brewery who thinks he’s hard done by because, when he goes out drinking a variety of competitive products while representing his brewery, he’s not allowed to claim the cost of those beers on expenses. He believes, with some justification, that he should be able to claim them as competitive research. 

But you know what? When I talk to that guy, his expenses grumble aside, I’ve met very few people who put across such a genuine passion for the brands they represent.

Loyalty – genuine loyalty – cannot be gained by coercion: it needs to be earned if it is to be of any benefit.

Sectors: Beer & cider

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