What the US craft brewing industry can teach us about marketing

SUMMARY:

Craft brewing continues to grow strongly even though overall beer consumption is down. How are some of the brands making out? Green Flash and Karl Strauss show the way.

brewery statsI’m a beer kinda guy. Been brewing the stuff on and off for close on half a century, at one time owned a not-very-successful microbrewery, and have enjoyed watching the rise and rise of the craft brewing industry both in the US and the UK. Stats from the US Brewery Association show that while overall beer consumption was down in 2013, the craft brewing business is booming. (see infographic at the top.)

The other week, I was at PowerPlex and by happy coincidence, videod the women responsible for implementing Plex at Green Flash Brewing Company. By even happier coincidence, I later traveled to San Diego, the home of said brewery. Having promised my interviewees I’d seek out their HQ, it would have been rude not to deliver on the promise and so it was that I, along with several hundred others, tipped up for an early evening tipple (no pun intended.)

I was immediately struck by the way Green Flash has turned the idea of a tasting room into a fun event space complete with open GF4viewing into the conditioning tank area and an outdoor space that includes on site cooked food.

Everything about the place says ‘drink me’ but not in a ‘drink ’til you drop’ way, more like a cool wine tasting venue but without the snobby suck and spit you might associate with wine tasting events. I was thoroughly mesmerized and not just because of the many choices available.

All of which got me thinking about how craft beer marketing is so very different from anything we’ve seen in the past.

It’s not just that craft brewing is enjoying a renaissance, the industry is presenting a much more fun filled image than the corporate sponsored pap we see elsewhere. I mean, Jean-Claude van Damme pimping Coors Light is scraping the bottom of the barrel (sic) in what must have been a $1 million plus advert – right?

The new kids on the block are coming up with whacky names that bring a smile to the lips, and that’s before the beer hits the spot. The experience is altogether different and, as Ray Wang likes to say, people want to buy experiences.

KS1Our next stopping off point was the Karl Strauss Brewing Company, also in San Diego.

Drawing direct comparisons with Green Flash may be a tad unfair since Karl’s been around a while longer than Green Flash. This was an altogether slicker spot where the whole experience was one of being immersed in the brand from the get go. It was still a fun laden time but more formal, more ‘I’m in a pub that happens to be a brewery’ kind of thing.

Even so, we could but help enjoy the libations on offer in relaxed and friendly surroundings.

What of the digital angle? Surprisingly (to me), neither of the breweries we visited ships beer although they both ship merchandise. They’re heavy on the events calendar but I suspect it is their Facebook presences that really do the work. Karl’s has 44,000 likes on Facebook for instance. That may pale into insignificance when weighed against the corporate might of Budweiser and its 11 million likes, I prefer the fact this is clearly a human curated page. And I guess it helps that the brewery has a spot at the San Diego Padres ground.

It’s a matter of fact that upstarts have to think and behave differently in order to make any sort of discernible mark in the market place. The fact the craft brewing industry continues to grow strongly is evidence enough of a real demand. With thousands of breweries vying for attention, these two examples go to show how the real and digital worlds can meet, albeit in what seems a slightly uncomfortable manner. From what I have seen, the craft brewers are taking a product that pretty much anyone who can cook can make but applying fresh thinking to reaching markets that is proving appealing.

Seeing Green Flash continuing to invest in new technology of the kind Plex offers suggests there’s much promise for the future.

The one fly in the ointment? As I pointed out on Facebook, many of the US craft beers I saw have an ABV of 7% and up. This is way too strong for most beer drinkers yet from what I can gather, there is a bit of a thing going on to see who can brew the most powerful knock-you-off-your-socks beer. It doesn’t make sense to me. I’d much rather see well balanced beers in the 3.8-4.5% range that can be safely quaffed without risk of immediate need for resuscitation.

All images via Den Howlett