Special Edition: How to Build Brands for People Who Seemingly Don't Need Brands

FILED JUNE 3, 2016

Dear Client:

ED. NOTE: We don't do this often, but today on this glorious Friday we are turning over the BBD platinum keyboard to our longtime friend Greg Owsley. For those of you old-timers, you'll remember Greg as the chief creative force behind the New Belgium brands, largely creating their early marketing vision which endures to this day. Today Greg has his own brand marketing shop -- The Storied Brand -- and I consider him one of the most brilliant brand story-tellers of our day (in any CPG industry). http://www.thestoriedbrand.com/

So I asked Greg to pen a guest editorial on how to market beer brands to young people today who, seemingly, don't need or want brands. Here, my friends, is what he had to say:

Beer drinkers, even Snapchatting Millennials, still need the navigational tool of a brand. Perhaps more than ever, Harry. I just think there is an evolutionary gap between their contemporary expectations and the beer marketer's long time working definition of a brand. Back when Corona owned that languid white sand beach in our brain, brand managers leaned heavy on conveying a beer as bottled vacation or freedom or confidence or individualism. We imagined the consumer as they purchased Heineken with ‽sophistication” in a thought cloud above their head. The theory was that if you could construct the brand as a vehicle to mythical escapism or a white bubble aspiration, you could dominate your competitors.

But the mechanics of consumerism have changed. Tectonically. Medias are democratizing as fast as brands are multiplying. Yet strangely we still deploy positioning models from when TVs had ears not dishes and from when bars with five-plus tap handles we assumed would fade with the Yuppies. It took years of relentless focus, media dominance, and a vastly smaller competitive set to even begin to own a white bubble in the beer drinker's mind. But in today's evermore-complex beerscape the classic brand pyramids, DNAs, and bull's eyes still dominate strategy. Weird. My overly simplistic guess why is that the brand decision makers reached their strata propelled by big wins from these models thus they're reluctant to give them up. As these corner office execs find more and more desks within Craft it will be curious to see how their trusted positioning platform works in the category that largely upended it.

How drinkers treat Craft as a brand is actually insightful into the type of modern consumptive relationship they want. They're not into escapism. They're into exploration and Craft offers a perpetual investigation of new and interesting. They also demand brands that authenticate their lives, not fabricate and Craft offers hands-on relevancy sourced through tours, tastings, festivals, and multiple other human scaled brand interactions. Most importantly Craft provides a story that resonates with their life stories. Beyond delivering delicious physiological benefits, Craft has resonantly found purchase in the powerful cultural undercurrents of people desiring participatory authenticity and non-corporatized meaning.

As distinctly compelling as the overall Craft brand is we can't ignore that most individual craft brewers are now facing their own positioning problem: craft is no longer a point of difference. No matter how many chummy collaborations you brew with them, your fellow craft brewers are still your primary competitive set. People are not trying to decide between a Bud Light and the neighborhood IPA, they're trying to pick from a litter of nearly indistinguishable craft offerings.

So what is it for modern beer drinkers that makes a certain brand irreplaceable while the rest in the category basket are interchangeable? In research, both structured and socially, I always ask what advice would you give this brand? Inevitably the answers are detailed, contextual, and highly personalized which is a key insight in itself. We need to remember people are navigating just as much complexity in building their identity projects as we marketers are in building our brands. They can't singularly portray themselves as a Rugged Individualist or some other white bubble archetype any more successfully than a brand can. So they turn to brands that offer bespoke relevancy, a keen cultural insightfulness that makes the drinker feel like an insider. Here are several other paraphrased requests people have for beer brands these days:

"Don't stereotype me.” Along with the thought cloud brand pyramid, marketers might be better served to also set aside the (pricey) segmentation study. You know, that research where consumers get placed in typologies that sound like bands from the 80s, e.g. The Sophisticates, The Sippers, The Intimidated… The new reality is that beer drinkers have never been more emboldened to drink what they want not what we tell them. They're circumventing that research claiming consumers with proper beer education” will ladder up from Bud to Fat Tire to Arrogant Bastard to Tank 7. That might have held validity ten years ago, but today a person's first ever beer could as likely be a Duvel as a Coors Light. Dive bars sell a lot of IPA. Beer geeks drink a lot of PBR. Drinkers want to be intrigued, challenged, absorbed by a brand, not coddled.

‽Let the beer speak for itself.” People desire in-your face flavor without in-your-face marketing. Look at the Grapefruit Sculpin identity versus the slew of wannabes. Sculpin IPA to begin with is a beautifully non-posturing identity where instead of a predictable hoppy pun and/or hop cone graphic our beer drinker intellect is congratulated with a modest little baitfish. When Ballast added grapefruit to Sculpin, they simply assumed we could understand how ‽Grapefruit Sculpin” might taste unaided by dripping grapefruit slices on the label.

"Keep me engaged.” Keeping your drinkers delighted doesn't have to mean a new recipe every 15.5 gallons, but it does mean articulating all brand activities to keep your audience cerebrally stimulated. Check out how the PBR field marketing team is up to constant creative activations with their imbibing deviant subculture. Or the culturally pitch perfect ten years of the Dos Equis' Most Interesting Man. Or, how Sierra Nevada with their Beer Camp has created not just new, interesting beers but an entire branded experience with other brewers paying homage and elevating the enduring harbinger status of the Sierra Nevada brand.

"Be your (eccentric) self.” It's telling that the beer brands these days with the broadest of followers seem to have the clearest of character… the iconoclastic PBR, the unabashedly Mexican Modelo, the unabashedly Midwestern Boulevard, the properly chill 805, the elusive Pliny The Elder. It makes sense that in this fragmenting, blurring collage of a world we seek examples of unfiltered character. Even if a beer brand is peculiar or unorthodox it certainly has more authentic gravity than a generalist. Idiosyncratic is the new iconic.

Yes, it's harder than ever to build a beer brand that drinkers won't treat like Snapchat: that was fun last night, what are we drinking tonight? But even as emboldened as drinkers are, when you catch them staring at the endless shelf or endless tap line their selection is not pin-the-tail random, it's informed, And the informants are brands.

-By Greg Owsley, The Storied Brand


Beer's struggles persist in the latest set of on-premise bev alc trends from GuestMetrics. For the four-week period ending May 15, beer units were down 6.5% (year over year), declining from -5.3% over the last 52 weeks.

The strongest performing segment over the period was premium plus, gaining 0.4 unit share points, "almost netting out losses" from its premium counterparts: light and regular. Premium lights share losses did improve however, only losing 0.4 points for the four weeks compared to almost a full point over the latest 52 weeks.

Craft saw growth during the four weeks, up 0.3 unit share points, but decelerated from its 52-week trend, up 0.6 points. Imports remain stagnant losing 0.2 points over the period.

Spirits, which grew a share point during the period, continue to source its gains from beer, which lost a share point. And wine was flat over the period, a slight drop from the latest 12 weeks, up 0.2 points.

Total alcohol units were down 4.4% for the four week period, a slight improvement from the 12-week trend, down 4.5%, but "lagging the latest 52 weeks," down 3.1%.

On-premise traffic over the period, down 3.5%, was an improvement relative to the latest 12 weeks, down 3.8%. But don't go high-fiving anyone because it's still well below the 52-week trend, down 2%.


With the "Most Interesting Man in the World," now out of this world. Dos Equis is busy determining who the next-in-line should be.

The search is a bit broader than you'd imagine. Basically, any legal drinking age adults with a Facebook can throw their hat in the ring by proving how interesting they are through the "Dos Equis Interesting Index," a proprietary algorithm built for the social media platform.

"The Dos Equis Interesting Index algorithm scrubs through users' specific Facebook data to determine a "score” in four different categories: originality, thirst for knowledge, worldliness and sense of adventure, which then produces an overall worldwide ranking," per company release.

The neat thing about the campaign is Dos Equis is giving participants a sense of how they stack up against Hollywood. The brand has gone ahead and enlisted sportscaster Erin Andrews and actor Luis Guzmán to star in two digital spots, which "showcase their ranks among The Most Interesting People in the World."

"With the conclusion of the first chapter of The Most Interesting Man in the World campaign, this is a most interesting time as we continue to evolve the brand," said Andre Woldt, Brand Manager of Marketing for Dos Equis. "We're working with Erin and Luis, who both live interesting lives, to inspire consumers to prove they're interesting and see where they rank in the world amongst their friends."


BEER SUMMIT 2017 - Speakers? Topics? Outing? It's that time of year again. BBD is planning for our 2017 Beer Summit and we would like to hear your thoughts. Please take this brief survey so we can make this the best Beer Industry Summit yet!

Don't forget to register for the Beer Industry Summit 2017 in San Diego January 29-30 at The Hotel del Coronado. Tickets go quickly, so reserve your spot today: beernet.com/beer_summit.php

Until Monday, Harry

"I no longer prepare food or drink with more than one ingredient."
- Cyra McFadden

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