Elephant in Mouse Clothing, Part 1: Marketing and Anti-marketing in the Beer World

posted on March 25, 2009 in Uncategorized

In anticipation of the Beer Wars movie, a documentary that focuses on the David-versus-Goliath-esque battle of megabreweries* versus craft breweries, I thought I would beer you some of my thoughts on the subject.

The Megabrew vs. Craftbrew saga is one of the most intriguing Big Guy vs. Little Guy stories out there, all beernerdiness aside.  That’s partially because though Megabrew has the expected resume of an Evil Corporate Empire - i.e., bottomless marketing budget, cutting edge technology, cheap ingredients, wide distribution, etc., etc. (are theme parks also an ECE prerequisite?  If so, “check!”) - most people probably don’t think of the big beer companies as “evil” to the extent that, say, so many do of Wal-Mart.  I think the two primary reasons for this discrepancy are (1) the simple nature of the product - the culture of beer, regardless of quality, does not leave much room for hate - and (2) some successful marketing campaigns by the big brewers (the Budweiser frogs were probably as beloved and ubiquitous as the E-Trade baby is now, if not more)**.

I think you totally underestimated the creepiness of those frogs.

I think you totally underestimated the creepiness of those frogs.

Another factor that cannot be overlooked is that the Megabrew drinker isn’t always motivated primarily by price and/or convenience as are most shoppers who purchase corporate over small business products, but rather, by the fact that megabrewers offer “lite” beers, which have an enormous market in the United States, and most craft brewers don’t.  Therefore, many consumers wouldn’t consider macro- and microbrewers in direct competition.  Despite Big Beer’s generally positive image amongst most Americans, however, those in and around the craft brew industry generally fulfill their duty to hold disdain for the big corporate conglomerates.  Even still, many of those same craft brew lovers and craft brewers themselves express respect for the Bud-Miller-Coors group, praising them for their consistency of product.  Suffice it to say that if the two groups were in a Facebook relationship, it would be in the “it’s complicated” category, which are of course, the most interesting kind.  There are many points of comparison to view this eternal battle - many of which I am excited to see explored in Beer Wars;  the one I’ve chosen to focus on in this post is marketing.

As alluded to earlier, beer marketing permeates the media - or it’s possible that’s just how I feel since I tend to watch more ESPN than Lifetime.  Bud, Miller and Coors spend ridiculous amounts of money on advertising campaigns and sponsorships, and we all know the familiar cast of characters from the “High Life” delivery guy to the Clydesdales to the 3 guys in the back of a coach’s press conference.  For most of the past 20 years, (countless) beer marketing dollars have generally been spent to make the consumer know two things: their product is fun/cool, and it won’t fill you up.  And for the most part, the American people seem to have received the message well.

So, how does the craft brew industry compete with these marketing machines?  In my opinion, with a few exceptions, it went in the complete opposite direction.  If big beer mastered traditional marketing mediums, the craft brew industry has mastered anti-marketing.  What is anti-marketing?***  Apparently, it’s a relatively new marketing trend identified by marketing professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, Jay Sinha.  Sinha says, ““In anti-marketing, it’s not about following a script, but trying to pique interest by trying to make products seem unreachable.”  One example he gives in his book Reverse Psychology Marketing: The Death of Traditional Marketing and the Rise of the New “Pull” Game is the practice of some restaurants to not put their location in their commercials, lending them a sort of mystique.  I am not so convinced anti-marketing is an entirely “new” trend as the article and book seem to contend, but I do think it is something the craft brew industry has picked up on big-time.

Try this little experiment.  Go to Beer Advocate’s “Top Beers on Planet Earth” page and check out a few of the websites for the breweries behind some of those lauded brews.  You might notice a common characteristic among the websites for the breweries behind the #2/7/18/22/23/29/53/59/82, #4/14/19/28/97, #11, #15/40/46/94, #25 (apparently) beers in the world - mainly, they’re bad.  OK, I’m sorry, they’re not that bad and I’m sure someone has worked hard on them but let’s be honest, if these brewing companies can’t afford better websites, one of their nerdy fans or friends would surely help them jazz up the site in exchange for, at most, a few free pints.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the general shabbiness of the website design is a badge of pride for these breweries; they’re saying “we won’t spend a dime on marketing - we’re all about the beer”, and to their audience, that’s the best marketing approach they could take.  And the trend seems to be linear: the brewery with the most beers on the list, Russian River, has, in my opinion, the (how do I put this delicately?) most “old school” website.

According to Sinha, “less is more with present-day marketing.  Customers now crave simplicity, authenticity and exclusivity”, and craft brewers appear to hit on each one of those criteria.  And it appears to be working; a recent article from AllBusiness.com on the beer biz highlights craft brew’s nearly 6% climb in total sales amongst a general slump in alchohol (including Big Beer) sales across the globe.  Megabreweries have of course noticed and are trying desperately to get back the relatively tiny bit of market share they have lost.  It’s like if Charlie Bucket stole half a square of chocolate from Augustus Gloop and Augustus told Charlie he’s too fat.  Apparently I’m obsessed with Willy Wonka because that’s the second post I’ve referenced it in.

Augustus isn't the only "great, big greedy nincompoop"

Augustus isn't the only "great, big greedy nincompoop"

In general, the macrobrews strategy has been to become an elephant in mouse clothing (to use yet another metaphor involving a really fat thing).  The Big Guys are going to pretend to be like the Little Guys who focus on the product.  You may have noticed Miller Lite’s new “Triple Hops Brew” ads where they tout that the beer recieves hops at three intervals (!) - if you haven’t, simply go to Millerbeer.com, enter your birthdate (don’t even get me started on how dumb that regulation is) and you’ll soon get the idea.  Well, actually, you might still be confused, especially if you know anything about beer.  Apparently, hops are added “in the first step” to give Miller its “clean, distinctive flavor and aroma”, while they’re added “in the second step” for “balance” to ensure “perfect body and hop taste”; finally, “the third step” contributes to its “perfect head” and “locks in” the taste.  I’m not even sure where to begin to dismantle this BS, but I’ll try.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, hops generally contribute two main components to beer**** - bitterness and flavor/aroma depending on when you put them in the boil.  If you put them in earlier, you’re going to boil off most their flavor/aroma compounds and utilize their alpha acids for bitterness; when put in later, they can contribute flavor and aroma but not much bitterness.  Most beers will call for at least 2 different hop additions - the first is usually around 60 minutes to isomerize the bitterness compounds and the other one, two or more additions are later in the boil for flavor and/or aroma and possibly some more bitterness depending on the time in the boil, but each recipe will vary.  So for Miller to break down their process simply into “steps” and make vague claims like one contributes to the body and another “locks in” the flavor, whatever that means, while also claiming that the first step (which presumably should be the bitterness addition) contributes aroma, is well, ridiculous.  Also, though it is true that hops can contribute to head retention, it is extremely unlikely that the small amount of hops added to Miller Lite play any role, and it is far more likely that the additives used by these types of brewers are responsible for the head.

Budweiser’s response has contained a similar strategy, such as their “perfect pour” ad, focusing on proper beer etiquette, as well as an interesting direction in their “drinkability” campaign.  In one sense, this notion of “drinkability” refers to an actual (though loosely defined) characteristic of the beer itself - something Bud adverts had not focused on much in the past - but it also seems to be making a slightly veiled dig at craft brew, in essence calling it “too flavorful”.  If craft beer lovers are going to make fun of Bud and the other “megaswill” for being “watered down”, then Bud is going to respond by saying craft beer has such strong flavor it’s undrinkable.  They also appear to mock beer nerds who analyze and critique beers on sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate and blogs like mine at the beginning of this ad where the woman says “you do get a hint of drinkability right away”.  If I’m right on this, and they’re still running the “perfect pour” and other product-focused commercials, it makes me wonder if Bud is talking out of both sides of its mouth by both trying to legitimately speak the language of beer nerds, and to do so mockingly.  I think I’d be cool if they chose one strategy or the other but to employ both just pisses me off, almost even more than Miller’s “triple hop” BS.

All this will probably make you think that I’m completely against megabrewers reacting in any way to the craft movement.  Certainly elephants shouldn’t try to look like mice, but I do see a possible benefit to what the macros are doing and will expound on that in my next installment of this series.

In the meantime, please enjoy this comic by my coworker, Sara, that I think is somewhat fitting for a post on beer marketing, especially one with “elephant” in the title.  I’ll simply set it up by saying that we have Stone’s Arrogant Bastard on tap and that if you’re ever going to attempt a “clever” remark to a server, you might want to think about if she may have heard that one before.  I actually still laugh everytime but I thought this drawing was hilarious.  Bonus points if you recognize where one of the animals is from.  And I’m not talking about the framed picture of Hello Kitty…(?)

Bonus points do not count for the Hello Kitty art on the wall.  Just noticed that and it's not what I meant (also, Sara, you're weird).

Elephant: "I've got a pitcher of arrogant bastard". Pig: "Yep, the bastard's right here! Hee hee!"

*For the sake of (generally unnecessary) clarification, by “megabrew”, I’m referring mainly to AB-InBev, SABMiller and Molson Coors - or, “Bud-Miller-Coors” for short, or BMC for shortiest.

**Based on practical experience only; marketing studies on beer advertising campaigns are surprisingly hard to come by.

***Why are questions my only authorial device in this paragraph?

****They also used to be used as a preservative but that’s irrelevant to this discussion.

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