Tasteful Marketing: How Craft Beer Brands Are Winning Over Consumers

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wheaties

It’s called HefeWheaties—a combination of a Hefeweizen-style beer from Minneapolis craft brewer Fulton Beer and Minneapolis cereal heavyweight General Mills. Working motto: The Breakfast of Champions the Day After the Championship. (Reminiscent of 2014’s Minneapolis team up between local brewery Schell and local alt rock radio station 89.3 The Current for “The Current Beer.“)

HefeWheaties is just one of the promotional stunts from an increasingly motley explosion of craft brew brands in America. And as the market for craft—or small batch, independently brewed—beer explodes and the market for conglomerate brewery beer shrinks, brands from both sides are trying all manner of tie-ins, team-ups and give-aways.

The rise of craft beer means not only greater consumer choice in what to drink but also a greater selection of marketing. And craft brewers facing stiffer competition are pouring on the creativity. Can the big brands keep pace?

With a 402-foot bar and 40 taps, Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery Street Pub is going city to city as “the ultimate craft-beer block party.” It will travel to Colorado, California and Minnesota and at each location, it will partner with a local charity that will receive all proceeds. The event is the perfect example of how craft beer is not just winning the tastebuds of consumers but also the hearts and minds. It’s local, differentiated, laid back and not trying too hard. It is unique to each market and makes the brand a part of the local culture.

Compare Deschutes’ block party to Bud Light’s recent “Up for Whatever” campaign. Bud’s national promo was flashy, striving and bombastic. It literally took an American city and stripped the local out of it—renaming Crested Butte, Colorado, to Whatever, USA—and supplanted it with Budweiser’s brand of fun. It was the antithesis of localization, which is one major reason for the shift away from beers like Bud to craft beers.

Then there’s “Holy Wooder” (Belgian-style Triple, ABV9%) that “guarantees to cleanse your soul and set you on the path to righteousness.” Sorry beer collectors—Phildelphia Brewing’s Papal beer to celebrate the Pope’s US visit is draught only.

HolyWooder_2

As the “quintessential native corn beer,” Chicha from brewery Dogfish Head starts with brewers chewing up and spitting out the purple corn base. For Easter 2015, Colorado’s Barrels & Bottles Brewery introduced Hoppy Peeps, a beer made from the sickly saccharine icons of Easter, marshmallow Peeps. Back in Minnesota, for the state’s annual fair, Lift Bridge Brewing Co. created Mini Donut Beer® in honor of the fair’s traditional snack.

And it’s not just about taste. Last year, Texas-based Beerworks released its Peacemaker beer in a 99-pack case. Yes, 99 cans of beer in one case.

Specific sports media outlets are now including opposing team’s craft beer scene in their game coverage. Other brewers like Louisiana’s Bayou Teche Brewing have created university-specific brews, such as its Ragin’ Cajuns Genuine Louisiana Ale to celebrate the official mascot of University of Louisiana at Lafayette sports teams.

(And this craft beer boom is resonating throughout the economy. For example, printer labeling brand Avery recently expanded its offerings to include 18 different products specifically for craft beer bottle labeling)

What all of these promotions demonstrate is the strength of craft breweries to tap into and partner with local brands, culture and phenomena. This nimble ability for craft brands to leverage small, local promotions allows intimate connection with consumers increasingly interested in the unique characteristics of local products, the very kryptonite of conglomerate beer brands bottled miles away and headquartered even further away.

That speculation around the possible SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch InBev merger (SAB InBev?; InSAB?) are no surprise. There is profitability in decreased operational expenses.

But beyond solving the problem of small brewery competition by getting bigger, the beer conglomerates are attempting to stem losses from wilting demand for Budweiser and Miller by matching craft beer on its own turf. Big brewers are confronting changing consumer sentiment both putting emphasis on more local marketing and acquiring small craft breweries.

First, many of the large beer holding corporations are simply adding craft beers to their stable. Dutch brewer Heineken recently bought a 50 percent stake in Lagunitas. The celebrated and storied California craft brewery is one of the largest in the US. At the same time, in select American cities, Heineken USA is using social media to offer Twitter and Facebook users a free Heineken at their favorite participating watering hole.

Heineken

Beerzilla conglomerate MillerCoors recently gobbled up San Diego craft brewer Saint Archer. Meanwhile, Blue Moon, a craft beer brand MillerCoors gobbled up some years back, is busy sponsoring hyper-local $2,000 arts-and-crafts festival contests in Mississippi. The key to that Blue Moon promotion? That local newspaper reports of the $2,000 prize mention that it comes from “Blue Moon Brewing Co.’s craft beer.” Earlier this year, Blue Moon and MillerCoors were sued for misrepresenting Blue Moon as a small brewery craft beer; nowhere on the Blue Moon label does it mention that it is owned by MillerCoors—certainly an accidental oversight by MillerCoors.

And Pabst Blue Ribbon, the first American brewery to ever produce a million barrels a year, is returning to its roots in hopes of redefining itself as a heritage brand and the original craft brewery. Pabst recently announced plans to return to Milwaukee, where it was founded in 1844. There, Pabst will churn out beers made from its “pre-Prohibition” recipes.

Also, to give the appearance of being more local, Bud Light is releasing #MyTeamCans.

It remains unclear if the big breweries can become nimble enough to appeal to the new craft beer sensibility. But one move that AB InBev might want to reconsider is openly mocking the young consumers that it is trying to entice.

Earlier this year at New York City Beer Week, Budweiser installed hidden cameras in a Brooklyn bar and served a “featured” traditionally American beer with a “139-year-old recipe.” The kicker: “Would you guys be surprised if I told you it was Budweiser?” asked the hip bartender with added smarm—never a winning brand position.

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