Sure, we love drinking craft brews, but can marketers like us learn from how breweries market in a down economy? You bet, I connected with four pros and gleaned marketing tips we can all put to work.
The Road to 2020
The craft beer industry was a thing of beauty for many years: outrageous growth, breweries popping up in every corner of the country, seemingly endless opportunity. I had the good fortune to work at a company that was an alliance of some of craft beer’s great legacy brands. Through roles on the marketing and sales teams, I got to know some wonderful folks in the industry and enjoy a few pints along the way. Needless to say, the beer industry is near and dear to my heart.
For many years, business was good. But with intense competition in a saturated market—along with growth in wine and spirits and new categories like cannabis and hard seltzer—sales have declined in recent years. But the alcohol industry has proven resistant to economic downturns in the past, and a global pandemic is no different.
While many factors lead to success, like distribution and shelf space, marketing success may come down to a few key things. I talked with some friends in the beer industry to learn more about how they’re pivoting their approach, what they’re doing to stand out in a competitive environment and what they see as the most important consideration in marketing today.
So, why do certain brands succeed? Marketing tips from the brewhouse:
Well-rounded social strategy
The craft breweries that share a variety of content on Instagram—brewhouse footage, team highlights, events and product—seem to have the most engagement. With a mix of content, followers get to see a well-rounded expression of the brand. As Steven Hallstone, Sr. Brand Marketing Manager at Craft Brew Alliance, said regarding their social strategy, “What we focus on is different in that it’s about the occasion. The occasion side is unique since other types of marketing seems to be trying to stay relevant to trends—for example, the ‘we’re all in this together’ response to COVID versus our ‘hey, relax and have a beer’ approach.”
Marketing Tip: When possible, focus on the experience and story of your brand in a way that customers can relate to, aspire to and want to be part of. Sure, stories about products are important, but today people want connection and to be part of something, like the brands they love.
Smarter activation and customer engagement
Breweries have some of the most exciting in-person activations of any industry, from beer festivals to tap takeovers, team sponsorships to music venue partnerships. Brands that have unique events and activation will create brand loyalists through shared experiences. Many of the following annual brewery events had to be (responsibly) canceled in 2020, but are likely to be back and bigger than ever in 2021.
- Sierra Nevada Beer Camp
- Firestone Invitational Beer Fest
- Lagunitas Beer Circus
- New Belgium Tour de Fat
Marketing Tip: Many of today’s consumers value experiences over things. Find unexpected, exciting ways to activate your brand that will provide lasting memories for your audience to share. Once they’ve been invited into your world, they’ll continue to want to be part of your story.
Create valuable content
Creating great content that speaks to who you are and aligns with your customers’ interests is an important way to encourage engagement.
Hammer & Stitch might be Portland, Oregon’s newest brewery (construction is underway but doors haven’t yet opened). Ben Dobler, Co-founder and Brew Master, is not a marketing guy himself but he recognizes the importance of drawing customers into your digital realm with great content. “In the past, breweries didn’t always treat it as a business. But in the maturity of the market, you have to, sometimes in ways that used to be taboo. For example, one of my first hires was a marketing person. Ten years ago, I would’ve laughed at that idea.” And it looks like that was a great choice since they’re already creating meaningful content before they’ve even poured their first pint.
Marketing Tip: Your website is the digital face of your brand so it’s important to express yourself there. Demonstrate your expertise through thought leadership content. Communicate your message and brand voice through news and updates about what you’re doing. And give your customers a peek into your brand and who you are.
Cultivate culture among your audience
Some breweries have cultivated a culture and an ethos so ingrained in their products and branding that people see more than just an option on the store shelf. They create advocates that identify with the brand on a deeper level. This can come from associating with a niche community, philanthropic efforts or cultural expression. And sometimes, it comes from unexpected places.
Co-founder and General Manager, Karmen Olson, said of developing The pH Experiment: “It started because beer was losing share to wine, spirits and cannabis. It felt like beer had lost its intimacy with the consumer because it had become about what the brewer could do, and in turn abandoned the consumer. So, we thought, let’s just talk to people. The intention was feedback on product but the feedback on consumption behavior ended up being more valuable. And the community we built was far and away the most valuable thing we could offer.” Along with cultivating that amazing group, the pH Experiment aligns themselves with their greater community in other important ways, such as when they provided a list of COVID-19 donation resources shared alongside their COVID-19 Help and Resources Podcast.
Many breweries are nurturing an audience that not only loves their beer but also feels like they’re part of something bigger:
- Kona Brewing’s Da Bruddahs campaign brings the Hawaiian culture and vibe to the mainland
- New Belgium Brewing’s Team Wonderbike is a social movement with over 14,000 members
- The demand for Russian River Brewing’s Pliny the Elder is so legendary that it’s featured on Forbes, and people flock to the pubs to get a taste of it and its spinoff, Pliny the Younger
- Between them, they make up BeerAdvocate’s top two American Imperial IPAs
Marketing Tip: By aligning yourself with causes, content, events and the community in an authentic and meaningful way, you will naturally attract the customers you want, and cultivate your own brand community.
Invest in the greater good
As reported by WWD, in a recent consumer behavior survey Influence Central found that fifty-four percent of people saying they value “charitable contributions by brands, and half of all consumers saying they value brands that are addressing coronavirus concerns.”
COVID-19 has presented various areas of need that prompted many organizations to adjust production lines to manufacture PPE or hand sanitizer – and breweries have been part of that push. And it’s not likely to be just a one-time thing. New Holland Brewing Company reworked their brewing lines so they could make hand sanitizer during COVID-19. According to Joel Petersen, VP of Sales, “There’s a real spark. Where are the other societal needs we can help out with? It’s broadened our view of ‘what else could we do? And should we do?’ It causes a lot of optimism and, across industries, we now have a renewed sense that we can all tackle this. We don’t just have to wait for someone else to fix these issues or fulfill these needs. Everyone can jump in.”
And they’re not the only one. Several other breweries have done something similar:
- Sierra Nevada Brewing has been helping a local hospital perform COVID-19 tests. And they have a longstanding history of philanthropy, including the creation of an industry-wide effort to benefit the victims of 2018’s Camp Fire.
- Kona Brewing Company has donated $22,500 to local Hawaiian organizations working to feed people during the pandemic.
- Constellation Brands has donated $2.5 million to COVID-19 relief efforts.
Marketing Tip: Organizations have an opportunity and responsibility to impact the greater good. Think about ways you can make the world a better place, and set aside resources to contribute. Maybe it’s supporting your local food drives, contributing to environmental solutions or speaking out on social justice issues.
What are three key takeaways for marketers today?
Olson reminds us to be thoughtful: “Know your customer but beyond that, know your customer’s problem. That’s something we miss because we don’t understand the pain points of a customer. If you understand your customer’s problems then you can deliver them solutions.”
Hallstone nudges us toward listening and responding accordingly: “Think about ‘what am I missing, how would I want to be treated as a consumer, what information would I want to see?’ And then give that out to everyone else. Marketing has been about pushing out a message even if consumers aren’t asking for it, so it’s better to share content that gets that pull. In short, don’t try to push and get more pull.”
Petersen stresses the importance of being customer-centric: “It will always work out to do what’s right for the customer. Even if there’s a short term downside to it, if you always do what’s right to the customer—fulfilling their need or being honest with them—you will always end up on the upside. At the end of the day, you want to be that brand they can trust.”
One Final Marketing Tip: There is no one size fits all approach to marketing strategy, but if you look at it from a variety of angles, you can reach your audience where they are, deliver cohesive messages across platforms and mediums and find new ways to connect and cultivate a brand community. And above all, keep your customer as your center focus and connect with them in a meaningful, authentic way.