An outsider's perspective on beer marketing

Yesterday I headed over to the wilds of Southwark, to talk about beer marketing. Someone wanted to know my perspective – as an outsider – on beer. So it got me thinking, and here are some of my thoughts. Many of these also apply to wine marketing, but for now, I’m considering beer.

The beer world is a bit of a bubble.

If you think of the marketing space of all potential beer drinkers, much of it is empty. But there’s a highly populated corner, where the highly involved consumers, most of the beer writers, and the trade are all found. This is the beer bubble. It’s a problem when it comes to innovation and marketing, because the people in the bubble think everyone is like them.

CAMRA (the campaign for real ale) has been helpful in preserving the great British cask-conditioned ales. But now CAMRA is becoming a problem in itself. It creates an unnecessary division between cask and keg beers, rather than championing all great beers. I recently picked up a guide to bottled beers. It was a lovely-looking book, but I couldn’t find my favourite bottled beers in it. Why? Because the book is published by CAMRA, and the likes of Brewdog and St Peters aren’t bottled-conditioned beers, so they don’t get in. This is ludicrous.

I also think that the writers that CAMRA sponsor aren’t all good enough to take the category further. Many of them are looking backwards rather than forwards.

The continued emphasis on the pub as the only legitimate place for beer consumption is a mistake. I love a good British pub, and I love a good cask ale. But this is just one element of the beer ‘space’. For beer to have a future, new drinkers need to be recruited. New beer flavours and styles need to emerge. New occasions for drinking need to be thought about. And why is beer so male? The issue of where beer is consumed should be secondary to the drink.

Innovation is needed in the beer category. I’m thrilled to see the likes of Brewdog, Bath Ales, St Peters and Innis & Gunn making really interesting beers and marketing them well. The packaging of beer is really important. It could be that the future of beer is going to be driven by bottled beers as more consumers look to drink at home.

When I travel to the USA, I find a really vibrant craft beer scene that has broken through into bars and restaurants. You can usually find really interesting beer lists in these establishments, and the US craft beer scene is making some characterful beers that make some of the UK breweries’ offerings seem a bit limited. It’s as if many UK brewers are stuck in a rut, afraid of producing beers with really distinctive flavours, and using very homogeneous marketing and packaging options.

One country that makes brilliant beers but doesn’t really market them very well is Belgium. The flavours are fantastic; the packaging unlikely to win new converts. They’re great, but they are stuck in a niche. Belgian beers have the great advantage that they are quite gastronomic, and beer with food is an area where there needs to be more emphasis.

Beer could be much better. Consumers are currently being offered a limited selection of flavours, and very few commentators are managing to get out of the beer bubble to speak to them. What’s needed is a change in thinking, a fresh way of approaching beer, and new, innovative brands emerging to help consumers explore the different flavour possibilities of beer in a way that appeals to them. There’s nothing wrong with traditional cask ales, but there is something wrong with people who think that they are the only legitimate or interesting expression of beer here in the UK.

13 comments to An outsider’s perspective on beer marketing

  • Gareth

    Brew Dog’s marketing is great, and amusing, but CAMRA’s exclusive attitude is damaging to those who want to make beer that TASTES interesting as the highest priority, rather than conforming to a set of rules about production methods. Noticeable in the wine trade that wine critics don’t deem it neccessary to constantly insult those who drink wines they consider inferior. Keep drinking sociable while it’s still legal!

  • Tim Carlisle

    Couldn’t agree more. Beer is also something that can be localised to where you live. 2 years ago I looked at out beer sales and was unhappy. We didn’t have a beer buyer, so I became it. I bought beers exclusively brewed in the same counties as our shops – Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. We already sold Hook Norton and Wychwood, but out beer sales were rubbish and although these beers were good out customers were looking for more. We now list 10 more local brewers, one – Ridgeway is now the second (and nearly 1st) most important brewer to us – we sell nearly 20,000 bottles of their beer in four shops per year – that is an amazing statistic – but because it tastes very good AND is local people buy it.

    You cannot under estimate the local / food miles impact. That being said you’ve neglected the uninformed – for whom local or tasting opportunities are more important. Don’t forget Carling is still massive – but others like Cotswold Lager can do better – albeit more expensively. The issues facing beer are the same as wine. Joe public wants cheap alcohol that tastes ok to get drunk on. For Carling you could read Blossom Hill White Zin.

    Where beer is a little different is that the informed either want local OR something different – hence the ‘Guest Beer’ thing – by doing a retail thing on beers that you cannot normally buy in bottles we’ve seen sale increase. But we cannot sustain sales of those brews. So we see local OR new things. All this of course assumes a level of quality but once the quality assesment is passed a brewery can see good sales temporarily. To see sustained growth you want something more. For us that is local. Price too is important, a retailer needs to take a margin and still sell on for less than £2.49 per bottle to see sale growth.

    The other thing that makes beer different to wine is label / name. In wine ‘Old Git’ and the like targeted the uninformed, but in beer a quirky name and decent label (at Christmas we sell masses of ‘Bad Elf’ and ‘Reindeer’s Droppings’) make a huge difference to sales. But the joke needs to be a little bit adult to work.

    I am convinced that if a brewer made a drinkable 4.5 – 5.5% brew, with a quirky name they will make it work – more than that even – I’ve seen it.

  • Thanks for those comments. Agreed.

    One aspect I forgot to mention is price. Interesting beer is much more accessible than interesting wine in terms of cost. The best beers are often similarly priced to lager brands. This means there’s potentially a large audience who don’t mind experimenting.

  • Tim Carlisle

    And your worry re- cask only is very astute. I sold 75K worth of beer last year. Very little was lager or from big breweries. That is small fry in supers but our brewers are VERY happy with figures generally. Those that work harder see serious reward – we are only bottled beer and conditioning varies. For many people the way into good beer is via bottles – but for those on the way in they must be filtered and clear!
    Too many brewers have too much to learn, they can learn a lot from the like of Jamie and should seek people out if they want to make the move from interesting hobby to serious business. I get lots of samples of either poor beer, poorly packaged beer, beer that is too expensive to make a margin, but the stuff that sells is clear, tastes good, has a good name, is well priced and is well packaged.
    Brewers often expect me to want to stock their beers but they are poor or cost a lot. OR they are local, make good well packaged and priced beer but don’t approach me (despite being the most important local source for packaged beer – they have not done research in where sell the beers).

    In short beer is well behind wine at present, but there is no reason to be. Anyone making good beer could make a killing….

  • Simon T

    Hoeegarden, Leffe (Brune and Blonde), Kwak, Kriek, Duvel…. I would say the Belgians do a bloody good job at getting some interesting mass market beers to the UK market – Ok so there are others that are only available domestically in Belgium, but that is appropriate in the same way Old Hooky wouldn’t be available in Aachen. There’s a view that ‘moderately big’ can’t in fact be good and an almost obsessive craving for niche/small. Brands within all product categories give the consumer reassurance and whilst clearly Tim understands his customers/is fastidious about product selection, unfortunately we do not all have such a retailer close to us/do not have the time to dedicate to seeking one out and therefore default to supermarkets. Ok so the offer may not be truly innovative, but there is a wide variety at a good price and often these ranges are flexed to reflect local brews.

    Re ‘Old Git’ etc, I guess quirky (awful) names get short-term engagement but these are probably stocking fillers rather than a ‘serious purchase’ and so the industry should appropriate the role of these within an overall strategy for growth/consumer engagement. Provenance has to be the cornerstone otherwise customers will just jump ship to another category with even more risque product names when presented with a choice.

  • Jem

    My english vignerons friends in France also run a micro brewery. Their beer is so popular they have considered stopping making wine. It sells like hot cakes at c£3.25 a bottle and they cant make enough. It’s the french that buy the most as its so different to the ‘lager’ type beer you find in the supermarche which is mainly what they are used to. Pop in if you’re near Cahors

  • Jamie, CAMRA has never really progressed since its inception. It was formed as a pressure group, to defend traditional, i.e. cask conditioned beer at a time when The Big Six were acquiring small breweries at a rate of knots, closing them down, doing up the pubs and installing their own gassed-up draught beers. We were in danger of what I referred to as ‘the National beer grid’ with Watneys Red Barrell the only drink available.
    Although it manned the defences until the new wave of craft brewers came along, it was never a progressive organisation. Indeed, the first Good Beer Guide contained an essential flaw. It was not a guide to “nice pubs where you could get real ale”, simply a list of members’ locals. There were some truly dreadful pubs listed. So the obsession with how beer is made rather than what it taste’s like is hardly surprises.

  • Samuel

    CAMRA is the Campaign for Real Ale – Real Ale by their own definition is only a Real beer, [with a capital R] when brewed with secondary fermentation in the barrel/bottle and served unfiltered.
    Therefore it is correct [by their own standards] that CAMRA only promote Real beers.
    They did recognise St Peters cask version of Old Style Porter which won the CAMRA Champion Beer of Suffolk in 2005 and took bronze in the CAMRA Winter Beer Festival held in Manchester in January 2007.
    Perhaps ‘tongue-in-cheek’ there should be a natural beer movement where other bottled-conditioned beers can be included?
    However what CAMRA does really well is promoting new beers.
    St Peters success is that it is my beer of choice when shopping at the supermarkets but I want CAMRA to promote beers like the N²B Winklepicker from Norfolk Squared Brewery, winner of the Norfolk Beer of the Year 2010 – Real Ale in a Bottle Category.

  • I think you make a very valid point about UK restaurants generally being slow to catch on to beer. If the very best restaurants offered exciting beer as well as wine lists, I think this’d not only make things more interesting, but it’d also be a savvy move for them in a business sense (to attract beer fans who might not otherwise visit). Having said that, one problem with beer & food matching is that some of the new exciting beers have quite forceful/extreme flavours – bit of an equivalent of New World wine fruit bombs?
    As for BrewDog, they’ve done an impressive job of getting themselves into the mainstream while making interesting beers. They’ve done it by intentionally saying ‘controversial’ (annoying) things to get into the news, instead of paying for advertising. They’ve also got themselves engaged with beer bloggers – savvy. But the way they slag off ‘substandard’ alternatives is already tiresome – imagine the top wineries printing that kind of stuff on their labels? Suspect it’d be a turn-off for wine geeks/critics.
    Interesting times for beer though.

  • Colman Stephenson

    Chiming in on the US point:

    when I relocated from London to San Francisco I was surprised and delighted to find a great number of interesting local brews all the way down to micro-breweries.

    Although just as with wine some US styles are not to my taste (some regard intense hoppy bitterness as very desirable) there is no denying the vibrancy of the market.

  • John Sutcliffe

    Personally I like pubs and certainly in the north of England there are many varieties. I can think of 3 pubs in Stockport that have around 14 cask beers and there was a similar one on the north side of Newcastle. With so many styles: golden hoppy beers, bitters, mild, porter, old ales, barley wines etc. there is plenty of choice. In Chorlton there must be at least a dozen pubs and bars, vibrant, full of young people and all with several good cask conditioned beers. Real ales sales were up by 8% last year and keg and lager down by a similar amount. Real cider and perry choice and sales is increasing as well.

  • If only Brewdog made beer 1/10th as good as the gimmicks they come up with to sell it for stupid prices.

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