Drinking in the innovative branding of craft beers

Feb 20, 2017

GDR Innovation Researcher Fraser Scarlett discusses the unconventional messaging and innovative strategies adopted throughout the booming craft beer category.

BrewDog is a crowdfunded craft brewery with an innovative and irreverent brand strategy. Originally hailing from the small town of Fraserburgh, Scotland, the brand has recently opened a brewery in Ohio, is available in bars across the world from Hong Kong to Brazil, and has been featured in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 for a record five consecutive years. BrewDog, as well as other craft breweries, is so successful because it’s riding on a wave of consumer attitudes and behaviours.

Cultivating the Insider Community

By placing themselves at the centre of a community of beer lovers, craft breweries can win loyal support, and reflecting the irreverent, anti-big-brewery attitude of their drinkers can lead a brand to make unconventional business decisions.

BrewDog is at the heart of a movement to create beer that tastes as different from the familiar big brands as possible. BrewDog describes itself as a “post-punk, apocalyptic mother-f*cker of a brewery”. Standard hipster-targeting messaging, but less conventionally, the brand has released a catalogue containing all its beer recipes for free. DIY Dog: The BrewDog Back Catalogue contains 215 recipes in total, including its signature Punk IPA. Instructions to help home-brewers are also included, as well as a glossary of key terms and top tips from BrewDog brewers.

What is the motivation? Co-founder James Watt said: “We have always loved the sharing of knowledge, expertise and passion in the craft beer community and we wanted to take that spirit of collaboration to the next level. So here it is. The keys to our kingdom. Every single BrewDog recipe, ever. So copy them, tear them to pieces, bastardise them, adapt them, but most of all, enjoy them.”

At first glance it seems like a poor business decision. Even if we ignored the competition from the big brands, there still remains plenty of competition from other craft beer brands. Releasing every one of its recipes, particularly when the selling point of craft beer is supposed to be flavour seems reckless.

But the move displays a good understanding of the brand’s identity and who its target customers are. For consumers who are bored with mainstream beers, the catalogue offers an opportunity to get further involved in the craft-beer movement. By getting amateur brewers to make BrewDog beer when they decide that they’ve had enough of big-brand beers they have clearly positioned themselves up as the beer of choice for the anti-establishment drinker.

For the connoisseur who wants to choose beer that is unique and intriguing, the catalogue offers an opportunity to examine the ingredients and processes that are used when creating BrewDog beer. It’s an experience which is usually denied to the customer at the bar or pub. Given the huge range of beers in the catalogue, there’s a good chance that they will find something that suits their tastes. The catalogue then becomes a marketing tool that treats the consumer as an insider – with this knowledge they can consider themselves on equal par with the BrewDog brewer.

The Drygate brewery, also based in Scotland, is another craft beer brand that approaches its consumer base with an inclusive attitude. It describes itself as the UK’s first experiential brewery. Starting from £100, Drygate offers people the opportunity to brew their own beer. The professional brewers provide set recipes and advice for amateur hop-blenders, who can then buy finished beers or take home a kit. Customers can even design a label for their 80 x 500ml bottles.

Interestingly, the duty for the beer has been paid for and UK alcohol licensing allows for the amateur brewers to sell their creations to the public. Once again it seems that a craft-beer brand is nurturing potential competitors. But Drygate also has an interest in creating a community, particularly around its brewery in Glasgow. Besides producing its own beers, it hosts events, such as the Braw Beard & Moustache Championships, as well as having its own restaurant and beer hall. Facilitating any kind of engagement with the craft-beer community, even if it means visitors brewing and consuming their own beer instead of Drygate’s, cultivates enthusiasm for craft beer culture amongst locals.

Premium cans: the authentic vessel

The prevalence of cheap mass-produced food and drink has lead to consumers searching out authenticity. One option is to play to feelings of nostalgia, playing to the idea that older, more traditional products (supposedly) guarantee authenticity. The larger brewers market to this impulse, pushing forward their heritage and distinguished histories. One example is Stella Artois’ ‘Be Legacy’ advertisement (here) released in 2015. To distinguish themselves from the big-breweries craft beer brands have been innovating beyond the marketing campaign.

Take Churchkey’s Pilsner Style beer cans, which are manufactured without a ring-pull. Drinkers must use their church key can-opener just like in ‘the good-old-days’ of America’s post-war boom. It’s intriguing that the cans from that era were in fact flat-topped and comprised of three pieces, much like a can of tomato soup, whereas Churchkey beer cans are made using the modern method. In the interest of (apparent) authenticity, the brand has consumers opening a modern beer can using an old-fashioned method.

A toast to Planet Earth: drinking with a clear conscience

The environmental consumer movement can no longer be called a marginal micro-trend. A recent Unilever study surveyed 20,000 adults across five countries and found that 33% of consumers are now choosing to buy from brands on the basis that they do social or environmental good. The beer drinker is no different.

It should come as no surprise then, that London-based start-up Toast is on a mission to stop bread being wasted. What is intriguing is that it is using the wasted bread to brew pale ale. Tristram Stuart, the founder of Toast Pale Ale, said: “We hope to put ourselves out of business. The day there’s no waste bread is the day Toast Pale Ale can no longer exist.”

Another innovative example of this comes from Florida-based Saltwater Brewery. A potential cause for concern for those who buy plenty of six-packs of beer is the plastic ring, so Saltwater Brewery began to produce biodegradable six-pack rings which are edible, so sea-creatures can consume them risk-free.

The same tactic is even applied by adventure brand Patagonia. It released its own brew last year made from a special wheatgrass called Kernza that requires less fertilizer than the traditional wheatgrass used to make beer. Birgit Cameron, senior director of Patagonia Provisions, says: “All it takes is a small tweak in the way we make our beer to effect big change – we are hoping this message reaches the big brewers of the world.”

Interestingly, the brand’s action for the cause never contradicts its brand identity. To depart from the brand’s image, even when doing social good, risks looking random, incoherent and might even be written off as something thought up during a five minute CSR meeting brainstorm.

The craft beer movement gives us a window into the consumer of today. A mixture of boredom and a desire for authenticity has lead consumers to go after craft beers that are different to the conventional large brewer’s drink. The opportunity to get involved in the fun themselves by brewing their own beverages has given them a certain amount of knowledge and a sense of superiority that comes from being included in a community. Finally, a brewery which commits itself to some relevant social goal can earn itself extra points.

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