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Beer Festivals: A Recent Marketing Initiative

Posted by Alan Horton
Alan Horton
Al Horton retired after 27 years with Bob Hall LLC, a beer distributor in Upper
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on Thursday, 17 April 2014 in May 2014 Editions

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Beer marketing practices have changed rapidly in recent years and continue to evolve. It wasn’t long ago that local beer marketing consisted of the “beer man” bellying up to the bar and buying a couple rounds. While bar nights and trade spending still exist they have been eclipsed by other practices, but the one element that hasn’t changed from those bygone days is the firm belief in the popular slogan “Making friends is our business.”

The reach and power of personal marketing has now become more important than ever, and the majority of craft brewers “get it.” They have rediscovered what industry veterans have known for years that a friendly approach, knowledge about one’s product and providing honest recommendations go a long way in the brand building process.

In days gone by, sophisticated beer marketing was dominated by the largest domestic and international brewers.  Expensive measured media such as television, radio, print and outdoor campaigns were successful methods used to reach large blocks of consumers.  But as the Millennial generation gradually turned away from network television, radio station programming and newspapers, measured media became a less effective tool to communicate brand messages.  The value added analysis and conclusions supplied by Arbitron and Nielsen, communication industry auditors, to media buyers were no longer adequate predictors of consumer taste and preference.

Catchy slogans, cartoonlike animal characters, celebrities promoting a particular brand had often been used as successful marketing strategies, but these tactics no longer convince consumers to drink brand XYZ. New beer drinkers and experienced beer drinkers in the 21-30 year age cohort are restless and always on the lookout for new styles and brands. Today’s beer consumers want to personally connect with a knowledgeable brewery rep, the brewery owner or brewmaster to talk about their beer and its unique attributes. For the craft brewers who frequently brew beers that are quite different than the norm, it’s easy to spin up a story about the methodology used to make a beer, to talk about its particular flavor notes or to comment on what to look for in terms of aroma and taste. This sort of personal interaction brings a completely different level of involvement and credibility to the beer buying and beer drinking experience.

There is an old story about Jack MacDonough, the former CEO of Miller, and his thoughts about consumer promotions.  He was once asked at what point it is no longer economical to do sponsorships or promotions.  He replied, “….promotions are no longer viable if  they cost more than a six pack per person; at that point, I am better off buying everyone a six pack; at least this way, at least, I know they are drinking my beer.”   

MacDonough’s thought process was a prescient one as craft/microbrewers have discovered the primary objective of any promotion is to get their brand in the hands and stomachs of consumers.  All the other stuff is secondary.  

Craft brewers have found both an innovative and practical way to promote and market their brands –beer festivals.  Beer festivals can take the form of a single brewer deciding to promote its own brand, a beer festival hosted collaboratively by competing craft brewers, or it may be brewery personnel directly sampling consumers at tasting nights, at beer dinners or tap takeovers.  Beer festivals have become a mainstream marketing technique that allows craft beer makers to do big marketing without spending big marketing dollars.

There is currently an increased level of knowledge about beer as a result of the widespread use of social media. A rapid communication about likes and dislikes between social media sharing friends can make a brand an instant success overnight.  Many if not most members of the prime beer drinking cohort (age 21-29) are getting their information about beer not from commercials but from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.  The four letter word “like” had taken on new meaning.  Messages and opinions between friends and strangers morph from one on one communication into viral messaging.  The word about a new beer brand or a sponsored activity can go viral and spread beyond the local area, around the country, or around the world in short order.  This isn’t to say that young adult readers believe and agree with every communication and recommendation they receive, but if it is passed along by a friend or acquaintance with the similar lifestyle interests, the information has a good possibility of being read and acted upon, which has always been the goal of traditional measured media.  Social media communications have an advantage because whether real or imagined, social media messages convey the sense of being honest, genuine and real.  Whether it is true or not there is an inherent assumption that the messages have not been written by marketing professionals.  

At the local level, expensive brewery media programs were often bolstered by local distributor efforts within the community through team sponsorships, concerts and in store merchandising especially product display.  Although all of these activities were without question worthwhile, they often were missing two key components: having sales people who had in depth knowledge about beer, and having the ability to put a brand of beer in a consumer’s hands and talking confidently about it. The good news is the knowledge level within the industry is getting better as beer distributors are providing in depth training such as Cicerone training for their sales staff.  Some have even hired dedicated sales reps with specialized brewing knowledge. 

Brewery and distributor personnel are busy people. Both sides of the business are labor intensive, and whether manufacturing or selling it, both sides put many extra hours in meeting with consumers and to sample their products.  At one time, Gerhardt Kraemer, the long tenured master brewer at Anheuser-Busch was heard to say, “…..I used to worry only about making the beer; now I have to also worry about selling it.”  When brewing personnel show up at a tasting and are able to describe a brand’s unique characteristics, it is powerful stuff for the average beer consumer.  As beer drinkers gain more knowledge about brewing techniques and beer ingredients from hop types to malt varieties and specialty additives (like candi sugar), they also increase their beer drinking enjoyment.  Many savvy retailers already take full advantage of the knowledge and availability of brewery and distributor reps to hold in store or in bar tastings.  This is a sure fire way to directly engage the consumer.

Craft brewers and their wholesalers have really stepped it up a notch in addressing the need to directly engage consumers. They have become skilled promoters putting together major marketing events for their products and beer festivals have become more prevalent. Pick up a local newspaper, an urban magazine such Baltimore Magazine, What’s up Annapolis or Washingtonian or scan a brewer’s Facebook or Twitter postings and you will find a list of planned beer activities for 2014.  Another great way to stay informed about upcoming events is the Mid Atlantic edition of Brewing News.  You may wish to contact the editor and arrange to have copies available for your good beer customers.  The publishers are Bill Metzger (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) and Jamie Magee (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ).  Included in the bi-monthly paper is a detailed three month calendar of upcoming events.

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Al Horton retired after 27 years with Bob Hall LLC, a beer distributor in Upper Marlboro, MD. In addition to his journalistic duties for The Beverage Journal, Al is currently an Adjunct Business Instructor at Anne Arundel Community College.

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