Remember American Craft Beer Week? I mean, did you see that massive Twitter campaign, the Facebook posts, all the beer and food porn on Instagram?
Well, for someone who at least makes an attempt to dredge a few feeds and find some trends, I almost missed it. For our topic of choice in this post, were it not for a fortuitous glance at precisely the right hour, I would have missed out on the chance to try the “Biggest Small Beer Ever” altogether. As much as we rail against the macro conglomerates, including whether you think all their acquisitions is a good or bad thing, they still rule our eyeballs when it comes to advertising campaigns. If we want to supplant the watered down light beers and adjuncts of the world with more tasty brews, this has to change.
I’m not looking to skewer #acbw from a place of disdain, but a bit of honesty is required at times to garner lessons learned and make positive changes. Nor am I playing armchair quarterback behind the safety of my anonymous keyboard: my day job at times requires a tremendous amount of transparency and communication, and I’ve been on both ends of an interview microphone at various times over the past decade. What I’m offering is done out of love both for this industry and its wares.
First, let’s start with what went wrong with the “Biggest Small Beer” campaign:
Fail 1: Too Much Secrecy
Viral marketing can be worth its weight in gold. Go back beyond Radiohead, Cloverfield, and Blair Witch. What makes a viral campaign truly successful is accessibility backed by ingenuity. People have to be able to find the breadcrumbs you leave, and even if you don’t give up the goods the content has to at least be engaging enough to capture a viewer’s attention beyond the next cat video. Here the good people of the Brewer’s Association get some mixed marks, because the initial media was actually fairly promising.
Ok, as a craft beer fan you’ve got our attention. So what next? Another hashtag? If you were lucky, your feed or the RT aimed your way also came with a link, most likely this one. So a lot of places are all making one beer together! Sweet!
Well, but what kind of beer is it? How’d you come up with the recipe? Why any one style over another? The three of us at VBR scoured the twitterverse but never got very far. We’re either terrible investigate journalists (which may indeed be likely as we’re not even journalists) or…
Fail 2: Social Media is Fickle
If you were to venture to #makesmallbeerbig on Twitter today, you might get a bit confused. Sure, there are more than a few mentions of our beer event in question, but there’s also quite a bit like this:
Hashtags and trending topics are powerful, but also fleeting. A whole consulting industry has sprung into being about how to transform “marketing” into “engagement.” Lots of ideas, wads of cash thrown about, but a few problems to consider:
- Only the top 3-5 topics will head up that “trending” little column in the corner of the screen.
- Disdain, apathy, misunderstanding, and career trolls lead to carefully plotted campaigns getting hijacked.
- If you can’t survive those first two, sharing is useful but you can’t force users to help you out there.
- In order for users to share your content, they have to be following you in the first place.
- The average user is following several hundred feeds.
To be sure, the biggest social networks have moved from live feeds to curated (or “targeted”) content based upon your stated and observed preferences. That can make it insanely hard for young brands or new accounts to grab precious screen space. Which leads to…
Fail 3: Short Campaign
The Biggest Small Beer hit taps on Monday, May 16. The official news release announcing the endeavor didn’t occur until only four days earlier. FOUR. Leaks and RUMINT (rumored intelligence) hit the blogosphere as they always do, but if you’re going to make a limited time offering (especially one as short as five days) then you need to give users enough warning to fit your product release into their schedule. Take movies, for example. The average American theatrical release lasts approximately 90 days (with most exceptions running shorter), and teaser trailers start hitting the airwaves all over creation as far as a year or more out from that release.
This goes back to the secrecy issue a bit, but it’s not uncommon for some of our media partners to reach out to us looking into promotion a month or so ahead of an event or release. Given the time it must’ve taken BA to collaborate on the recipe, line up the 100+ breweries that actually made the thing, and give them time to crank it out, why weren’t we hearing about this idea 2-3 months ago? It’s awfully hard to go viral in a couple of days. If you noticed a certain tidbit in this paragraph, that leads me to the biggest issue…
Fail 4: Pomp, Circumstance, and a Total Lack of Inventory
4,490 breweries all participating to make one beer sounds impressive. Cool. Groundbreaking. It’d be one hell of a logistical campaign – nay, nightmare – to pull off, but if BA pulled it off it’d go down in history. The truth behind the actual campaign is a bit less…legendary.
A lot of chatter led to what turned out to be a riff on an English-style Porter. In the end, though, about 100 breweries actually made the thing, and finding out where was only a bit less frustrating than potentially realizing that one of the select few is nowhere near you. I was lucky – Port City participated, and if you haven’t noticed from all our coverage the past few years they’re essentially down the block. Even then I was taken aback as the announcement that the beer would hit the tasting room came bare hours ahead of the actual release – for good reason! If you only make a sixtel or half-keg of the beer, it’s likely going to go quick. In this case Port City had a lone sixtel on hand (other amounts made some rounds, apparently even up to Capitol Hill) and on the morning after the release a DM exchange made me realize if we didn’t bolt over there we’d miss our only chance to actually try the thing.
So let’s recap: 1) No one knew what the heck was going on; 2) the campaign was relegated largely to social media; 3) next to no warning before the release; 4) very few breweries actually participated, and they didn’t make all that much.
Where can BA and #acbw go from here? Basically the exact opposite of the problems above, as well as building on a few of the successes they did have, including…
Opportunity 1: The Beer is Good, but not Great
The point of this campaign was presumably to prove that microbrewing > macrobrewing. More love, better ingredient control, flexibility. It’s all true, of course, but the 80% and more of the general public which doesn’t consume craft beer hasn’t yet gotten the message. A Porter may not be the right beer to get that point across.
If you were to look at the highest rated beers on Beer Advocate, Untappd, or any competing forum, you’ll see lots of Imperials, Doubles, and really big beers at the very top. Many are in fact uniformly excellent, but let’s be clear they are not good entries into the world of craft beer. If you instead looked at the most consumed beers in the world, a reader on this site would be disheartened to see the infamous Lager dominating the beer version of the Billboard Top 100. The business case craft brewers make against brewing Lagers is somewhat sound: they’re fickle, they take longer to brew, and they’re simply not as flavorful. Most of the world shrugs at that logic – they don’t want 8.5% DIPAs that melt your tongue at 90 IBUs, they want something mild and fairly cheap that can give them a buzz but allow them to drive home.
So maybe craft brewers hate Lagers. Why not a Golden Ale, or maybe a Sessionable Pale Ale? Keep it around 5%, give it some flavor, and don’t overdo the bitterness. DC Brau did something similar when they made a beer for the DC United soccer team – something you can tailgate with that tastes a lot better than the other cans floating around the lot.
I liked the Port City version, I honestly did. A hint of brown sugar almost like snickerdoodle on the nose, a body akin to a savory oatmeal stout, and lots of toasty malts. A lot of people won’t see it the same way, though, and the casual beer fan in our group thought it just tasted “burnt.” Additionally, it was also great to see from afar the interpretations that came out of the recipe. If the point is to be able to see how the craft movement can impact a uniform recipe, though, the next step should be…
Opportunity 2: Expand the Availability
If a brewery releases a beer, and you can’t find it, does it exist? There’s a tremendous difference between advertising 4,490 breweries, and culling that down to “over 100” in the fine print. Fix that. Some areas were awash in places to try the beer (NJ anyone?) but others simply weren’t. If people can’t get to it, they’re not going to drink it, and the simple solution is to enlist more brewers to make it. A random sixtel every hundred or so miles isn’t going to do it. The coordination may be a pain as a lot of sites have to fit a non-standard beer into their production schedule as well as secure ingredients and so on. But more than 100 did it this year, so it’s not impossible to expand.
Take it another step further. A very small sample of the population is going to make a stop to a brewery tasting room on a weekday night. Our visit to Port City was dubbed a “quiet” night by the staff, and that’s not ideal if you want to sell #craftbeer as a brand. So make more of it, and if the little guys aren’t ready then share the load with bigger breweries. Fair Winds took the lead for the Kerri’s Cure campaign a few months back, and that meant finding the beer from DC all the way to Charlottesville. But the goal is to move beyond the tasting room. Bars, pubs, restaurants, cans, bottles, growlers and crowlers… Pick a coverage amount – say 75% of residents within 100 miles of a metropolitan statistical area – and start laying the framework months out.
At the same time, while the blogosphere and the participating breweries are great aids to marketing, if you control the recipe and have endeavored to get dozens or potentially hundreds of brewers on board, then tell folks where to get it! As it happened this year, you had to navigate to the craftbeer.com events page and either scroll through or put in a query. Easy you say, but the average user spends fewer than 5 clicks navigating to their content before giving up and moving on. Leaving a link to a formatted calendar or other search interface out of the main announcement was a serious error. There’s also another way to make it easier for consumers to find a beer like this…
Opportunity 3: Commoditize It
Think about the last time you went to an “event.” The ads, the signs, the balloons…everything got you there, and as any parent knows, when you enter those gates all Hell breaks loose. Shirts! Hats! Toys! Posters! Commemorative cans and glasses! Memorabilia complete with certificates of authenticity!
A majority of consumers want to think they’re getting a great deal. Swag is not only a great way to catch a furtive glance, but once procured (or given away) it becomes a potentially permanent reminder of your brand and/or product. Customers also want a social experience, so why not give them one? Treat the release event as such, and if the point of the campaign is that craft brewers are collaborators more so than competitors, get some space and throw an epic shindig. Scale the event to the crowd – festival, tap takeover, bottle shop visits, and so on.
I can imagine more than a few readers calling this selling out. Some of the most successful breweries in the Commonwealth are doing exactly what I propose though, because they’re selling it. They’re selling their brand as much as their beer. Reps are barnstorming and handing out little souvenirs, pouring free samples, taking and posting selfies with fans… Acting like the overly saturated macrobrewers because those strategies work. On that note, the final thing that could put the Biggest Small Beer over the top is really quite simple…
Opportunity 4: Get on the Airwaves
I already hit on the social media aspect. A snide retort may be that Facebook has a billion users, Twitter 300 million, and Instagram is still among the fastest growing of all the networks. That’s fine, but apart from the 30 minutes or so the average user spends on Facebook, that casual consumer may be juggling their time among other networks and apps. Look at the top of our page as a reminder of all the platforms VBR has access to (and largely given up on). The ROI for social media is shockingly low without a great product, campaign, and a definitive amount of luck or pre-existing caché (aka followers).
While engagement rates are notoriously difficult to measure let alone define, the marketing avenues where macro utterly dominates micro are TV and radio. Apart from Sam Adams (and depending on your acceptance of the latest criteria, Yuengling) when was the last time you saw a large or medium-sized brewery on your precious 60″ screen? Or heard an ad for good beer amidst all the sports chatter, crappy jokes, and inane alt-rock during your commute? Better question: have you ever? Or do you remember the Bud-Weis-Er frogs, Mr. Really Bad Toupée Wearer, and the Beer Refs?
There’s a good reason that breweries and groups like the BA rely on social media and outreach to sites like ours: it’s largely free. Alcohol is also one of the safest industries in our economy – people are going to buy it both to celebrate and forget, supplement and replace. At a certain point, however, growth requires investment capital beyond a marketing/social media manager and access to a distributor with a robust supply chain. This is beyond most small brewers and a fair number of mid-size ones, as well, and that’s where the Brewers Association and the varying state/regional organizations and guilds come into play. Their mission statement is to promote craft beer…so push the chips in! All it takes is one well-timed ad during a big media event to get your message across – think all the seemingly random ads during live sports or American Idol. Ideally, a robust multimedia campaign targeting the appropriate demographics would occur well ahead of the product release, and point consumers to those less expensive avenues for continued engagement.
The Good News
I really do love this idea. It has the potential to completely change the national conversation about craft beer’s place in the market. Imagine a version where during #acbw you’re inundated with displays in your grocery store leading you to 4- and 6-packs, your bottle shop is hosting tastings to allow you to compare several different versions, and the local watering hole has a draught line set aside with a brewery rep nearby to answer questions. The hardcore get to collect cans or commemorative tasting glasses from their favorites, and t-shirt giveaways relegated to the “gym pile” mean you see craft beer everywhere from the locker room to the front lawn on the guy who only mows his grass every 3 weeks.
The Brewers Association is in a unique position to pull something like this off. As with any prominent guild or lobbying group, the ball is in their court to take lessons learned from the Biggest Small Beer and move into a “Do. Fix. Do.” cycle. They made decide the returns were too small, which wouldn’t be surprising, but that doesn’t invalidate the idea. I hope to see an Even Bigger Smallest Beer Ever next year.