I didn’t mean to sound too critical of the multinational I mentioned yesterday – it’s what I expected them to do. At that scale, it is about branding first, brewing second. And when your brewing all takes place inside shiny sealed closed tanks and happens at the push of a button, there’s not so much you can talk about anyway. Small brewers undoubtedly have an advantage when there’s a sense of a guy who brews the beer, who has a sort of marriage to it, and who can show you the insides of how it’s made if you talk to him or, even better, visit his brewery.
But many small brewers often go too far the other way and seemingly reject marketing as somehow evil. I’ve – hopefully – recently worked my last day inside an ad agency because a great deal of what I had to do there made me feel dirty. It wasn’t the process, the craft of marketing itself that was the problem – it was the kind of people it attracted, what they will do to get on, and what we were all obliged to do when unpleasant companies gave us the money that paid our frozen salaries and Martin Sorrell’s £60m bonus.
Sorry, this is going to turn into another long post – too much pent up blogging over the last few weeks!
If you take the tools of marketing and use them in a good way, they’re not evil. Marketing does coerce people, but 90% of the time it does so with their consent. People are marketing-savvy, and choose to either play the game or not. And we live in a branded age – it’s simply how things work. If you choose not to play, you go invisible, or look very dated and stuffy.
When I first started writing about beer, I was really pissed off with CAMRA in this respect. Prominent CAMRA members frequently wrote about how people only drank lager because they had been brainwashed by big brewers with shiny ads. What an insulting, snobbish, elitist thing to say – “you proles have no individual will, and you are too weak to resist this mass social conditioning – whereas I am immune to it, because in some way, I am cleverer than the masses.” And by refusing to play the marketing game, standing outside it, these people by default made CAMRA seem like a very stuffy, geeky organisation filled with the kind of people you wouldn’t want to associate or be identified with.
I’ve learned a lot about CAMRA over the last six or seven years. The organisation is modernising itself and learning to play the game, and at central office at least, there are people who are forward looking, PR-savvy, and are very effective at engaging with the broader world. I’ve also learned that CAMRA is a loose umbrella that holds many divergent opinions. The vast majority of members are ordinary, decent people who really like good cask ale and – gasp – occasionally, on the hot day, might have a pint of Heineken instead. But I have also met a great many hardcore nutters who clearly wear tinfoil hats when they’re not releasing vile silent-but-deadly farts as they raise their personalised pewter tankards at beer festivals. You still hear these people saying lager is evil, that people who drink it are stupid, neither realising nor caring that they are actively discouraging new converts to cask ale by their appearance and behaviour. It’s fantastic that CAMRA membership is about to break the 100,000 barrier. But in the context that there are 7 million regular cask ale drinkers in the UK, it’s obvious many still feel the organisation doesn’t represent them.
(My only remaining gripe with CAMRA central on this score is that the weird, unpleasant anthropomorphic people with pints growing out of their heads is a long way past its sell-by date.)
This is all a hideously overlong and rambling prelude to saying, ‘Hurrah! The SIBA Business Awards are back!’ SIBA is a trade body for small and independent brewers in the UK. The vast majority of the beer these brewers make is cask ale. It could very easily have become like CAMRA of old, a fogeyish trade body mirroring the consumer movement. But it hasn’t. Big brewers want to join SIBA. It’s rapidly becoming seen by many as the major voice for the brewing industry. And while they celebrate great brewing at their annual conference, as of course they should, the business awards celebrate best support of customers, best use of PR, best use of new media, best packaging, best launch etc.
What these awards demonstrate is that effective marketing doesn’t require the multi-million pound budgets of the big four multinationals who dominate the British market. I write regular features for the Brewers Guardian showing how tools like great label design, viral marketing and effective use of PR can be done by any brewer of any size with a little effort and time.
People like Stonch have blogged consistently about how depressing it is to see beers with names like ‘Old Pisshead’ or pump clips featuring scantily clad women. It makes the whole industry, and the people who drink their products, look like twelve year-olds. On the other hand, look at Thornbridge, Brew Dog, Wye Valley, Otley. Brew Dog may be loved mainly for the bravery of its brews, and Thornbridge also brew beers that, as they say, are ‘never ordinary’. But all four of these breweries give as much love and attention to creating modern, contemporary design – design that’s bringing in new people to try their beers. They are all experiencing soaring sales.
So if you’re a brewer and you’re not entering the SIBA Business Awards, you need to ask yourself why. If the multinationals spend more time thinking about marketing than brewing, it’s because it works for them. There are only a few breweries who are excellent at both brewing and branding. And look how they take off when both are great.