Category: Marketing

| Beer, Beer By Design, Books, Marketing, The Business End, US Craft Beer

Rebranding the baby out with the bathwater

Beer – it doesn’t matter what the marketing is like, it’s the taste that counts, right? Not according to the outcry that’s greeted the Anchor Brewery’s rebrand.


When we were researching my latest book, Beer By Design, I approached Anchor several times, through various channels, to ask them for some artwork or photography of their labels and bottles. I was completely ignored – even though the brewery follows me on Twitter. 

Now, I guess we know why. 

This week, Anchor unveiled the most drastic rebrand in its 125-year history. The immediate reaction was a mix of shock and alarm, followed up shortly after by some vigorous defence. Love it or hate it, it has become one of the most talked about, argued about rebrands in craft beer history. 

Anchor acknowledged the spirited reaction yesterday by issuing a statement acknowledging the depth of feeling among its fans and defending its position. 

The engagement is welcome. The fact that they felt the need to issue the statement underlines the depth of feeling around the change, which is all the more fascinating when you consider how many craft beer fans insist that what’s on the outside of the package doesn’t matter – it’s what’s inside that counts. (Anchor even felt it necessary to reassure fans that the beer itself hadn’t changed.) 

My personal reaction was immediate: as a standalone piece of visual design, I think it looks cheap and generic. From a more dispassionate branding point of view, I think it has broken a fundamental law of good branding by throwing away completely a distinctive and much-loved visual identity.     

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to write this, Anchor’s PR team got in touch with me and offered to give me some more context and background for the change, so I delayed writing this until they could give me their side. They’ve been really helpful. They haven’t changed my mind about the result, but they’ve given me some valuable insight into the process of how they got there, and I don’t disagree at all with a lot of the thinking. 

So I thought, for anyone who is particularly interested in branding, this might make for an interesting, long-read case study that has a bit more to it than me simply saying how much I dislike this new look. 

Background: What is Anchor and why is it important?

Anchor is widely regarded as the first modern American craft brewery. It actually dates back to 1871, was named Anchor in 1896, closed during prohibition, and then struggled on afterwards until, on the point of closure, it was bought by Fritz Maytag in 1965. Maytag continued brewing the unique Steam Beer, taking years to get it right, and bottling it for the first time in 1971. Over subsequent years he reintroduced porter to North America, and after a trip to England, brewed a tribute to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord using an experimental hop that later became known as Cascade. Anchor stood alone as a small, independent brewery creating beers that didn’t taste like generic macro lager, and in Liberty Ale, arguably invented the style that would go on to become American pale ale. 

Back when Steam was first bottled, its labels were hand-drawn and homespun by necessity. But they evoked an indie, rootsy aesthetic that increasingly made a statement against corporate brands that looked increasingly slick, shouty, and, later, computer-generated. This folksy, hand-illustrated style was also taken up by other craft beer pioneers such as Sierra Nevada, Anderson Valley, Samuel Adams and Full Sail.   

That was over forty years ago, though. The craft beer shelves are now far more crowded than they were. Even if that were not the case, times change. Everyone needs to update their wardrobe every now and again, and brands are no different. On top of that, Jim Stitt, who started drawing Anchor’s labels in 1974, has now retired from doing so – at the age of 93.

So the packaging definitely needed a refresh, there’s no doubt about that. Having accepted that, there are two basic stages to the process:

  • Principles and strategy of rebrand – what are the aims of the rebrand? What do we want to achieve and how?
  • Execution of rebrand – how do we bring that strategy to life in words and visuals?

Principles and strategy of rebrand 

There should be specific reasons for a rebrand rather than just “I fancy a change”/ “I need to put something on my CV”.

Anchor cites the need for greater standout on shelf, claiming even some of its biggest fans struggle to spot the existing design in a crowd. Also, it needed to sell an expanding range of beers and have greater coherence between them: “Many of Anchor’s fans only know us as ‘Anchor Steam Beer’ and aren’t aware that we brew other styles of beer,” the brewery spokesperson said. “While Steam will always be at the heart of the brewery, we designed the new look to create visual continuity between all of Anchor’s classic beers, as well as the new styles we’ll be debuting this spring.

Another key aspect from yesterday’s statement acknowledges that “the beer industry has evolved drastically in the last decade with a significant shift toward novelty over heritage,” and that as a result, “we’ve watched many of our friends and colleagues at pioneering breweries close their doors.” Anchor seems to be telling us here that they face a straight choice of looking more like the new kids, or being forgotten. 

Strategically, this is the only part that bugs me, for two reasons. 

The first is that Anchor is partly right – the craft beer market has shifted towards being more novelty driven. Some of the recent Twitter responses to the rebrand can be summed as “So what? They’re Old School. Fuck ‘em.” 

Obviously, there’s a generational element in play. Obviously, innovation and new thinking are vital for any dynamic market to retain its energy. Cask ale in the UK foundered precisely because it didn’t move quickly enough to keep pace with changing tastes. But craft beer succeeds when it is a balance of tradition and innovation playing off each other. If you’re a craft beer fan for whom anything old is irrelevant and crap simply and only because it is old, then you’re not a craft beer fan at all. You’re simply a trend-chasing little kid who has just moved on from fidget spinners and Pokémon Go, and you’ll be out of here whenever some influencer tells you it’s now cooler to drink Hard Seltzer, or CBD-infused spirits, or, I dunno, space rock-infused liquefied cronuts or something. Don’t let your-sticker-loving, badge-encrusted, designer label-clad arse hit the door on the way out.

The second reason is that I think Anchor has drawn the wrong conclusion from the correct analysis, that conclusion being: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If you’re being put in the shade by faddy, dayglo brands, you have no option but to look like one yourself. 

Weirdly, this conundrum seems to affect beer more than other markets. Levi Strauss is way older than Anchor. Sure, it’s had its ups and downs. But it remains relevant by staying in touch with contemporary issues, while never wavering from its core identity.

It’s the same for other “old-school” brands such as Coca-Cola, Rayban, Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s, who all remain contemporary and yet true to their roots at the same time.

Updating your wardrobe is one thing. Throwing out a wardrobe of, say, bespoke Savile Row suits because they’re old and grey, and replacing them with a bunch of G-Star, Stone Island and Burberry, is quite another.    

Execution of rebrand

When you’re deciding on how to execute a rebrand, you have the choice of gentle evolution or more radical revolution. Any brand needs to stand out from the competition – but at the same time, most brands obey category cues that make them fit in. You don’t see much laundry detergent that you could mistake for beer, and vice versa. Do you stand out by doing category cues better than anyone else? Or do you stand out by looking like no one else does? 

Anchor has clearly gone for a revolutionary approach. But there are many examples in beer of brands that maintain their relevance by a process of gentle evolution. 

To those who say Anchor needed to change because it hasn’t done until now, it has in fact evolved gently over the years:

Clearly, Anchor no longer felt evolution was enough. But brands such as Budweiser proudly make a point of constant evolution:

Bud’s newest redesign actually found greater relevance by going more old-school, having everything redrawn by hand rather than created via desktop publishing. Here’s a before and after:

It’s won every design award going, and had a dramatic uplift in sales as a result.

On the point about needing to make design work for the range rather than one flagship beer, Anchor’s peer Sierra Nevada had no problem making this work in a gentle evolution of the original illustrated style:

Within craft beer in the UK, Vocation answered the same problem Anchor was facing with regard to clarity and standout on crowded shelves, while retaining all the key elements people were familiar with, but just cleaning them up and making them stand out more: 

When Camden Town was bought out by a macro, it managed a rebrand that made it bolder, clearer and more commercial without sacrificing any of its “Camdenness”:

Even if this is not enough – if you decided you had to be more drastic about it – that still doesn’t mean throwing out everything you had. Harvey’s latest rebrand was pretty drastic, but it still looks more like Harvey’s used to look than it looks like anyone else.

Lancashire brewery Moorhouse’s old world was hopelessly outdated, perhaps the closest example in my recent memory to where Anchor imagines it was.

The new stuff looks nothing like the old stuff – but it still draws from the same inspiration, and more crucially, it doesn’t look like any of its competitors:

Be yourself

The key point for me is that a brand has to be true to itself and not try to be someone else. 

In its follow-up, Anchor makes a spirited defence that it has done exactly this. And when you actually pick up a pack to have a closer look, it has a point.

Firstly, there’s a new strapline, “Forged in San Francisco,” and reference to Anchor’s heritage. The brewery says:

“For the first time, we are showing our original brewery on all packages, so every lifelong Steam drinker and new drinker has an understanding of our San Francisco roots and heritage. The illustration is inspired by an archival shot of the Gold Rush-era Anchor brewery showcasing the steam that billowed off our rooftops as the wort cooled.”

The pack also tells the story of Steam beer itself: 

“Until now, we’ve never told our fans what makes Steam so special. People only knew the story of Steam and why it tastes the way it does if they went on a tour at our brewery in San Francisco (or did research), so part of preserving our legacy was aimed at sharing our stories via our packaging.”

And then there’s the big anchor on the front itself. There are many different anchors in San Francisco’s port heritage, and the new logo “is a combination of many of them, but it is most directly inspired from our 1909 brewery signage when we were located in the Mission District.” 

This is all great. I have no problem with any of it in theory (apart from whether or not that is the real story about how steam beer got its name, which is by no means certain). But in order to appreciate any of this, you have to pick up the pack in the first place. And if this is what you’re going to see on shelf, I’m not sure how many people will:

It’s got an Anchor on it, but it doesn’t have Anchor’s values, Anchor’s tone of voice.

The strategy is fine, the execution flawed. Maybe it’ll look different on shelves in San Francisco – maybe the visual aesthetic is different there. But by UK standards, as many have pointed out, with its simplicity and blocks of primary colour, it resembles generic supermarket own label craft beer:

I also worry that a big, simple anchor reminds people of all those generic clip-art logos you can buy by the dozen:

Here’s Anchor’s old logo, next to the new one:

Compare this to the last rebrand on Guinness in 2016, where they felt the world-famous harp logo had become too simplified over time, too desktop-publishing, and redrew everything by hand, to put the craft values back into it:

As other big, established brands learn from craft that people want authentic, handmade cues, Anchor has moved in the opposite direction. Its packaging may now be telling the brewery’s story better, but a visual identity built up over almost 50 years has been trashed at a stroke. The real problem is not that it looks different from how it did, but that it looks too much like everything else, and is too easily replicable. 

I hope I’m wrong, but I still think a more rigorous evolution would have been more successful than this drastic revolution, which succeeds in damaging existing brand equity, without providing enough new, ownable, distinctive memorable equity to replace it. I have been wrong about branding many times. Let’s hope this is one of them.  

Beer by Design, published by CAMRA Books, is out now.

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| Art of Beer, Beer Books, Beer By Design, Books, CAMRA, Marketing, Writing

Beer By Design: My new book out now

With around 2500 breweries in the UK, many of whom sell core ranges, seasonals, limited editions and collabs, it’s never been harder to stand out from the pack. That’s why the look of beer has become the most creative and diverse of any packaged product. And that’s why my wife and I did a book about it while (white) shielding.

Before I was a writer, I worked in advertising – and enjoyed it for a time. I was fascinated by the idea of brands: originally a simple mark of ownership, they evolved into carriers of additional meaning. At first, they were symbols of trust, of consistency and quality. Every tin you buy with a Heinz logo on it, every Cadbury’s chocolate bar, is going to taste the same as the last one. If we like that taste, we remain loyal to most things that carry that logo. Then, brands took on a more abstract sense. If lots of people who are like you all think that a certain brand is cool, then by extension, in their eyes, you’re cool if you wear it. Over the last thirty years we’ve all learned to use this abstract quality of brands, whether we do so consciously or not. We use brands and logos to build an idea of ourselves that we want to project to the world.

After Bass became the UK’s first registered trade mark, beer brands developed certain stylistic conventions that remained fundamentally unchanged for over a century. The oval, or “racetrack” shape, use of a simple symbol, various cues of quality. It all started to look a bit… samey.

In the 21st century, craft beer tore up the rulebook of how successful beer branding was supposedly done. It set itself directly in opposition to conventional design to prove that it wasn’t part of the mainstream.

This led to an extraordinary explosion of creativity. Among people who insisted they were influenced by the beer and not the marketing, like mainstream drinkers were, some enormously powerful brands were built.

Not all of it works as successful commercial branding, but most of it is gorgeous to look at, and some of it works as art in its own right.

And this branding revolution has affected the whole beer market, inspiring even established mainstream brands to rediscover the craft and art of design. This was pretty welcome for some older cask ale brands that had previously started to look dated and out of touch, and could now look contemporary in ways they never would have dared before craft moved the goal posts.

Sometimes, creative use of type, combining heritage typefaces with a few modern tricks, can make a brand look cool while still remaining true to its roots: a hard thing to pull off when it’s much easier to look like you’re desperately dad-dancing in a market you no longer understand.

Alternatively, a distinctive style of illustration can establish a common look across a wide range of beers at the same time as marking them out as different from everyone else.

Even the biggest brands realised there was more to the broader idea of craft than being small and independent, and rediscovered an idea of craft in their design that was firmly based in their heritage and longevity.

My wife Liz, who spent years working in the design industry, worked as picture researcher on this book. She had countless conversations with designers, artists and people working for breweries, and eventually gathered artwork from over 220 different breweries. When it came to making a book that looked as beautiful as a tome on design should, we didn’t have room for all of it. (We feature about 145 breweries in the book in total.) That’s why Liz will be launching a new blog – BeerByDesign.co.uk -tomorrow, and has also set up @BeerByDesignUK on Twitter and Instagram. This book is only the start of a conversation about design in which we aim to show some work in more depth, give behind the scenes peeks at how things develop, and interview designers and brewers about their work.

There’s still a lot of shit design out there, and there are conversations to be had about what should or shouldn’t go on a beer label, how it’s regulated, and whether or not it works. But for now, we’re keeping Beer By Design to the good stuff, things we like to look at, and things we believe help sell beer. If there is a job to do on the poor stuff, then maybe by showing the good stuff, we can inspire others to raise their game.

So please, if you’re a brewer, artist or designer who thinks your work should be featured, or if you’re a big fan of someone you believe should be here, go to BeerByDesign.co.uk and let us know!

You can of course buy the book from Amazon, but I’d prefer if you bought it from the CAMRA bookshop, for two reasons. Firstly, I think it’s great that CAMRA were prepared to publish a book like this. It’s a real sign that the organisation is taking a more modern, inclusive approach to beer than it has in the past, so it would be nice to show them how right they were to do it. And secondly, I get a significantly higher royalty on copies sold through CAMRA than through anywhere else.

Finally, we’re holding the official launch party via Zoom tomorrow night, Thursday 26th, at 7pm, and you’re invited. If you’d like to see me and some of the featured brands and designers talking about the book, and have a chat, sign up here. It will almost certainly end with one of these.

Beer By Design: it’s the saviour of your Christmas shopping list.

There’s a longer, more in-depth preview of the book over on my Patreon. You can sign up from just £1 a month. But sign up at the £25 level, and you’ll get a free, signed copy of the book as a thank you. same goes for any future book I publish while you’re still signed up at that level.

| Beer, IPA, Marketing

Bass Ale is back. I wish I were more delighted.

A new press release about the rejuvenation of Britain’s most famous ever beer brand causes more problems than it solves. 

Oh, you shouldn’t have! No, really. 

I don’t go out of my way to drip withering scorn on Anheuser Busch-InBev, but they always seem to be able to trigger me when they announce the launch of a new beer. A few years ago I did a conference presentation on how (and how not) to do innovation, and when I illustrated this with numerous examples of rubbish launches, it started to look like a vendetta against the world’s biggest brewery. It wasn’t meant to be. They just gave me more instances of all that was wrong with marketing hype, more consistently, than any other brewer.

And so we come to last week’s announcement that Bass Ale is returning to the UK, and a launch which is pretty much a perfect case study in corporate bullshit being sprayed over something the corporation in question neither knows nor cares about.

A bit of background: Bass found fame in the early 19th century as the quintessential IPA (when IPAs tended just to be called ‘pale ales’.) Brewed in Burton on Trent, it superseded Allsopp’s, the town’s original big hitter in India, and went on to become the first ever global beer brand. Its distinctive red triangle was famous all across the British Empire and beyond, and became the UK’s first ever registered trademark, narrowly missing out to German brand Krupp’s in being the world’s first, in any product category. Bass was so admired that less talented, less scrupulous brewers would simply copy the label and pass off their own beers as Bass, necessitating the move.

By the mid-twentieth century the allure of IPA had faded, but Bass was still one of the biggest and most famous beer brands in the UK when a period of rapid consolidation began among breweries. The second wave of this consolidation in the late 1990s saw Inbev acquire Bass – by then a massive conglomerate still based in Burton on Trent – only to be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. They ended up having to sell most of Bass (the company) to what is now Molson Coors, but confusingly held on to Bass (the beer) and proceeded to largely ignore it in the UK for the next twenty years. When approached and asked if they didn’t want it, AB-InBev replied they would sell UK licensing rights (inaccurately reported as being for an outright sale of the brand) for £15 million – essentially a massive middle finger extended to anyone who thought the world’s most legendary beer deserved better than the neglect they were showing it.

So now, instead of selling or ignoring it, AB-InBev is apparently relaunching it. I should be happy about this. I don’t think I am. With reference to this article, here’s why.

1.The headline: AB-InBev announce they are ‘bringing back’ Bass ale to the UK on-trade.

No it isn’t, because Bass Ale never left the UK on-trade, despite appearances. It’s been brewed under licence by Marston’s for years. It’s simply been given no support by its owners. Where you occasionally found it, it wasn’t bad – if it had been treated right. So the headline is factually inaccurate, and merely draws attention to the fact that if it ever felt like Bass had disappeared from the UK, this was entirely AB-InBev’s fault.

2. The picture: ‘Imported Pale Ale’.

The same visual used at the top of this blog has accompanied every story about this launch in the UK drinks trade press, so it is obviously the image that was sent out by AB-InBev themselves with the release (or at least, I’m assuming it is – for some reason, they no longer send me their press releases directly. Can’t think why.) The reason they won’t sell Bass to anyone else is that even though they may not care about it in the UK, it makes a lot of money for them as an exported beer to markets such as the US and Japan. The image accompanying the story about relaunching Bass in the UK clearly shows a bottle of Bass saying that it is ‘imported’. So either:

(a) They’re planning on brewing UK Bass abroad, for some unfathomable reason, or

(b) They’re going to dishonestly sell beer brewed in Britain as a beer imported to the UK, for reasons, again, that I cannot possibly fathom, or

(c) They couldn’t even be bothered to find an image of what UK Bass will look like to accompany the announcement of its relaunch. If it’s launching in December as stated, the new label – if there is a different one – will have been signed off months ago. But they couldn’t even be arsed to find a reference to it.

3. AB-InBev is launching Bass is to ‘reinvigorate’ and ‘reignite’ the UK’s premium ale category. 

The sheer, Trumpish arrogance of it. The UK’s premium ale category is doing just fine, thanks. The astonishing growth of craft beer means that nearly one in four pints in the UK on-trade is now cask ale or craft beer in other formats. Even when you take craft out, ‘premium’ ale is doing way better than ‘standard’. BBPA data shows ‘premium ale’ is more or less steady in volume terms in the on-trade. But here comes AB-InBev to the rescue of a category they haven’t cared about since they arrived in this country. The category doesn’t need ‘reigniting’! Its already on fire. Which is of course the real reason they’re now relaunching Bass after all this time, to exploit a healthy category rather than altruistically reigniting a struggling one. 

The press release also reminds us that AB-InBev owns Stella Artois and Budweiser. Without disclosing the actual figures, the Marston’s On-Trade Beer Report shows that in the on-trade, Stella Artois is in single digit decline, Budweiser is in double-digit decline, and so is Stella 4%. Maybe ‘re-ignite’ your core brands first, eh guys?

4. ‘The beer will be made at AB-InBev’s brewery in Samlesbury, Lancashire.’ 

Because in a market where provenance, tradition and heritage are some of the key drivers, who gives toss where an iconic beer is brewed, am I right? Bass pale ale made Burton-on-Trent the most famous ale brewing town in the world. Across the planet today, pale ale brewers still ‘Burtonise’ their water to give it the unique mineral profile that made Bass so famous. Bass is being brewed right now under license in Burton, by Marston’s. But yeah, let’s relaunch this premium, iconic brand that’s indelibly associated with the world’s most beer town by making it in a factory in another county. While we’re at it, let’s make Cornish pasties in Croatia, Roquefort cheese in Slough, and vintage champagne in Barnsley. Because it doesn’t matter.

5. ‘Bass was the world’s first pale ale.’/’Bass is a pale ale pioneer’.

Oh fuck off. I’m sorry (I’m trying to rein in the bad language and anger on this blog and sounds more professional) but fuck the fuck off. Even the most cursory reading of the history of pale ale/IPA shows this simply isn’t true. Bass was not even Burton-on-Trent’s first pale ale, let alone the world’s. Readily available records of ‘pale ale’ go back at least 160 years before Bass was even founded.  Allsopp’s were sending pale ale from Burton to India for almost a decade before Bass got in on the act.  There are only two possibilities here: either AB-InBev haven’t even been bothered to read about the history of the brand they’re relaunching, or they are knowingly lying. The problem in this press release – as in any other by this company – is their clear display that all this stuff is just marketing copy to them, to be used in the moment as they see fit, whether it’s accurate or not.

6. ‘We can’t wait to reintroduce shoppers to this historic brand.’

Bear in mind that this is a story specifically about reintroducing Bass to pubs. They could have said ‘pub-goers’, ‘people’, drinkers’, even that lazy catch-all ‘consumers’ – given that beer is actually consumed – but they choose to describe punters at the bar in a pub as ‘shoppers’ instead. To my mind, this suggests that’s all AB-InBev see people as – entities that shop. All that matters is that you buy the beer and hand over your money. But even my assumption is true, it’s still a weird thing to say out loud. No one else describes pub-goers as ‘shoppers’ – it just sounds wrong. It makes it sound like you don’t understand what a pub is. A halfway competent PR might have said, “You know what? This may be typical of the eerily robotic language we use internally, but maybe we should change it to something that sounds more normal and human if we’re speaking publicly.”

They didn’t.

7. “5.1%” 

I don’t mind that Bass ale is 5.1% ABV. That sounds good, in line with what the style should be. What I do mind is that this is the only detail they see fit to mention about the beer itself. We get stuff about its illustrious history (which AB-InBev had nothing to do with.) We get stuff about its success as an export beer. But true to form for the world’s largest brewery which in fact cares nothing whatsoever about beer, there are no details at all about what ‘shoppers’ can expect if they drink Bass pale ale as opposed to just buying it. Is it brewed to a traditional Bass recipe? Given the focus is on bottles, will it be bottle-conditioned or not? What hops are in it? Will it differ at all from the existing cask version? Is it brewed with traditional British barley or has it been re-worked? FOR GOD’S SAKE WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE? These are the things that people who are truly interested in the premium ale category care about. They seem not to have occurred to the company that thinks it is going to ‘reinvigorate’ that category.

I hope the relaunched Bass ale is a phenomenal beer. I truly do. I’ve probably written more about this brand than any other beer. In the history of food and drink, it is comparable to champagne or cognac in its significance. If it tastes great, I will buy it (can’t imagine there’ll be samples in the post) and I will publicly say that it tastes great. But when the most interesting thing they can say in the press release is that a beer with the same name (I doubt it’s actually the same beer) went down with the Titanic, I only get a sinking feeling.

*Update, 19th November*

I asked AB-InBev on Twitter about the ‘imported’ claim in point 2, above, and they had the courtesy to reply.

It turns out that the bottle featured here is the right bottle, and that AB-InBev do in fact plan on selling Bass dishonestly in the UK as an ‘imported beer’. Their exact response was ‘The name is a nod to its international popularity and to differentiate it from other Bass ales in the UK.’

As I pointed out in response, it’s great that they want to talk to British drinkers about the success of a British-brewed beer overseas. But the correct word to use here would be ‘exported’ – the precise opposite of the word they intend to use on the bottle. The fact that they are also selling the beer in the US-format 355ml bottle instead of the standard UK measures of 330ml or 500ml also leads me to conclude that this is a deliberate and knowing attempt to mislead British drinkers into thinking Bass Ale is an imported beer. That’s why I have now reported this to the Trading Standards Authority.

| Beer, Beer Writing, Marketing

Under The Influencer

Exploring the tricky territory of free stuff and paid-for recommendations.

 

Last week, I was asked if I’d like to become an Amazon influencer. “The idea is pretty simple,” said the e-mail from the guy at Upfluence.com, “You’ll have your own page on Amazon.com where you can recommend your favorite products and earn money on qualifying purchases made through your page.”

This guy, Doug, approached me because he’d seen my Twitter profile and thought it made me a perfect candidate. I’m guessing he was looking simply at the number of followers I have rather than anything I actually tweet, because if he’d read my tweets he’d have realised pretty quickly that I live in the UK and therefore don’t have any dealings with the American Amazon.com. But that’s not the main reason I’ve ignored Doug’s emails.

Is its just me or is this a really odd concept? Is anyone reading this and thinking, “Ooh, I occasionally read Pete’s writing about beer or cider, I wonder what deodorant he’d recommend or what brand of toner refill cartridge he uses?”

I just find the whole idea of identifying as an ‘influencer’ really odd. I hope I am influential: I’ve spoken to several people who left their jobs and started working in beer or even opened their own breweries after reading something I’ve written. But it’s like being labelled a ‘consumer’ or ‘shopper’ – it’s something we do, not something we are.

I’m aware that some people make their money doing this, creating vlogs or Instagram feeds where they talk about the latest make up products they’ve been sent for free. It strikes me as a rather sad way of living, and I’m astonished that it works: if you know someone is recommending products purely because they are being paid to do so by the people selling them, why would you believe anything they say?

It reminds me of another disturbing trend in the beer world.

Each week, I get sent beer and cider for free by brewers or cider makers who are keen to hear what I think about it. I’m always grateful to receive it. If someone asks me for personal, private feedback, I always endeavour to give it, but sometimes fail if I’m too busy. I now review beers for Original Gravity magazine, and if I really like a beer, I’ll write it up for that. But I don’t do beer reviews on this blog: it’s not the aspect of beer writing that interests me personally, and there are a great many other people doing it perfectly well.

Increasingly, I’m getting e-mails from brewers – or more often, from junior PR execs working on their behalf – offering me free beer in exchange for a review. Sometimes, they offer free beer in exchange for a positive review. Each time I get an email like this, I write back thanking them, and explaining my approach as outlined above – I can’t promise a good review, or any review at all, but it might get one if it’s really good, so if that sounds OK, here’s my address. And every single time, I never hear from them again – no response to my email, and no beer in the mail.

I don’t do this job to try to get free beer, and I think there’s something dodgy about people for whom that’s a main motivation. But there’s also something dodgy about brewers or PRs who see this as a transactional relationship. I guess the reason they never write back is that they’d have to admit in writing that they’re only interested in sending beer out to people who promise to write something nice about it, and that really doesn’t look great on paper. If you know you’re only getting a positive review because that was the condition on which the beer was sent, how can you take any satisfaction from reading it? And how can anyone trust the person writing it?

Some of us draw the line in different places. I know some writers who refuse any free beer and will only review stuff they’ve paid for themselves. I respect that, even if I don’t go that far. I get a lot of free beer, and I only review a small fraction of it, so I know that the fact that I didn’t pay for it has not influenced my decision to review it. The few reviews I do write are always a mix of beer I’ve been sent and beer I’ve bought and paid for in a pub or bottle shop.

Next week, I’m off on a press trip to Catalonia. This is being fully paid for by the Catalan tourist board. I expect that at least some of us on the trip will receive some fairly sharp criticism on social media when we start tweeting about it, for accepting such hospitality. Again, I know writers who never accept such trips and respect them for it. I’m going because I’ve been keen to check out the explosion in Spanish craft beer for several years now and think there will be some genuinely interesting stories, but haven’t been able to afford to do it under my own steam. Will my reporting of the trip be influenced by the fact that I’m being given hospitality? I don’t believe so (beyond the fact that I’m actually there, of course.) But any story I write about it will carry a disclaimer explaining that it’s been paid for by someone else, so the reader can make up their own mind.

Communicators in any discipline who have a decent-sized following are in a privileged position. People put their trust in what we write. Especially when we write about our own personal experiences, there’s an unwritten contract with the reader that we will be open and honest. If I were to start recommending things purely because I was being paid or rewarded for making those recommendations, my integrity would be trashed. The trust of my readers would, quite rightly, evaporate.

We live at a time when big data is replacing creativity. The Upfluence guy only cared about the number of followers I have on Twitter, not the content or nature of my tweets, nor why those people have chosen to follow my account. The brewery’s PR firm isn’t really interested in what I think of the beer; they just want to submit a report boasting of how many pieces of coverage they achieved.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think true influence is harder earned, and much more precious than that.

| Advertising, BrewDog, Craft Beer, Marketing, The Business End

Why I can’t get too excited about BrewDog’s big ‘sell out’

The bad boys of brewing recently sold a 22% stake of their company to an investment firm. So?

First, I have a terrible confession to make. Remember when John Lydon made those butter ads? I’m afraid I was partly responsible for that.

It wasn’t my idea or anything like that, but in my role as a planner I was responsible for putting together the research among butter buyers to find out who the best celebrity would be to front the campaign. It was one of the last freelance planning jobs I did before being able to switch to writing and beer consultancy full time.

We tested Lydon against a bunch of other people, and he came out top among Britain’s housewives because they felt he was so uncompromising, he’d never just do an ad for the money – he’d only do it if he genuinely believed what he was saying.

In other words, he was the best person to do what we were paying him to do, because he would never do what we were paying him to do, so if he did that, it’s OK.

Predictably Lydon got some stick for ‘selling out’. Because this is Johnny Rotten we’re talking about, he didn’t give a shit. Where he deigned to give a response, he said that punk was always about grabbing the filthy lucre from the big guys, and that’s exactly what he was doing here.

(If you ever tire of arguing about the definition of craft beer, head over to music and have a go at defining punk. As I witnessed last year at an event to mark punk’s 40th anniversary, it makes craft beer look simple.)

So I’ve witnessed a similar situation before to the one this week where BrewDog announced they were selling a chunk of the company to TSG Investment Partners in San Francisco – the same people who also help finance Vitaminwater, popchips and US beer brand Pabst – and were greeted with cries of ‘sell out!’

I can’t get too excited one way or the other about this.

Firstly, it’s hardly surprising, is it? BrewDog has been on an astonishing growth spurt for ten years. It already has 44 bars around the world and exports to 55 countries, and has double or even triple digit growth every year. The company has always been about rapid expansion, and this is a logical next step, which, if it has any lesson at all, is that, as Martyn Cornell has written, crowdfunding can only get you so far.

Second, BrewDog is maturing. Being ‘punk’ makes perfect sense when you arrive and overturn all the tables in the temple of beer, but they’re ten years old now, and that’s ancient in craft beer years. Martin Dickie and James Watt are in their mid-thirties with young families, and they employ, at the last count, about 450 people. A couple of years ago they did a re-brand that ever so subtly made them look and feel more grown up, less brash.

Before
After

BrewDog stopped being ‘punk’ when they grew into a stable, successful business that supports hundreds of people’s livelihoods instead of putting their foot through the mash tun and throwing the fermenters into a swimming pool before overdosing on End of History in a seedy hotel room. Behind the image and the increasingly infrequent brash stunts, they employ marketers, PR people, accountants, HR managers as well as brewers who all know what they’re doing, because you can’t function as a large business if you don’t. That doesn’t sound very punk, does it?

Thirdly, James Watt individually still owns more of the company than the investment firm he’s sold a chunk of his business to. If you insist on going by the US definition of craft beer, the sold stake is less than the threshold that disqualifies BrewDog from being craft.

I doubt anyone can be truly surprised by this move. I’d be amazed if anyone was genuinely upset by it. I think any outcry is merely the satisfaction of being able to say, ‘I told you so.’

As this spoof makes clear, the one significant part of this is that BrewDog will find it increasingly difficult to get away with grandstanding ‘4 real’ behaviour. I’ve sensed a move away from this over the last few years anyway.

The punk attitude has helped BrewDog build an amazing brand that pays a lot of people’s wages and genuinely does encourage more people to enjoy great beer than would otherwise have been the case.

Punk is dead. But the punks won.

Okay, now you can tell me how the Sex Pistols were never really punk anyway.

| Anheuser-Busch, Beer, Budweiser Budvar, Lager, Marketing

Budweiser: You Can’t Rush Plagiarism

Seems like America’s beer just can’t stop stealing things from southern Bohemia…

I was shocked late Friday night to see a really good beer ad from Budweiser. No, stop laughing. I’ve seen plenty of good ads from Bud before – stuff about frogs and lizards and whazaaap, but this was a good beer ad: it’s true, it’s centred on the product, and it says something good about the broader beer category – good lager takes time to mature.

Last I heard, Budweiser is matured for twenty days. That’s not as long as the classic lagers of the Czech Republic and Germany are matured, but it’s a hell of a lot longer than the 72 hours some leading brands allegedly spend in the brewery between mashing in and packaging. You may not like the (lack of) taste in Budweiser, but even now they do some things right, and deserve some credit for that. So I was pleased to see an ad that had made lager maturation look cool.

I said as much on Twitter and Facebook, and very quickly Simon George of Budweiser Budvar UK shot back that his new strategy is to focus on the Czech beer’s astonishingly long lagering time – five times longer than the American beer. Budweiser Budvar has been running this copy for about nine months, albeit without the huge TV ad budgets US Bud can afford:

The dispute between American Budweiser and Czech Budweiser Budvar is decades old. Bud founder Adolphus Busch told a court of law, on record, in 1894: “The idea was simple,” he testified, “to produce a beer of the same quality, colour and taste as the beer produced in Budejovice [the Czech name for the town known as Budweis in German] or Bohemia.” Even though that record exists, the company has since flatly denied that this it stole the name Budweiser from the town of Budweis, or even took any inspiration from there. (There’s a lot more on this dispute in my book Three Sheets to the Wind.)

Budvar spent a long time capitalising on its David V Goliath relationship with Budweiser and has recently decided to move on and focus on its ageing process instead, as part of a new strategy to remain relevant in a market where craft beer means drinkers are more interested in product specifics. But it seems Budweiser are still hung up on their namesake. Nine months after Czech Budvar focused their marketing campaign on how long it takes to make their beer, American Budweiser focused their marketing campaign on how long it takes to make their beer:

 

Having stolen the idea, they’ve now gone the whole hog and even stolen the same copy. The Budvar headline above? ‘You can’t rush perfection.’ Spot the difference in the Facebook link to the ad below.

Come on, Budweiser. You’ve already stolen your name from the town in which Budweiser Budvar is brewed. You’ve copied their advertising idea (albiet in a fine execution) and now even their copy, word for word. You employ some of the best and most expensive advertising agencies in the world (even if you do try to shaft them on costs.) Is this the best those agencies can do?

| Advertising, Beer, Beer Marketing, Marketing

How Big Lager Lost The Plot And Developed Narcissistic Personality Disorder

As anyone who has read Man Walks into a Pub will know, my entry into the world of beer was via Big Lager.

I loved lager ads when I was growing up as a teenager.   

Later, once I was helping make those ads, I was fascinated by the tribal loyalty people had to their favourite beer brands. If you were a group of mates in your twenties, Carling or Heineken or Carlsberg was like another one of your gang, always there when all the best times happened. In research groups you sometimes do an exercise where you ask people to imagine what brands would be like if they were people at a party. Beer brands were always characterised as confident, friendly guys, witty and popular without being an arse, enjoying a drink but never getting too drunk. This guy was never the pack leader, not necessarily the most popular or pushy guy in the room, but everyone liked him.  

Things started go go wrong around 1997. Advertising regulations grew ever tighter and the funny campaigns of the eighties were no longer possible. And beer started to take itself seriously. It wanted to provide a bit of substance behind the good-natured banter. Fair enough. But the picture started to blur.  

As sales of Big Lager shifted from pubs to supermarkets, price became a more decisive factor than brand image. It was widely believed that all these brands tasted the same. Not true, but if you’re drinking your lager ice-cold straight from the can, you’d have to have a delicate palate indeed to spot the difference in flavour.   

With very similar products, preference had been shaped from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties by who had the best ads, the most likeable personality. (I once looked at thirty years worth of image research, and perceptions of which lager was the most ‘refreshing’ tracked the brand that had the funniest ads, rather than the brand that was banging on about refreshment specifically).   

By the mid-noughties, that differentiation was based on price.   

Incredibly, most shopping is still done by the wife/mother in a family. The person who buys Big Lager is usually not the person who drinks it. As the distinct personalities created by ‘Reassuringly Expensive’, ‘This Bud’s For You’, ‘I Bet He Drinks Carling Black Label’,  ‘Follow The Bear’ and all the rest receded, the lager buyer knew her fella had a set of big brands that were all OK – nothing special but fine, all as good as each other – and she knew she could buy the one that was on the best deal and he’d be happy enough.   Brewers hate offering these deals. Headlines like ‘lager is cheaper than bottled water’, whether they’re true or not, don’t do anyone any favours. Margins shrank to almost nothing. If any big brand could get away with not doing supermarket deals, they’d jump at the chance.  

So it’s completely understandable that in the last few years Big Lager has started trying to build a sense of value and worth back into brands. Beer is cheap and commoditised, so how can we make it special again?   

The strategy of putting some premiumness back into mainstream beer is a good one. The execution of that strategy, however, is starting to look pretty horrible.   

I haven’t worked on any of these brands for a long time, but I know exactly the kind of language that’s being used in meetings. I’d bet my house on the fact that most Big Lager brands have a creative brief in the system that’s about ‘creating differentiation’, ‘making lager special again,’ by ‘making the brand more iconic’ and ‘improving perceptions of premiumness’. I’ll bet they also all have research that shows you don’t do this by banging on about the quality of ingredients and provenance. These might be mildly interesting copy points, but as Kronenbourg has demonstrated recently, it doesn’t wash as your main message to a typical mainstream lager drinker, especially when the substantiation behind your claim is paper-thin.   

So what do you do?   

You create an iconic, premium image. High production values. Brand fame.    And before you know it, you turn your brand from the genial bloke at the party into an arrogant, preening narcissist.   

From Psychology Today: “Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves arrogant behaviour, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration-all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships… Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g. fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment.”

    You demand to be revered, claiming outrageous titles for yourself with no justification.  

      You start telling your drinkers they’re drinking the product wrong, or using the wrong terminology. You demand they start showing some respect.

    You imagine that you are some kind of treasured prize, rather than a simple, straightforward beer.  

      You start to think you embody and represent something much bigger than yourself. 

    And lose all sense of perspective.

      On the bar, you make your fonts ever bigger – sorry, more ‘iconic’ – until punters can no longer see the people serving them and bar staff have trouble passing the drinks across the bar.   

Who do you think you are helping here? How exactly do you think you are ‘enhancing the consumer experience at the point of purchase?’      

My aim here is not to slag off any individual campaign – some of them have merits, and like I said, I understand where they’re coming from up to a point.   

My aim is to demonstrate the aggregation of so many big brands taking this approach at the same time. Brands demanding to be worshipped and respected, rather than liked and tolerated. The cumulative effect is dreadfully cold and alienating, aloof. This, for a drink that is supposedly all about the good times, about kicking back and relaxing with your mates.    Big Lager has lost its way and forgotten its place. This collective arrogance is not credible, and it’s certainly not appealing. Where’s the warmth gone? Where’s the sociability?   

Premiumness in beer is not about this kind of cock-waving, and it never was. It’s about the premiumness of the experience the beer creates – the experience for which the beer is the catalyst, not the central focus.   

Big Lager should be reclaiming its territory as the catalyst for the perfect occasion with friends. Ale is more for savouring, more introverted. Craft beer is more exploratory, adventurous and product-focused, and cider is more refreshing, but has a limit on how much of it you can drink in a session.   

Yet all these drinks are stealing share from lager. All are looking more interesting, engaging and appealing than that big lager at the moment.    Mainstream lager should be solid, dependable, and reliable, and I’m sorry if that’s not sexy enough for career marketers.   

As the Beer Marketing Awards demonstrated, in some areas – particularly social media and trade marketing, where you actually have to talk to people and deal with them on a one-to-one basis – Big Lager is doing some brilliant stuff.   

But in advertising and branding, it has collectively lost the plot. If you think your brand should be revered and worshipped by its drinkers, you need to get out of beer as soon as possible and into therapy. Or maybe Scientology. They’ll love you guys.