Category: Media bollocks

| Beer, Craft Beer, Journalism, Media bollocks, Social Trends, The Business End

The Premature Demise of Craft Beer: How Fake News Really Works

You may well have seen recent news stories on how craft beer is over, that it’s entered a period of decline. There’s just one problem: this is completely untrue. 

Remember the olden days, when these guys were reporting annual volume growth of 55%? How times have changed since, er, 22nd March this year.

 

“Have you noticed a decline in the demand for craft beer? Why do you think this is?”

I stared at the question, cognitive dissonance making me feel momentarily floaty. Was it a trick question? That ‘why do you think this is?’ implied the person asking the question was obviously expecting me to say yes. This was confirmed by a follow up question that asked me to comment on possible reasons why craft beer is “not as popular as it once was.”

A professional journalist working for Munchies – the foodie bit of Vice.com – had somehow become convinced that craft beer was over, and was asking me, via questions posed to the British Guild of Beer Writers, why I thought this had happened.

The reason I was confused is that it hasn’t happened – not yet. When I got these questions, I’d just delivered the keynote speech to the SIBA conference. To write it, I’d had to do a lot of digging. I’d discovered that craft beer volume increased by 23 per cent last year, and that analysts are predicting continued growth until at least 2021. I’d learned that business leaders in the food and beverage industry had named craft beer the most important trend across the whole of food and drink – comfortably ahead of low alcohol drinks, artisan coffee and craft spirits – for the fifth year running. I’d found that seven million British people – equivalent to 14% of the total adult population, or one in four people who drink any alcohol at all – claim to drink craft beer on a regular basis when they’re out in pubs, bars or restaurants. And yet here was a food and drink website believing that craft beer was in decline.

I decided to work out how this had happened.

Munchies was basing its story on a trade press article in the Morning Advertiser, which ran with the headline, ‘Craft Beer Fatigue is Setting In.’ No ambiguity there: no ‘claims so-and-so’, just a simple statement of fact. The leading trade magazine for the beer and pub industry was categorically stating that we’re tired of craft beer. And the MA wasn’t alone: in the same week, Beer & Brewer magazine ran with ‘Craft beer fatigue sends APAC [Asia and Pacific] consumer elsewhere‘, while Catering Today ran ‘Craft Beers Fail to Impress Consumers’.

Read these articles, and none of them actually say that craft beer has gone into decline. But a cursory skim of the headline and opening lines of copy, without going into the detail of the claims, could reasonably lead to the impression that craft beer is in decline.

The basis for all these stories is a press release from a market research company called GlobalData, which runs with the title ‘Craft beer fatigue is sending beer and cider consumers in APAC in search of new options.’ Again, that seems pretty definite. The first line of the press release reads, “Alcoholic beverage consumers tend to be novelty seeking, but constant bombardment with craft launches and unusual flavors has led consumers to feel that they are overloaded with choice.” But once again, while a cursory reading of the headline and first few lines of copy would cause any reasonable person to assume craft beer is now in decline, the body of the press release – which is published to promote a new report that costs $1450 to access – doesn’t actually contain any data that supports the idea that craft beer is in decline.

So what does it actually say?

Well, there are certainly some interesting points, even if none of them are exactly news to anyone involved in craft beer.

The main point – the one that seems to be offered in direct support of the headline claims – is that “words such as craft and artisanal are just an excuse to charge extra.” In the Asia-Pacific region – and in North America – 46% of survey respondents agreed with this statement. What none of the UK-based publications who reported the story will tell you is that in Europe, this figure falls to 38% – the lowest of any region in the world. Now, those are, as report author Thomas Vierhile told me in an email, “significant percentages”. But they are still minorities. And as anyone who has been involved in a craft beer discussion on social media or been below the line of a beer story in any national newspaper can attest, it’s hardly new – people have been grumbling about this for years. I first wrote about it for the Morning Advertiser three years ago. At the time, I said that it was a threat to the growth to craft beer, and I still believe it is. But it’s quite a leap to get from there to the claim that people are already walking away from craft beer because of it. This wasn’t true then, and I doubt it’s true now. The research data released by GlobalData’s does not show it to be true, but their press release claims it is.

The press release and summary for the report make two further solid claims. The report states that consumers are becoming more interested in experiences that simple products, citing that 57% of consumers (in Asia Pacific) prefer new experiences to new products. I totally agree, and have done since I worked in advertising twenty years ago, when we said this regularly to our clients. Craft brewers understand this perfectly which is why, instead of building their brands with flashy TV ads (which they couldn’t afford anyway) the most successful craft brewers over the last ten years have built their popularity with experiences and events such as meet the brewer evenings and tap takeovers, limited edition and rare bottle launches, and the growing number and range of beer festivals and other events. The experience economy is a driver of craft beer’s growth – not a threat to it.

Finally, the GlobalData report states that healthier lifestyles and a growing interest in lower alcohol alternatives is a major threat to craft beer. In the Asia Pacific region – it’s not clear why this is the geographic emphasis for a report that did its research globally, unless it could be that this is where the highest figures are – 51% of consumers say health claims influence their choice of alcoholic drinks (hang on – I thought alcoholic drinks weren’t allowed to make any health claims?) and 53% say they plan on cutting down on booze for health reasons. These figures fall to 38% and 37% if you look at the global data, but never mind that. I doubt anyone would disagree that this is a significant trend. That’s why, unless craft brewers start to develop lower strength session beers, explore concepts such as table beer and start to make some decent tasting low/no alcohol beers,  they could be heading for a fall. Oh no, hang on – my mistake – these have been some of the most dynamic trends driving craft beer’s development for several years now. Never mind.

So: a level of cynicism about the appropriation of the term ‘craft beer’ to charge higher prices, growing interest in experiences over products, and growing interest in healthier drinks – all of which the craft beer industry has known about and acted upon for years – are being added together by GlobalData to create the claim that drinkers feel ‘overloaded with choice’ and that this has led to a ‘devaluation of the “craft” concept’ which is now ‘sending beer and cider consumers… in search of new options’. This, in turn, has led drinks trade press journalists to state definitively that we are suffering craft beer fatigue, and this in turn has led at least one consumer food and drink publication to ask why craft beer is in decline before eventually running with the headline ‘Is Craft Beer Dying?

I hope my answers to the questions I was posed by Munchies helped get that title turned into a question rather than a statement. But still, this is how fake news happens. In researching this piece, Google took me to articles going back several years claiming that the craft boom is over, when hindsight shows it wasn’t. GlobalData was behind a similar flurry of these back in August last year,  but they’re not the only culprits. I chose the picture of BrewDog, above, because on the same day Munchies asked if craft beer was dying, the Scottish craft beer pioneer posted results showing 55% volume growth in 2017. Some commentators pointed out that this is lower than in previous years. As if 55% growth in a year is somehow a bit shit.

“We are not necessarily saying that craft beer has gone into decline,” admitted GlobalData’s Thomas Vierhile when I challenged the company over their claims. “But we are saying that the category is edging closer to thin ice as the craft concept becomes stretched, leading more consumers to express skepticism toward the concept.”

I think that’s absolutely fair enough.

He continued, “As popular as craft beer is, it does not appear to be moving the global beer consumption needle and it may not be the savior for the beer industry that some may perceive it to be,” citing the fact that while other categories of alcoholic drinks are growing, the total global beer market is shrinking. This means that either the growth craft beer is experiencing by recruiting new drinkers to beer is not enough to compensate for existing beer drinkers drinking less/switching to other drinks, or that craft is cannibalising mainstream beer, taking volume from the big boys within a declining market.

That’s certainly food for thought, and craft brewers should certainly take note of the report’s genuine findings stated above, if for some reason they weren’t already aware of them. But GlobalData’s press release – which I’m sure Thomas Vierhile didn’t write – categorically states that consumers are suffering craft beer fatigue and are going looking for something else instead. The data presented simply does not show this at all, says nothing about a ‘bombardment of new launches or unusual flavours’, and presents no evidence that consumers are walking away from the category. But these claims have been picked up and repeated, without question.

So why would a company that produces market research reports that cost $1450 a pop want to spread false claims about craft beer? Well I dunno, but who in the beer industry can afford to spend $1450 on a 57-page market report? And what would companies like that feel about craft beer? What would they want to happen to it? I’m just spitballing here, merely speculating to create specious claims. But that does seem to be par for the course these days.

| Media bollocks, Neo-prohibitionism

It’s nearly budget time: cue more neo-prohibitionist nonsense

The press invariably swallows anti-alcohol stories without question. Even when a cursory glance reveals them to be increasingly silly. 

Rule Number One when writing negative stories about alcohol: you MUST always illustrate the story with beer. Here’s the pic the Guardian used for their story on how parent’ drinking is supposedly damaging to kids

Whenever the Institute of Alcohol Studies releases new research on the perils of drink, their findings are usually reported without question by the mainstream press. It’s never ‘the IAS claims this is the case’, just ‘this is the case’.

If the drinks industry said it had overwhelming evidence that drinking is good for you, newspapers would quite rightly report this as ‘the drinks industry claims’ this to be the case, and seek an opposing point of view for balance. They don’t do that with the Institute box Alcohol Studies, because it sounds important and learned. I wonder if things would be different if the IAS still went by its old name, The UK Temperance Alliance?

The Institute of Alcohol Studies, yesterday.

Anyway, we’re getting close to the budget, which means the drinks industry is campaigning for a reduction on alcohol duty, and the Temperance Movement (but please don’t call it that – these days it merely studies alcohol rather than. trying to ban it – honest) is campaigning for more punitive financial penalties on drinkers.

To support its case, the drinks industry points to data showing that the UK had the second highest beer duty in Europe, that Brits drink 12% of all the beer drunk in Europe but pay 40% of all the beer duty. It points out how many jobs the drinks industry creates, how much it contributes to the economy, and how duty increases hurt the industry and put these jobs at risk. It may be a coincidence that the volume of beer sold in the UK plummeted in the years of the Beer Duty Escalator (which saw duty increase automatically by inflation plus 2%), stabilised when the escalator was abolished, and then began falling again when Philip Hammond started to increase duty once more. But I doubt coincidence quite covers it. And I’m sure that’s why the Temperance Movement want drink to be more expensive.

Meanwhile, the Temperance Movement makes its case by producing scary data about the damage that alcohol is causing. But as almost every measure of alcohol related harm in society is in long term decline, they’re struggling harder and harder each year to find something negative to say. Cue last month’s research, reported without question by the Guardian, into the harm caused by parents drinking in front of their children.

According to this exposé:

  • – Three in ten parents have been drunk in front of their children.
  • – Half have been ‘tipsy’.
  • – 15% of children have asked their parents to drink less.
  • – 16% of parents have felt guilty or ashamed of their parenting as a result of their drinking.
  • – 12% of children said their parents paid them less attention because of their drinking.
  • – 29% of parents believe it is acceptable to get drunk in front of their children as long as that does not happen very often.

This behaviour ‘can’ cause children to feel anxious, and have less respect for their parents. But there are no statistics offered to illustrate how serious this might be.

Concerning, right?

Well, let’s take another look.

‘Tipsy’ is different from drunk. There’s a big value judgement being made here that being tipsy is a bad thing. But moderate drinking makes people relaxed and happy, without losing control or becoming embarrassing. Are children who see their parents tipsy as upset by this as those who see their parents drunk? We’re not told. Is ‘tipsy’ being included here simply because the figures for ‘drunk’ are so small, and conflating the two allows the problem to be presented as more serious than it really is? Without seeing the raw data, I couldn’t say. But I’ll just leave the possibility there.

Now let’s get into the detail. I grew up with an alcoholic parent and it’s really not pretty. I’ve also designed research surveys. And if I truly wanted to understand the problems associated with drinking in front of children, if I genuinely wanted to do anything to help the children who are really being hurt by their parent’s behaviour, I’d want to look at the most serious cases. Instead of asking ‘Have you ever been drunk in front of your kids?” I’d be trying to quantify how often this happens by instead asking ‘How often have you been drunk in front of your children?’ And giving an answer grid along the lines of:

  • – Never
  • – Hardly ever – just on one or two occasions
  • – Rarely – maybe once or twice a year
  • – Sometimes
  • – Often

This would allow me to separate families where it’s happened every now and then from those where it’s obviously a habit. I’d zoom in on those who answered ‘sometimes’ and ‘often’, and it’s those parents – and their kids – that I’d want to know more about. I’d want to cut the data so I could compare and contrast the emotions of kids who often saw their parents drunk with the feelings of those where it’s only ever happened once or twice, so I could start to speculate on whether the real harm to kids was the spectacle of ever having seen their parents pissed,  or the regularity of it.

My personal bias: in my experience, it was the fact that it happened every week – the regularity and inevitability of it – that was so upsetting about my alcoholic parent’s behaviour. I only ever saw the other parent drunk once a year at Christmas and I thought it was funny and charming in their case. By contrast, the alcoholic parent’s behaviour made my home feel like a prison. The real hurt – which I certainly felt and which I’ve seen confirmed by many other accounts – is the sense that this parent, given a choice, will always choose alcohol over any concern for their kids. Imagine how that feels, what it does to a child’s self-esteem and sense of worth, compared with ‘Oh mummy/daddy you acted silly last Christmas’. But I guess the distinction between these two effects is not important to the people who claim they are more concerned about alcohol-related harm in society than anyone else. I guess they know better.

(Oh, and for the record: the alcoholic parent never touched beer and wine. I’ve never understood why pictures of spirits feature so seldom in stories about alcohol harm.)

Of course, to go into this kind of detail and distinction would by definition give me a much lower percentage of the total population than if I simply asked ‘Have you ever been drunk in front of the kids?’ Back when I was designing research questionnaires, that’s the question I’d ask if my only intention was to produce the biggest number possible so I could share it to create a media story, rather than digging into the true scale and nature of the problem.

I haven’t seen the study questionnaire. Maybe they did ask a ‘rarely/sometimes/often question. But whether they did or not, the IAS is only reporting the overall number and declining to give any useful textural detail – if there is any. I wonder why?

Whatever was asked, we can only work with the data that’s been reported. And the way this is being positioned is ‘Have you ever been drunk in front of your kids’? Think about that. Think about every year, both mum and dad having a birthday, probably a wedding anniversary, the family experiencing Christmas and New Year, the kickback of a summer holiday. Then think about the likelihood of bereavements, funerals, or the quick fix to cope with stress at work. Think about this over the course of five, ten, fifteen years of parenthood. Take all this into account, look at the question again, and realise that it’s asking  ‘Have you EVER done this, even once, on any of these occasions?’, and then flip the answers around.

Through the entire period of parenthood:

  • – 70% of parents have never been drunk in front of their kids – not once, not at a party, not on their birthday, not at new year – never.
  • – Half of parents have never even been tipsy in front of their kids.
  • – 85% of children have never asked their parents to drink less
  • – 88% of children say their parents have never paid less attention to then because of their drinking.
  • – 84% of parents have never felt guilty or ashamed of their parenting as a result for their drinking.
  • – 71% of parents think it is unacceptable to get drunk in front of their kids, even if its doesn’t happen very often.
  • Doesn’t seem like so much of a crisis now, does it?

If I’d presented these numbers this way around in order to demonstrate that there’s not much of as problem here, doubtless sceptics would point to the numbers and say “Ah, but maybe parents are’t being truthful? Maybe they’re under-claiming?” Well, maybe they are. But when presented the other way around, the IAS and the media clearly felt the numbers were so large as to be a cause for alarm. I’m only working with the IAS’s own data here – data they are presenting as robust and sound – and looking at it in a different way.

Children are an emotive topic in any regard, and are therefore an effective way to get your point across. Not long after this research came out, the latest figures (for 2015) on under-age drinking were released. They show that under-age drinking has fallen to its lowest level since the survey began in 1990. Strangely, the Temperance Movement made no mention of this in their commentary on the figures. Instead, they pointed out that the rate of decline was slowing, and suggested this was a cause for concern, rather than an inevitable slowing given the consistent fall in the numbers meaning there’s a substantially smaller base left for any further reduction to come from.

I have said this before. But if you were genuinely concerned about the harm alcohol cases in society – and make no bones about it, alcohol does cause harm in some places – wouldn’t you celebrate a reduction in that harm instead of deliberately trying to exaggerate the scale of it? And wouldn’t you want to help those most at risk rather than doing your absolute damnedest to make it seem like everyone was at it?