Who didn’t have a parent advise them to hang out with only “the right people” to form and protect their reputation?
The larger national craft brewers I’ve worked with talk about their early reluctance to sell into national restaurant chains, sport bars and other local accounts that did not “properly” celebrate craft beer. Back in the day, craft beer was still working hard to establish its difference from big corporate beer. The thinking was visibility in these accounts would tarnish the brewer’s credentials. Being seen in corporate beer dominated accounts would make those craft beers seem a bit corporate as well. Though the volume would have been welcome, the drag on brand equity was not worth it.
Consumer demand and retailer realities played into this as well. Back in those early days, a pale ale or amber darker than Bud was about as adventurous as most big corporate beer drinkers might venture into the world of more flavorful beer. Drinking Guinness was really pushing boundaries in those days! So, it was not only that craft breweries shunned these less craft-centric accounts for image reasons. Most patrons of these accounts were not ready for more flavorful craft beers as well. And selling into these accounts was a difficult proposition without established, broadly appealing brands.
Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Blue Moon Belgian White absolutely fueled their success pushing national accounts and other big beer venues. But these more accessible beers fit the patrons of these less craft-centric accounts. And they had the sales infrastructure to make it happen.
WHERE YOU’RE SEEN STILL MATTERS
For today’s smaller craft breweries, there is still no such thing as “any point of distribution is a good point of distribution.” Let your marketing and sale managers argue this one over a few pints, but the brand marketing perspective should largely prevail in the end. Early on, go after accounts that will help you build your brand as well as your long-term volume.
In general, it’s still best to play “small and scarce” as a brewery grows its following in the local craft community. As you’re growing your brand, keep close to accounts that will enhance your brand’s craft credentials. Now that competition for these prime accounts is fiercer, the approach must be more assertive and professional. But it still makes sense to drive distribution in favor of craft-centric accounts. Remind your sales force if the job were easy, they wouldn’t be needed.
SESSIONABLE CRAFT BEERS ARE AN OPPORTUNITY
There is a viable strategy for small and midsize brewers concerned about retaining “smallness” to take advantage of the volume opportunities at less crafty accounts without harming their overall image. Take a page from the playbook of some of the big brewers. Think about how sessionable craft beer can be successful in less craft-centric accounts with patrons who shy away from bolder craft beers. There is immediate and long-term opportunity with these patrons.
Less crafty accounts can be feeder accounts. They are important venues where the beer drinkers who drink the other 88% of US beer volume that is not currently craft come to quench their thirst and socialize. Their palates may not be ready for your big beers yet, but someday they may be. Even if they are ready now, these occasions often stretch for hours, so your more sessionable ales and lagers will be the ones on point. The negative carryover to your bigger, more flavorful craft beers will be minimal. Your hardcore craft fans won’t mind if they see your sessionable beers in less crafty accounts. Just don’t bring in your limited release bombers.
This feeder strategy has a lot of long-term benefit as well. As these formerly big corporate beer drinkers become accustomed to your more sessionable beers, they will develop trust in your brewing credentials. When they encounter your bigger beers in other venues, they’ll be predisposed to pick your beer out of the myriad other brands because of that trust.
Where do you need to be seen to grow your brand image? Where might you not want to be seen?
John Mann (@beermktguy)
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Main photo credit: © Champions Boston