Beer is a lot about relationships…

Recently got back from working with a well-respected craft brewery out west.  After a rigorous week together in their taproom, at retail, and talking with other local breweries, it reinforced my strong position that the craft beer business is a lot about relationships.

The particulars of my observations are confidential to the brewery of course.  But suffice it to say that when relationships with one’s brand community sours, so does business.  As most craft brewers are finding out, there are fewer, more difficult paths to success these days, and many paths that quickly lead to stagnation, decline, or worse.  Relationships can go south quickly for many reasons:  greedy expansion, lackluster innovation, elitism, loss of independence, and general resting on one’s laurels.  Combine any two or three and it’s lights out.  Literally.

Building and maintaining relationships is critical to survival.  How well are you building and maintaining your relationships with your brand community?

The brand community is an all-encompassing notion including everyone along the way from distributors to retailers to consumers.  Certainly craft beer is serious business, and financial considerations cannot be ignored at any phase of the process.  But a balanced approach considering both business practicality and relational vitality is required.  Swaying too far in either direction is a recipe for disaster.

Distributor Relationships

“What have you done for me this morning?” reigns supreme in the distributor world.  Hot skus and killer deals speak volumes.  But reliability and brands that curate themselves well in the market can stand out in this cutthroat world.  So can breweries that don’t bring dogs that far under-perform expectations.  Get your beers right in your taproom first.  Just like in the world of entertainment, leave them wanting more.  Find the distributor reps who have the most solid connections to retailers with whom you need to be connected in the market, and nurture them into brand enthusiasts. Not everyone has the same impact at the distributor.  Develop and nurture your distributor network relationships with an eye for long-term impact, not just short-term volume.  It’s worth the effort.

On Premise Retailer Relationships

Brand expansion for smaller breweries begins on premise.  Curate your early limited distribution wisely.  One handle at the right taphouse might be worth many handles at a bevy of sports bars around town in the long run.  Being in the right accounts can build brewery brands that command premium loyalty and pricing (see “The Company You Keep Says A Lot”  Not all accounts are equal.  Take the time to develop a great reciprocal relationship with the best on premise accounts.  Sure, you’ll encounter a lot of companies vying for the attention of the most influential accounts.  But it’s well worth it in the long run.  Remember the reciprocal part.  Throw your best accounts some of the best bones.  Collaborate.  And think about promoting their accounts in your taproom.  Try a board with the best local places to get craft beer after visiting your taproom.  Mention them in your social media – for free!  Treat these premier accounts like family, or better!

Off Premise Retail Relationships

I was reminded this last trip of the wide disparity in performance among off premise retailers managing craft beer.  From a hole in the wall liquor store with an amazingly well curated, 15 ft. high wall of some of the best bombers from around the world, to a medium-size upscale chain with an absolutely unshoppable random shelf set, to a national chain with a sharp, very shoppable beer aisle, the world of off premise beer is a very mixed bag.  I talked to that small liquor store manager for nearly an hour and learned a ton about the local craft beer scene.  The beer buyer at the midsize chain was clueless, and his shelf set reflected that ignorance.  And thought the beer manager of the national chain store was not on site, her work (and the corporate buyer’s) spoke volumes.

Use your scarce resources to get to know the folks who know beer best off premise.  Learn how you can better meet their needs, and better fit into their strategies.  Again, not all accounts are equal.  Focus your relationships on those who can influence the market the most, not just those who are most willing to put you on shelf.

Consumer Relationships

Except for extreme disruptions (like brewery acquisition or the most unfortunate public relations challenges), consumers are actually pretty forgiving once they have developed an affinity for a brand – emphasis on having a developed relationship.  All bets are off in the early stages of a consumer relationship though.  It’s one strike and you’re out most of the time if the relationship is new.

Consumers may be slow to adopt a brand, but as well they are often slow to let go of an old friend once a relationship is established.  I saw strong evidence of this in my most recent project.  There were a few solid reasons for this brewer’s loyal consumers to jump off the bandwagon.  But they have not abandoned them in big numbers, at least not yet.

While craft consumers can be forgiving and willing to retain a relationship with a brand that’s had some issues, even a slowly leaking bucket eventually dries up.  And with today’s uber-competitive environment, someone more willing to nurture a consumer relationship is literally right around the corner.

What do craft consumers value most from brewers?

Craft beer drinkers value breweries that provide beers that hit the balance of steady, reliable choices along with others that provide exciting innovation.  And they love something made just for them, just for their neighborhood.  These are the more obvious beer needs of the craft beer consumer.

But it’s not just about beer.  In taprooms, where you brand best comes to life, your front of house people will make or break you with your brand community.  Hire with a bias towards friendly people who love craft beer.  You’ll be able to teach them the rest.  You can teach people many things, but you cannot teach them to be friendly or passionate about beer.  Your front line personnel are your most effective brand ambassadors.  The brand they live is the brand your drinkers will see, and none other.  Hire well!

So, just like your beer won’t market itself, nor will you develop the relationships your brewery needs waiting for the world to come to you.  Go out and meet people, treat everyone well and the right people exceptionally well, and remain loyal.  Put friendly beer lovers to work throughout your brewery.  You’ll be glad you did.


John Mann


John (13)

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