It’s 1995. An obsessive, quirky homebrewer approaches his state’s Senate armed with a passionately-produced product and a dream to open Delaware’s first brewpub. Like many who have tripped, jumped, or leaped with reckless abandon into the world of craft beer, Sam Calagione quickly diverged from his degreed track focusing on fiction writing upon his exposure to great beer, commencing a romance of Shakespearean proportions (minus the tragedy).1 From the beginning, Dogfish Head set itself apart with everything from its tagline to its products, embracing some inherent quirkiness and a masterful way with words, Calagione’s beer quickly became a household name.While the story of Dogfish Head is one many are familiar with, the lessons we can glean from the brand, and similar entities in the market, are somewhat more obscure, but nonetheless inspiring.
Unfortunately, marketing your brewery is often seen as a “necessary evil” — an uninspiring necessity of keeping your name out there and on your customers’ minds. Brewers are largely creative types who like to have their hands involved in making, rather than recording or promoting. But I would encourage my fellow brewers to consider marketing as simply another tool of the trade, alongside the mash paddle and carbonation stone. Marketing is an opportunity to share your unique story with your customers. In this respect, you can think of your daily social media postings much like you would consider a beer festival — share things that interest and intrigue, and make people remember you by. Dogfish Head has mastered this component of marketing their brand, adorning themselves with everything from an “Intergalactic Bocce Tournament” to limited-release product packages with Miles Davis. At first glance these elements may seem like silly promotional games, however Calagione makes sure to tie them back to the brand image thereby bolstering its fandom and legitimizing its claims.2 Indeed, he is quoted in reference to his Miles Davis-inspired beer release (which he listened to while writing the company’s business plan), “I wanted Dogfish Head to be a maniacally inventive and creative brewery, analog beer for the digital age.”3
Marketing is an opportunity to share your unique story with your customers.
In many ways, branding is like the artistic expression of the business plan — the delayed accompaniment to the mission statement. You have a specific goal or message you are trying to communicate, and that message should be at the foundation of what your company stands for. Your brand is an ongoing manifesto about what is important to you, and what your company represents. Be honest. Yes, you must of course tailor the message to your audience and understand your market and your place within it, but the public can spot BS a mile away. Take a moment and consider the brands that you follow or admire the most, be they breweries or otherwise. Why are those brands worthy of your valuable time? Do they make you laugh? Do they challenge you? Do they share the same values that you care about? Good branding is genuine. Good marketing shares that trait, but includes elements of “call and response.” You’re trying to get your customers to think about something, or to share their opinion, or to remember you. Good marketing is like good beer — it sticks with you.
One of the most helpful marketing tools that has stuck with me over the years is the Craft Beer Branding Guide, an incredibly detailed and endlessly useful reference, created by the awesome folks at CODO Design, a branding and web design company out of Indianapolis, Indiana. This guide begins with one of the most often-cited metrics of our tumultuous industry: In the past year in the U.S. alone, we saw an average of about three new breweries opening every day.4 Let’s let that sink in a bit — that’s at least 12 brand new, never before seen beers available (albeit, most likely in a highly localized market) every day. That’s a lot of proverbial noise to compete against in an already crowded arena. But CODO outlines a succinct, yet detailed, plan of attack for defining and defending your space within the larger market. According to them, effectively branding your brewery is the culmination of four main building blocks: Defining your brand’s core values, positioning your brand, communicating your brand’s essence, and establishing your brand identity system. Let’s distill their concepts down for the nanobrewer-to-be.
Brand values: They’re the intrinsic and immutable principles at the heart of your company. In this respect, nanobreweries are uniquely situated to provide for, and appeal to, a hyper-local market, meaning that your values are more than a set of perfunctory bullet points in a business plan. Instead, these values are how you relate to your direct consumers, and what those individuals will come to associate with your brewery. The general public may not always mirror your beliefs, but they will most certainly note when you fail to adhere to them, or if they are insincere.
Brand positioning: In order to identify and sell to your market, you need to first define who you will cater to and what kind of brewery you are. This is reinforced through almost every business decision you make, from taproom design and ambiance to your beer style selections and pricing.
CODO suggests the use of a matrix composed of two axes, representing opposite extremes of two values, seemingly related or not. They created their own matrix, but for our purposes, we borrowed their concept, tweaking it slightly . . . something you can do to fit your purposes.
Let’s say you’re opening your new venture in a small city that already has a few other breweries and you want to ensure that you stand out. Like most of us, you probably love just about every beer style (as long as it’s well-made), but maybe you’re deeply fond of milkshake IPAs and pastry stouts. After a survey of your area, you find that the majority of the other local taprooms are producing beers within a more classic range of styles (e.g. amber, blonde, porter, pale). You also know that you want to be a small company (at least to begin with), as it allows you to start with a limited amount of capital, a lower amount of risk, and ability to control quality. As I’m sure you’re a rabid and dutiful reader of BYO, being a nano operation means that you’re focused on low-volume, high-margin sales, so you’re focusing on in-house sales . . . getting people in your door. Let our y-axis represent our “Style” data set, with one extreme being exclusively producing classic beer styles, and the other being new school styles, while our x-axis, representing “Taproom Focus” spans between local draw versus regional draw. You develop a list of your local competitors, collecting data for these two sets (styles and focus), and plot them on your matrix. You can then see what you are up against in the market. This may also be a great visual to bring to potential investors. Exploring some similar markets from other cities in your region may be a great exercise as well. With any luck you’ll find your love of new-school styles matched with a desire for a local taproom lands in a fairly empty quadrant.
Now, as with any good business planning strategy, this should be an iterative process. Ask yourself why there isn’t another brewery in this quadrant. Do the customers in your area simply not desire these “new school” styles? Or perhaps they simply don’t know about them? This might indicate that customers in your area prefer to drink at regular bars or in their own homes, rather than at a brewery-taproom. Maybe your nano should be looking to sell kegs to get on tap lists at these bars. Asking yourself these questions leads to creating other matrices for comparison of two variables. The more of these you develop, the better informed you will be about your local market, your competition, and how you can best fit in.
Communicate the brand: Your brand’s essence is the culmination of who you are, what you offer, and why people should care. It is communicated through your brand’s personality, and reinforced by your communications. CODO first suggests considering your brewery as a person. How do they behave? What activities do they enjoy? What music do they like? What’s their favorite book? Are they irreverent or serious? Outdoorsy or metropolitan? It’s completely alright to be an odd mix of traits, but your personality must reinforce your brand’s core values. The second step is telling — letting your audience know who you are and why they should care about you and your products. Your voice is how you communicate your brand’s values. As with brewing, voice consistency is key. In addition, you need to know your audience, and have a plan to keep them engaged with your message. You’ll hear constantly reiterated the importance of firmly establishing your essence and values before tackling the typical fun pieces that we all tend to grasp at, like a name, logo, or core beers. So in order to create a sustainable and profitable business, your brewery’s personality needs to stand out in the crowd.
Brand identity system: Once everything else is established, we finally get to the components that are used singularly, or combined, to create a visual representation of your brand essence. It includes a main logo, a secondary logo (a modified version, or versions, of your main logo for other formats or mediums), your color palette, and typography. Here again, CODO warns against focusing too much on this visual or tactile component of your brand before developing your values and position in the market. “A lot of companies make the mistake of aligning their personality with what they believe their audience wants . . . It’s far better to build off of your core values and messaging to define a set of true, authentic, and ownable brand personality traits.”5
To conclude, and in an effort to provide a more contextualized point of view in these pieces, I like to end my articles with a Q&A session, enlisting the aid of others in the industry to shed some hands-on experience for the topic at hand. In my November 2019 column “Nanobrewery Models: Exploring three business plans,” I leaned on Sam Holloway for his business expertise. This time, I turn to my friend Michael Perozzo, Founder of ZZepellin, a creative agency supporting brands like Grains of Wrath, Pelican Brewing, and others.
Q: With social media playing such a large role in any brand’s image, what is your main advice for engaging with customers on these platforms?
A: Consistency is key. Consistency in visuals, when you publish content, and the voice that the content speaks in. It’s important to put out quality content at the rate it can be consumed best. That can mean different things for different platforms. A Facebook post, for instance, can continue to reach and engage people for 5–8 hours. An Instagram image can continue for 1–2 days. Meanwhile, most tweets exist for a mere 30–60 minutes. All in all, it takes a plan to be consistent. Consistency doesn’t happen by shooting from the hip. That’s how you shoot your eye out.
Q: What are some alternative/inventive ways that you have seen marketing work for a brewery brand (e.g. generating revenue, building customer base, expanding market reach, etc.)?
A: It’s a noisy world out there. A brewery needs to stand out to be heard and there are a number of ways to do that. For one brand, it may be a sweepstakes to garner attention. Pelican Brewing Company is a great example of this strategy. You can win a 2-night trip to the beach just for following their Facebook page, and 210,000+ people have done exactly that.
For another, it’s striking imagery. Putting time and effort into consistently looking different than everyone else can lend a distinct advantage. I feel like Wayfinder Beer does this very well. The short animations and graphics of their can label, along with witty, in-your-face captions, have combined to make some strikingly beautiful magic.
Q: What is/are your favorite beer brands to follow? What is it about their marketing that keeps you coming back for new content?
A: I mentioned Pelican and Wayfinder already. I really enjoy Cerebral Brewing in Denver, Colorado. They have great image quality and their beer releases are often quite long and very detailed. It plays very well with their lab/ library/ book nerd vibe. Normally brevity is better, but they’ve made me want to read their longer format.
Cloudburst Brewing in Seattle is a super fun follow. Their brand says, “we don’t care.” It’s in stark contrast to their beer — which they obviously care very much about. Their marketing pokes fun at marketing itself and flies in the face of our corporate beer overlords. Hilarious stuff.
Brothers Cascadia Brewing is a great example of a brewery using video storytelling. Their videos are well done and oozing with personality whether they’re tongue-in-cheek or very serious. Either way, there’s attention to quality and they’re very watchable.
Other brands (that I don’t personally work with) who have been very consistent, and therefore successful, include Pfriem Family Brewers, Left Hand Brewing, Fort George Brewery and Reuben’s Brews.