Birds, Bees and Hometown Brews
by Will Novosedlik
August 9, 2017
Craft beer brands need to stay true to their personalities or they risk losing touch
As we approach the apogee of high summer, there are two words on my mind: beer and garden. Because there is nothing more appealing to me at this time of year than to sit in the garden with a cold beer and gaze upon the birds and bees as they chirp, buzz and swoop among the branches and blossoms.
For a beer lover, there has perhaps been no better time to be alive. North America is seized by a craft beer craze in full flower. Never has the selection been so great (although if you live in Canada, it is limited by where you live, thanks to our arcane interprovincial trade barriers).
Cameron’s Brewing of Oakville, Ontario, was named one of the world’s top 10 brewers at the 2017 US Open Beer Championships
It wasn’t long ago that your choice was limited to two national brands. But that all began to change with the rise of the microbrews. With a 70 per cent increase in the number of licensed breweries between 2010 and 2015, there seems to be a microbrewer on every Canadian street corner. As a result, beer drinkers can now engage in the same level of bibulous nerdship that was once the sole domain of wine drinkers.
There are few categories wherein every single product on the shelf not only looks different, but in some noticeable way, actually is different. In craft brewing, uniqueness is table stakes, which for an old beer-guzzling brand wonk like meself is something akin to heaven.
Let’s start with the visual. From my days as a partner in a design firm, I remember what it was like to work for Big Beer. As with other major brands across the CPG spectrum, changes to label design moved at a glacial pace. As a way of preventing death by boredom and demonstrating how creative we could be within the straightjacket of national beer branding, we would crank out an encyclopaedic range of options, from the incremental to the radical. And almost without fail, the client chose the one that was closest to the existing design.
The joy of microbrews is that they demand the opposite. Local colour and character are as key to the success of the product as the unique flavour of the product itself. As a result we have seen an explosion of creativity in naming and package design. (Watch for the same kind of phenomenon as we approach the legalization of marijuana in Canada). It’s as much fun to look at as it is to drink it.
But how long will the fun last? Product categories all go through cycles of fragmentation and consolidation. As firms grow, they grab market share and the incumbents respond by buying them and/or their supply chains up and by blocking new entrants with higher barriers to entry. According to a recent article, this process is already well underway, with a handful of the world’s biggest brewers snapping up micros at a considerable pace.
For example, Labatt (owned by AB InBev) owns Toronto’s Mill Street and Quebec’s Microbrasserie Archibald; Molson Coors owns BC’s Granville Island; Sapporo owns Quebec’s Unibroue. In the States, North Carolina’s Wicked Weed, Chicago’s Goose Island and Seattle’s Elysian Brewing are among the micros owned by AB InBev.
So the worry of course is how this will affect the very thing that makes a microbrew so special—its unique personality. Outside the realm of luxury branding, the record of big companies maintaining the character and culture of their minor acquisitions is not good. Sooner or later the stock market demands economies of scale and the unblinking eye of optimization, which in turn can drive down quality.
Such is life in the growth-obsessed days of late capitalism. I say screw the stock market, because until it chokes off this vibrant explosion of taste and diversity, I intend to continue exploring it with gusto. I recommend you do the same.
Will Novosedlik likes playing in traffic at the intersections of business, brand, design and innovation. He's worked both as a consultant and client on brands such as Telus, TD Bank, Bata International, Williams-Sonoma, Vodafone and Deutsche Telecom in Canada, the US, North Africa and Europe.