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Friday, November 13, 2015

You Can't Recycle Originality

Martyn Cornell, who surprised me by admitting he as an MBA, just reviewed the new book by BrewDog's James Watt. It's a fascinating dissection not just of the book, but the business of beer. Here's his final paragraph, which is a great place to start a discussion:
Will someone who buys Business for Punks, given luck, be able to turn themselves into the next BrewDog? Well, no, probably not, or not in the UK beer market, because as far as what BrewDog now represents, there is only room for one iconoclastic, rule-breaking, self-proclaimed punk brewery, Dickie and Watt spotted that gap in the market and filled it extremely successfully. We may well see firms start up that will be “the BrewDog of grocery retailers”, “the BrewDog of software manufacturers”, even “the BrewDog of estate agents”. But no sector, I suggest, can sustain more than one marketing guerrilla, and guerrilla marketing is what BrewDog does brilliantly and what its fans respond to enthusiastically.
I'd take this a step further. In the business of beer, it's very difficult to follow the blueprint of any successful brewery. They're all more or less singular achievements that are very difficult to replicate. Here in Oregon, Ninkasi Brewing pulled off the neat trick of going from start-up to powerhouse in just a few years. Founded in 2007, it was able to become one of the top-three breweries in just five years. Surely there are lessons in the Ninkasi approach? Let's look at how they did it.

First, founders Jamie Floyd and Nikos Ridge took advantage of a bizarre anomaly that existed as late as 2007 in Oregon: the city of Eugene, the state's second-largest, had very few breweries and none that had become the dominant local player. Second, they came of age just in the moment that IPAs were not only becoming ascendant in craft brewing, but going through a big change in form. All of Ninkasi's early beers were hoppy and captured the zeitgeist for the "new" IPAs (which have since gone through another iteration in evolution). Of course, the brewery also had great branding, a great sales force, and great beer--necessary but hardly sufficient elements for success. In other words, cribbing notes from Ninkasi wouldn't be much help to a brewery today.

Here are some of he biggest American breweries: Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Lagunitas. Could you imagine trying to replicate the elements of their success? Try building an empire on an amber lager or amber ale today, as Boston Beer and New Belgium did. Lagunitas sells a certain California ethos as much as it does beer, but imagine trying to replicate it now. Sierra Nevada might be the one model a brewery could replicate, but the benchmarks--extraordinary quality standards with landmark beers and quiet consistency over the decades, looks like a daunting task.

I get that business books always take the shape of a kind of long-winded humble-brag about how an entrepreneur did something. But by the time you get to that phase of the business, the lessons are too particular to really benefit anyone coming up. There are a ton of things you have to do just as a matter of course for any business. But the secret sauce that leads to exceptional success in the marketplace is almost always a spark of originality that captures the imagination of customers. And you can't successfully recycle originality.


  1. There's one vital missing piece regarding Ninkasi rise. They knew full well that a large portion of their college-age market base spent their summers in Portland, and they capitalized on it. They donated kegs to any worthy cause, sponsored bands, sold cheap kegs for house parties, etc, all of which guaranteed that when those kids went home for the summer they would be pestering their bartenders for Ninkasi products.

    They used those kids as their initial sales force, and within a year or so they had handles all over town without even hiring a local rep.

    If there's one thing to glean from them, it's that "pull" is always easier than "push" when it comes to selling something. When you've got a vocal customer base demanding your product it makes the salesperson's job a hell of a lot easier.

  2. A lot of what Brewdog did looked like they were copying Stone brewery, at times almost word for word. Though admittedly I'd never heard of Stone before Brewdog so maybe it's not important to be original but it is important to be original in your market place.

  3. And both are just copying other blowhards that came before them. Not sure I understand the idea of originality with these sorts of brand heavy brewers. Just following a larger pop culture trends even if, with BrewDog, they completely bastardize the concept of punk in the process.