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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Brand Dissection: Rogue Ales

For the first installment of the brand dissection series (introduction here), we turn to Rogue Ales--the original inspiration. Yet it makes sense to start with Rogue in any case, because no other brewery in the Northwest has had such a consistent sense of its own brand, nor been more focused on maintaining their brand.

This shouldn't be too surprising. Jack Joyce and other founders of Rogue came from the shoe industry and their focus from the start was to build a brand around their new brewery. Here's Rogue President Brett Joyce, whom I spoke to for this piece.
"Understand that we began with our founders being a handful of ex-Nike and Adidas executives. So we didn't come into this thing with any experience at all in the beer business.... We always looked at the the brand first, the brand second, and the brand third--and the business fourth; the business as a secondary item.

We always had the notion that if you have a great brand--and you have a great product--then your chances of succeeding as a business were pretty good."

Although Rogue started in Ashland, the name isn't an allusion to the Rogue River (although Brett did concur that this gave it a nice resonance). It was actually a nickname of Jack's, earned when he was still at Nike. It seemed like a good fit for what the company wanted to communicate: Rogue Ales would be a beer-business revolutionary, effectively kryptonite to cheap beer. From the start, they have highlighted everything that contrasts with national tin-can beer: a focus on beer geekery (stats on the bottle), the best ingredients (which led them to buy crop land for hops and barley), a sprawling variety of products (as opposed to sameness of national brands), and emphasis of rarity and luxury. Even the "Ales" in the name underscores this point, highlighting the focus on ales, but also placing the revolution in the bottle, not in the company HQ. I view Rogue's self-image as one of a pirate ship careening around the country, trying to set its flag in the deepest reaches of Bud country.

Elements of the Brand
Rogue communicates their brand through several modes. Visually, you could call their presentation "luxurious revolution." The cues here seem to conflict, but keep in mind that the revolution isn't about politics, but about the beer biz. Sometime in the past decade or so, Rogue shifted their design to highlight the revolution through overtly socialist/communist symbolism. The art style is socialist realism, popularized during the cold war when the Soviets used art to support the revolution. It tends to focus on the strength and glory of the worker. Rogue, using these themes, features a variety of muscular men on the labels--a nod to the steel workers and farmers the Soviets employed.

But Rogue doesn't stop at allusion. They also incorporate overtly communist symbols: the red star and the upraised fist. The star appears everywhere, and if you look carefully, you'll notice that it's always the left fist that comes up--a particular Trostkyite flavor.

Interestingly, Rogue also sends many signals about how expensive and luxurious their beer is. Although you can buy some of their beers in sixers, Rogue has always favored the silk-screened 22-ounce bottle. Silk-screening is a special treatment, and it sends the message that this is a rare treat--and the bottle is a nice souvenir. In addition to the regular line-up, Rogue also has their XS series, sold in silk-screened, swing-top ceramic bottles. (Rogue's in the process of going back to 7-ounce bottles for this series, a practice they used in the 90s, but the message of rarity and luxury will still shine through.)

In addition to the visual cues, Rogue has always priced their beer above most other brands--another symbol of the beer's status as a rare luxury. Nike has been famous for this strategy for decades, and it seems to have been part of Rogue's from the start. In the context of the communist iconography, this seems strange, but of course, Rogue's revolution is aimed at cheap beer, not the Man.

The final element of the brand is the idea of "Rogue Nation," which takes a page from the political branding playbook. As politicos know, it's a lot easier to run against a candidate than a movement. With Rogue Nation, the company has pretty effectively given their brand a movement component. With "citizenship," customers are offered a variety of insidery benefits which, not surprisingly, go to underscore the brand. Customers are fickle; citizens are loyal. With Rogue Nation, the company is saying, "Come board our pirate ship!"

Brand Health
Rogue's been around 22 years. It's hard to sustain a revolution for decades; pirates can only stay on the outside so long before they get absorbed. In the past few years, we've seen some local blowback to the brand. In a part of the country where there are so many craft breweries, so many alternatives to tin-can beer, Rogue's revolution doesn't seem so unique. The beer prices are high and in the proliferating pubs, they're even higher. Everytime I post something about Rogue, I get about equal parts resentment and admiration. My sense is that this is not nearly the case in other parts of the country, where Rogue is an exotic visitor--but it is still a concern for a company that very much wants to be a successful national brand.

However, Rogue isn't standing still. They've added spirits to their product line, expanding the brand beyond beer, while still remaining true to it. Their foray into agriculture is particularly promising. As the beer world shifts to local and organic, Rogue is primed to lead the way. (Though the "chatoe" and "dirtoir" names seem like obvious misfires to me. Rogue's customers have no animus toward wine culture--and perhaps no awareness of it. "Dirtoir"--does the average beer drinker understand terroir? Here the pirate ship has targeted an unnecessary foe.)

I will also tip my hat to their work on the Green Dragon. For a company so strongly branded, it must have been murder not to Rogue-ize the new place. While it's true that the food is less spectacular and more expensive, I find it remarkable to see a company bury its own identity in order to create something new. As one contrasting example, when Starbucks bought the far superior Torrefazione Italia, they could only manage to preserve Torrefazione's identity for a short while. Within months they had turned these outlets into bland, mass-consumption Starbucks. That Rogue is willing to experiment and try extending its reach beyond its immediate brand seems to bode well for their future success.

Since I know a number of people will be reading this who have experience in both the beer business and in branding, I look forward to hearing your take on Rogue. What'd I miss?

ART: detail "Young Steelworkers," Ivan Bevzenko (Ukraine), 1961. Courtesy


  1. Well written. A little surprised there is so little from Joyce if you interviewed him for this though.

    Whats the next brand you are writing on?

  2. For me, Rogue and McMenamins were the more 'rare' treats as far as good beer goes in Oregon at the start of my beer drinking career. It was nice to even be able to walk into a small bar in Corvalis and order a Shakespeare Stout with my veggie burger. McMenamins had/has a different business philosophy. They seemed a bit more rare, and you can really only get their brews at their own establishments.

    On websites such as 'beeradvocate' etc., there seems to be a lot of 'anti-Rogue' nonsense in the forums and reviews because of their high pricing. Some of it I can agree with because while in the start, craftbeer was still a newborn. Now however craftbeer and competition is everywhere. Rogue has intentionally stayed away from the competition. It is almost a snobbery elitist attitude of sorts, and I can see why some will complain. I however don't complain. It is my belief that if you don't like a product for whatever reason... just don't purchase it. I was too shocked when I heard the price per ounce of the XS series in the 7 oz. bottles was going to be about the same as the larger ceramic bottles. The 7 oz. bottles might as well be made of platinum.

    On a positive note though, I do love Rogues beers. If I ever see one I haven't had... I must purchase it. Old Crusty is a favorite barleywine style ale of mine as well. I can't get enough of the Santas Private Reserve... and if ever a cheap pint of their regular line-up is available at a pub/bar... I will partake.

  3. Not sure what to make of this series? Are we describing how Corporate breweries market their beer by branding or is this just pandering?

    This reads as a breakdown of how Rogue has mentally influenced people to buy they're product. How they have corporately executed a product "Brand." Shoes or Beer? It doesn't seem to matter to them. It could be Ding Dongs and Dildos. Put the American Flag on it, package it pretty and it'll sell. Yep, the average American is an idiot. They buy on gut emotions and pretty colors.

    The American way! It's all marketing, hype and visual promotion. Yea, so? Is this NEW to anyone? Why am I paying an extra dollar or more for a 6 pack of Rogue? Because it's a BS marketing ploy? Fine, you buy their crap! I'll go buy something that tastes the same or better for less. End of story.

    I think real beer drinkers would be more interested in the history and quality of their product (product development), rather than how they've manipulated the world into thinking it's a great product with American Flags, Flashy Silk Screened bottles and creating a Rogue Nation of imbeciles.

    Who's next? Widmer/Redhook, Portland Brewing/Pyramid/Magic Hat, Rock Bottom, BJ's, Ram, Bridgeport? Which corporate entity shall we dissect next? It'll all be the same. Corporate deception and marketing for the almighty dollar.

  4. Great post, Jeff. Keep them coming. I like this behind-the-scenes stuff.

    I like Rogue but very rarely drink it. There's just too many great beers available for a buck less. But it sounds like that was their intention.

    I do love that a group of ex-executives from large corporations would adopt socialist iconography in order to sell beer that working men can't afford. :)

  5. Mark, I wanted to make sure my analysis was on target, not cede the analysis to the President of Rogue. I wanted his view on what they were going for. I hope that, reading this, he finds it completely fair--if not exactly the post he would have written.

    Bob, two things. First, almost everything on this blog is devoted to what's in, rather than on, the label. Click around. Two, I think it's both naive and short-sighted to ignore the realities of the market. Everyone I know in the beer business is fiercely proud of their product, and they want to sell as much of it as they can. It sounds like you're suggesting that they should ignore the bottom line.

    (And given your reaction to the post, I'd suggest that it's not pandering when we look under the hood of the branding strategy.)

  6. My experience with Torrefazione Italia was that their branding sucked. You walked in to buy a pound of coffee and there was absolutely no way to tell what was what beyond regualar and decaf. All the coffee names were in Italian with no description of flavor or origin. The packaging was all bland white with red/green stripes. The rest of their shop was equally exculsive to the average consumer. Starbucks had an opportunity to re-brand this company, which could have succeeded, but they just let it die and become a food-service brand. Their coffee was actually pretty good, but without something to identify with, consumers felt more at home at Starbucks or other local chains like Cafe Ladro.

    On a side note, cafe Umbria has very tasty espresso.

    Nice post.

  7. Bottom Line? They charge to much for their middle of the road product and use marketing techniques to deceive the public. Other breweries use these same marketing techniques but few are arrogant enough to charge more for an average 6-pack.

    People want to have some pride in who they buy they're beer from and what they're intentions are. To produce a great beer or to deceive the American people with marketing techniques for a buck. That's my point. What's yours?

    You want to impulse buy a product based on slick marketing? You go ahead. I'd rather buy beer from people I can trust and don't need 40 Ad men on the payroll trying to figure ways to sink their teeth into the public wallet. I'll buy from people who brew for the love of beer not the love of money.

  8. It's tempting to oversimplify things. I'm fairly certain Rogue doesn't employ a team of 40 ad men. In fact, I met their marketing director at GD during the anti-beer tax rallies and he was a department of one. If you think about it, when was the last time you saw a Rogue tv ad, heard a radio spot, or even saw a print ad in a magazine. I'm pretty sure never on the first two and infrequently on the last one.

    Look, to me it's just naive to simply toss businesses into "good guy" and "bad guy" piles. Rogue wants to signify to consumers that they are a luxury product, so they price accordingly. It's not deceptive; they believe they have a superior product.

    It's up to you if you think the product warrants the price. I think they make excellent beers that sometimes warrant the price, but more often than not, I choose something else.

    Really interesting article, especially delving into the socialist components of the brand's imagery. What I'm most curious about is how the brand will evolve now that a much bigger percentage of the populations has come around to their original viewpoint (quality made craft beers = better than boring domestics in cans). How does the brand evolve now that the "revolution", while not quite over, isn't so revolutionary?

    Looking forward to more of these. I hope the next one focuses on a smaller brewery.

  9. Dosir said:

    "I was too shocked when I heard the price per ounce of the XS series in the 7 oz. bottles was going to be about the same as the larger ceramic bottles. The 7 oz. bottles might as well be made of platinum."

    FWIW, the price per oz actually went up by about 9% when they switched to little bottles.

  10. It might be interesting to consider a ratio of amount of effort spent on branding and advertising to quality and uniqueness of product. Highly subjective and unscientific, I realize, but I imagine many would consider this number to be relatively high for Rogue, at least among craft breweries. I don't think that makes them evil, but it certainly rubs me the wrong way.

  11. Good marketing will entice consumers to pick it up off the shelf.

    Good product will keep them coming back time and time again.

    I tend to pick up Rogue quite often, not only because I enjoy the subtle (or not so subtle) humor, no-bullshit personality, and connection with the Brand, but because the product also holds up its end of the bargin. 22 years in business would suggest others around the world feel the same way.

    Interesting article - would have loved to hear more from the interview with Mr. Joyce.

  12. Thought you might find this post interesting: a feminist perspective on beer labeling.

  13. This is a great post. I agree with what Anonymous said: "I do love that a group of ex-executives from large corporations would adopt socialist iconography in order to sell beer that working men can't afford."

    From a marketing and brand perspective, Rogue is a great topic of discussion because the company was built around the brand. I find it really interesting, but not all that surprising, that the primary focus is the brand, not the beer, and that the executives at Rogue openly talk about it as such. In Oregon, where there are so many microbreweries who put the beer first, it's easy to see why Rogue gets so much negative attention.

    At the end of the day, successful brands are those that create a love/hate relationship with the consumer – either you love them, or you hate them. Rogue has a big group of loyal customers who have joined the Rogue Nation; these people love Rogue, they buy Rogue products, and they happily promote the brand. At the same time, there are a lot of people who hate Rogue. Guess what? Rogue feeds off this.

    You probably won’t find another brewery in Oregon that puts the brand before the beer. But Rogue is in business to make money; most all other breweries in Oregon are in business to make beer. To its credit, Rogue has found a way to differentiate from the various other breweries in the region, its reach is huge with distribution across the country, and it has managed to create big groups of people who love the company and who hate the company. Perhaps that was the intent all along, would you expect anything different from a company called Rogue?

  14. One other Rogue note:

    They don't advertise. All of their marketing is local - they take their beer everywhere and anywhere, put up their flag and let the beer speak.


  15. and what does the beer say, Pat?

  16. To me their beer says, "average craft beer at a higher than average price".

  17. Rogue's beer is definitely above average, but we live in Beervana where we are overflowing with ubergeeks and some socialist ideals. I do believe Rogue is unquestionably overpriced ($5 for a 7 oz'er?!) or at least focuses too much on marketing or packaging than needed and this keep many beer geeks away. Like Brady said, the name "Rogue" says it all. Willamette Week has a Rogue of the Week for a local bad guy and I think Rogue the beer has embraced being that. I don't think being heavy on the bells and whistles and charging a lot makes you rebellious but it can make you polarizing. I doubt Rogue will ever bend because if they do they will be showing weakness and they are steadfast in their philosophy and approach to their game. Talk to any brewer and they see the same bottom line as Rogue. I just think the paths to their goals are different. Meeting Brett Joyce I do believe he believes in what he is saying and selling. If he didn't I would really have a problem with him. I respect him and his brewery but don't agree with him and what I perceive as some of his core values.

  18. Angelo, as long as you think Brett is doing a good job, that's good enough for me. ;-)

  19. To everyone who likes Rogue beer, well I applaud your taste. However, to those of us who live in Newport, I applaud your consistency. It has become the joke of Newport that if you haven't been fired by the Rogue you haven't really lived here. They recently fired one of, what I considered, their best brewers. Apparently it was on the spot, with no notification and apparently no forethought on their part. And they had never given this brewer the respect or acknowledgment he deserved for CREATING one of their best beers. I might like their beer, and John Maier is amazing, but I detest a company who so blatantly disrespects the employees who create their product. Tell me, does Brett Joyce know how to brew? I fear the answer is no, and I don't respect a leader who doesn't respect the people who ultimately deserve the acknowledgment for the product off of which he makes money. Their tag-line in the tour I took is still "feed the fisherman," but they seem to neglect taking care of even their closest employees. Shame on Rogue for continuing to claim they have not become compromised by corporate greed.

  20. A strange idea. Communist imagery to sell high priced beer. And not made by beer geeks but ad men. For the beers I have had, seems over priced.

  21. Honestly the communist imagery hit me right away and I've never supported the brand because of this. I think I had their dead man's ale, or whatever, once and it was tasty enough, but marxism and me do not match.