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Monday, January 25, 2010

New Series: Dissecting Beer Brands

In business and marketing, there's this concept of "brand." As the American Marketing Association defines it, a brand is a "name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of other sellers." The idea of branding has evolved over the decades so that now it is suffused with cues to provoke emotion and loyalty, sometimes below the level of conscious thought.

There is a obviously a crass element to branding. It can become so dominant that a product hardly matters; people are buying a brand as a matter of personal identity. When this happens, companies are no longer competing with each other over making a better mousetrap; they're trying to make better ads. Branding can be used to deceive; advocates of the environment are constantly shooting down false branding by companies trying to "greenwash" themselves. As a result, marketers and branding experts are slightly less trusted than third-world despots, lawyers, and used-car salesmen.

But there's also something unavoidable about branding that is anything but crass. In a very real sense, brands are the personalities of companies and products. Companies can either highlight their great size (Budweiser) or their small size (micros). One may talk about its ubiquity (Coca-Cola), another about its exclusivity (Gucci). They may also be an expression of company values. Apple, with its every hip ad and product, suggests that it takes art and design seriously and is a product for people who agree. Would Bud be the King of Beers without its brand? There were other MP3 players on the market; why did the iPod become the standard?

I was thinking of this as a result of a comment flagged by Patrick Emerson in that long interview Ezra had with Brett Joyce of Rogue. In it, Joyce professed ignorance about the economic concept of "signaling." I have no doubt he was as ignorant of it as I was before reading Patrick's description--yet that doesn't quite tell the whole story. Rogue is easily one one of the most branded beer companies in Oregon. One could make the argument that its brand is clearer than any other craft brewery in the country. Joyce may not understand signaling, but Rogue knows branding.

If you look around at the major breweries in the Northwest, they all have pretty specific brand identities. These are rarely discussed (to suggest that something as base as "branding" would be practiced by homey, punky small breweries seems blasphemous--that's Bud's schtick), but they are nevertheless a serious part of the business now. And more than that, these identities shape how even astute consumers like you and me make decisions. We're no more immune to these subtle cues than we are to the personalities of the people we meet. So often, the comments I get on this blog express, at least in part, an appreciation of or opposition to a brewery's brand.

In the next few weeks, I'm going to look at some of our breweries and dissect their brand. I find all of this fascinating. Like any other beer geek, I have certain idle fantasies about owning a brewery, and this usually manifests at least partly in thinking about how I'd present myself. (Ask me about the labels for my "Old Codger" Old Ale.) Branding can be crass, but we live in a wonderful little moment where craft brewers can't sell bad beer. They compete over product, but they also present a personality. I confess I'm so enamored with employee ownership that my hand often reaches for a Full Sail (suggested delightfully by that little "47" on the bottle).

So let's have a deeper look. What are the breweries telling us with their brands? Since Rogue started it all, I'll begin with them sometime this week.



  1. Looking forward to reading more on this one. You can always tell a good writer because he's adept in utilizing semicolons. Great read.

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  3. I'm eager to read your posts on branding in the beer business. I believe, fundamentally, that brands are not about the labels, artwork, advertising and shelf talkers that identify the product. Brands are what customers say or believe they are. It makes little difference how much A-B spends on marketing or how many thousands of ads they produce. What matters is how its customers and the folks they wish to be their customers think about them. To use your example, Apple depends very much on its customers believing and often preaching about how superior their products are. It's their customer's beliefs that make the difference.

    On a specific level, I'm not sure Rogue's brand is "clearer." When I think of "clear" brands, meaning how well they communicate the company's characteristics consistently, others including Widmer Brothers, Full Sail, Bridgeport and Deschutes come to mind locally. On a far smaller scale, Hair of the Dog. That is no criticism of Rogue at all.

    And, I disagree with you about the major local breweries being shy about branding and considering it "blasphemous." If that were the case, they wouldn't be hiring people whose specific job is "brand manager." I think you would find many of them to be quite proud of the brands they have built and what they do to insure that is well communicated to their customers.

  4. As a marketing consultant, I will also be looking forward to the discussion of brand as it relates to various local microbreweries.

    It would be interesting to ask both beer drinkers and average people on the street about what certain beer brands mean to them.

    I like the fact that you brought up Rogue as a well-recognized brand. It's obvious that management (like them or not) pays attention to the Rogue brand; it's been carefully developed, and it's carefully managed.

    One important point that people need to remember is that all breweries operating as a business have a brand - and that everything they do (from product, to packaging, to messaging, to distribution, to pricing, to creating an experience, etc.) will influence consumers' perceptions. And as we know, it's those perceptions that that help us choose what we buy - including beer.

  5. You have a lot of marketing folks reading your blog, Jeff - myself included. I'll also say I look forward to this.

    In my pro opinion, I would say the Rogue brand is actually in big trouble, and it has very little to do with their logo or packaging - their pubs are disheveled, the service extremely "uneven," to be kind, and the prices are out of touch with what most perceive is fairly ordinary beer. Their NW Pearl District pub was one of the only brewpubs I know of that was still allowing smoking when the ban took effect. What they are is consistent - consistently mediocre. Rogue needs to re-think the meaning of their brand, and re-shape it, or risk losing it all.

    The best Oregon brands I see right now are Ninkasi (have you ever seen so many taps pop up so quickly, with such passion?) and Deschutes (embraced "specialty" brews like Dissident and Abyss sooner than most, and keeps things interesting with lots of new seasonals and updated packaging). Full Sail's doing well, too.

    Outside of Oregon, I'd call out 21st Amendment (cans, man!), Surly and Boulevard as good examples of how to be 21st Century breweries.

  6. Any idea what breweries you will be starting with, or are they still up in the air?

    I agree that it would be interesting to get your take on Ninkasi. I think the big N kind of differs from most other craft breweries in that they chose to market themselves instead of a flagship product.

    Long before there were murmurs of Total Dom' or Believer, Ninkasi was blanketing Eugene with it's logo and sponsoring every event in sight. I can't think of the last time I went out for the evening and didn't see a Ninkasi shirt, hat or bumper sticker. Hell, every light post downtown is covered in little N's.

    I think their other big source of momentum came from price. Ninkasi started ramping up production about the same time several new bars opened in town. Many of them offered Ninkasi brews in the $1.00-2.00 range for a long, long time. Like many others, it was all I drank for months when I went out; it was too damn cheap not to.

    Now, there isn't a bar or restaurant I've been to in the last year without a Ninkasi tap; it's like a requirement to do business in Eugene. For example, the new sushi restaurant that opened has tow taps; Sapporo and Total Dom'.


  7. Mark, you may be right. It is true that brand managers now populate the ranks of the larger craft breweries. But I always sense a great reluctance to talk meta about brands. It seems like breweries want you to know their brands, to feel that emotional pull, but not to discuss how or why the brand was created and functions.

    Brady and Dave: hmmm. I hope to do the topic justice, and your actual knowledge of these things is slightly alarming. You'll no doubt have more insightful comments to offer after I cast about with general observations. I hope you do add to the discussion.

  8. I agree with everything above that has been said about Rogue. I appreciate a lot of things about their brand but find it very inconsistent and often off-putting. Granted that is probably in line with the "rogue" aspect, but I think they could do a much better job. That being said, I just got back from Vancouver, BC and saw the largest collection of Rogue 22s for sale that I've seen anywhere, Oregon or otherwise.

    Deschutes seems to be finally segueing into a different look, if you were to judge based upon their print advertisements and newer labels. The round logos, while identifiable, were getting a little tired.

    I am smitten with Full Sail (and Session) branding, and admit that I too fully support the employee-ownership concept in a craft brewery.

    I left Eugene too soon for the Ninkasi surge, but am in love with their labeling and in relation to what was said above about their local-based promotion efforts, am looking forward to hearing about how they've branded their well identifiable brand.

  9. This is a fascinating conversation. It's interesting that whenever branding comes up, people gravitate to the Rogue conversation. To some extent, Oregon is a self-contained bubble that has very different opinions of its own products than the rest of the country/world. Coming from the East Coast, the Rogue brand is far and away (outside of Widmer hef) the most available, discussed, enjoyed Oregon brew. Their image doesn't have nearly the dings that it does within our borders.

    Regardless, branding is crucial to every last brewery, even the smallest one. As long as labels and names go on beer, branding is a huge part of a brewery's success. To deny this is flat out faux-utopian driven denial.

    The best brands, I believe, are an extension of the true values and culture of a brewery/company. New Belgium is a great example. They are progressive, environmentally conscious to the point of being leaders in alternative energy development (and not just in the beer industry) and they make great beers routed in tradition that also embrace invention and creativity. These things are simply and subtly reflected in labels, messaging and collateral. People want to be a part of and support a company like that, provided they make a good product.

    Turning the spotlight locally, I think of a small operation like Upright. I'm not him, but I don't think Alex Ganum sat down and thought, "how can I craft the Upright brand to sell more beer." From what I've read, I think the questions were more like "what kind of brewery do I want to run, what kind of beer to I want to make, and what is important to me in this process." Upright very much started as a brewery that embraced a style and mindset about brewing, routed in the saison tradition and married to a pursuit of creation, but went out of their way to avoid labels and strict style characterizations. Couple this with truly welcoming in the beer community and Upright crafted a unique identity that has helped make them become one of the most celebrated new Northwest breweries this year.

    Anyway, great topic and I look forward to the articles and conversation.

  10. I feel like Rip Van Winkle when I visit Eugene. I moved out of there in the summer of '05, right before the Ninkasi tornado. It seemed like Deschutes was dominant. Now, it's crazy going back. Ninkasi has totally taken over. Which isn't bad, given their high-quality beer and the market gap in Eugene that the brewery has filled.

    Jeff, is this going to be a 30-part series? It's an interesting idea, and I look forward to reading it, but where do you stop? I smell a book proposal. :)

  11. Jeff,
    I'm sure no brand or marketing managers want to give away the jewels to talk about how and why their brands are developed. Or, that they have done much but let the beer speak for itself. But, they don't really have to. Brands speak for themselves, at least the good ones. Not to get too philosophical, although it's simultaneously one of the most hopeful and difficult aspects of brands is that they exist apart from what we try to do about them. Whether a brewery has a staff in marketing or no one, people know their brands. Derrickvee's example of Upright Brewing proves that point.

  12. Great article and great comments! Congrats on finding a button to push. Obviously "branding" is a window to the soul of a product or company. I can't wait to see your angle on OR brands. Full disclosure - I work for one of the breweries that has many comments listed, so i will leave it unsaid so as to not push the opinions in one direction or the other.

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