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The Next Era Of Craft Beer Marketing: What Comes Next


Marketing?! Because, we live in an era of 'rotation nation', wherein continuously, existing craft beer brands gets replaced by new brands.

According to 2017 sales figures from the Brewers Association, craft beer now accounts for nearly one-quarter (23%) of all beer sold in America. In fact, at a time when overall beer volume sales are flat to down, craft beer is one of the few segments that is still growing at an impressive rate (5% per year). But it’s clear that the days of double-digit sales growth are over, especially as shelf space becomes even more crowded at top retailers. And so that is placing even more pressure on craft brewers to keep their brands fresh, relevant and dynamic in the minds of consumers.

Use social media to emphasize the “local” angle

As the Brewers Association points out, “local” is still a key selling point for craft brewers. Consumers will be more willing to sample your beers if they believe local, community-based brewers are producing it. We live in an era of “local,” in which people want to know where their food and drink is being produced – and by whom. So it’s perhaps no surprise that local craft brewers are doubling down on the “local” angle in all of their brand messages and marketing.

While the emphasis on local is not changing, what is changing is how craft brewers are sharing this message. Social media has become an invaluable tool in helping to share behind-the-scenes images from breweries and taprooms. On social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, beer drinkers can meet the brewers and founders of the brewery. They can also see first-hand how beer is bottled and canned, as well as how brewmasters sample and experiment with new ingredients. All of this helps to accentuate the “local” aspect to a beer brand.

Emphasize special editions and limited releases to boost brand loyalty

Many of the flagship brands identified with the craft brewing movement – think Sierra Nevada or Anchor Brewing Company – are now finding it harder and harder to stand out from the young upstarts that are coming up with some wildly inventive and experimental brews. Super-hoppy beers are now all the rage, and that is forcing older craft beer brands to come up with suitably innovative and wild brews.

One way to do this is by issuing special edition and limited release beers and then using this to attract potential consumers. Remember – we live in an era of “rotation nation,” in which craft beer brands are being continually replaced by even newer craft beer brands.

In fact, you might say that one drawback of all the experimentation that millennial drinkers like to embrace is that it is becoming harder and harder to hold on to long-time customers. There are simply so many different competitors in the marketplace – a whopping 6,000 craft brewers across America – that it is inevitable that even the top craft brewers will experience some customer churn. To minimize this factor, they need to be seen as equally inventive and experimental.

Maintain authenticity at all costs

Perhaps one of the most important defining attributes of a craft brewer is “authenticity.” It’s the reason why beer drinkers form such strong connections with certain beer brands, and why some brewers become iconic in their local community. Thus, it is important that craft brewers continue to maintain authenticity, even as they get larger, and even as the entire craft beer category continues to grow.

One option that many craft brewers have adopted is the Independent Craft Brewer Seal, which was launched in June 2017 by the Brewers Association to help small, independent brewers let consumers know that they are “truly independent.” The problem, as some craft brewers see it, is that large brewers are sometimes “disguising” their beer brands as small, quirky independent craft brews. And that is making things a lot harder for the true craft independents.

Thus, the Brewers Association is trying to give small craft brewers a leg up on “Big Beer Acquired Brands” – and that is a small label that can be added to bottles and cans, as well as to windows of breweries or even brewpub menus. To qualify for the seal, the Brewers Association requests that you have a valid TTB Brewer’s Notice, that you meet the Brewers Association’s definition of an independent brewer, and that you sign a licensing agreement. Once that has been done, craft brewers have a potentially very powerful tool to showcase their authenticity. In fact, the Brewers Association says that nearly 4,000 brewers (3,968, to be exact) have already adopted the Independent Craft Brewer Seal.

Anticipate and respond to “category blur”

At one time, “craft beer” was an easily recognizable category all to itself. Even if people didn’t know the specific definition of a craft beer, they knew what it looked like, what it tasted like, and how it was made. But, in the years since the craft brewing movement took off, we’ve seen the arrival of new hybrid categories.

These hybrid beers include products like cannabis-infused beers, organic beers, neutraceutical beers, and superfood beers. What all of them have in common is the blurring of two or more adjacent categories into a new type of craft beer category. So do you ignore these developments as mere “fads” or do you attempt to embrace and respond to them as lasting trends?

For many craft brewers, it’s now important to keep aware of these trends. Even if they do not ultimately decide to come up with their own hybrid beer that extends across one or more categories, they should at least know WHY consumers are experimenting with them. For example, the “fruit beer” trend inevitably led to the “organic fruit beer” trend, which inevitably led to the “organic super-fruit beer” trend. The big takeaway lesson here: consumers are paying much greater attention to the ingredients that are going into their beers, and are demanding that beers be “healthy” as well as great-tasting.

When it is time to create a new marketing campaign for your craft beer, it is important to understand how fundamental factors at work are shifting the overall market, and leading to new customer expectations. Your goal as a craft brewer should be to deliver – in fact, to over-deliver – on those expectations and reaffirm that you are the type of local, authentic, innovative and customer-focused craft beer brand worthy of their attention.