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Safety v adventure: how craft beer needs to evolve

Mark Cullen, planner at branding and packaging consultancy Good, says craft brewers may need to think about their product in an entirely new way to compete on shelf

Mark Cullen Good

In almost every purchase decision we make, we are looking for one of two things: safety or adventure. In every aisle of the supermarket, we’ve got well known and loved brands vying for space next to their start up cousins. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or artisan granola?

This effect is perhaps most pronounced in the drinks space – and in particular, in the beer sector, as craft beer really begins to go stratospheric (79% growth year on year). A customer browsing the beer in their local supermarket may be having a party, and choose a 12 pack of something reliable; a crowd pleaser. Or for a night in with friends, they may pick a few more unusual beers – local brews, unusual ingredients – where not knowing how you’ll like them is all part of the experience. Craft beers don’t come in six packs and definitely sit in the adventure section.  

And for craft beer in particular – the deservedly much feted drinks trend of the decade, this presents a potential problem.

While the adventure narrative is working well for the sector right now, it isn’t a sustainable route to growth for any one brand. Adventure mindsets will expand market sectors, and so right now, the sector of craft beer is growing, benefitting everyone within it who is simply able to ride the wave. But this approach doesn’t allow any one brand to become a go-to choice, and therefore to grow as a business. There are some exceptions – which we’ll look at shortly – but this rule generally applies.

For some brands this won’t be a problem – they may want to forever retain their maverick status and stay small. But some brewers may see this as their long-term career and want to plan for growth. In this case, they may need to begin to think about their product in an entirely new way, while still maintaining their craft credentials.

This might seem like an impossible brief – for some fans, developing a strong and sustainable brand for a craft beer would be anathema to what the movement stands for. But building long-term preference for your brand, and equity as ‘not just another craft beer’ will be vital for anyone who wants to grow faster than the sector, and to still have a great business when the shine comes off the craft beer craze. (It’s worth remembering that though craft beer packaging is often brilliantly designed; a great design does not equal a great brand.)

Not only that, but there’s another imperative to establish your credentials as a genuine craft beer brand – the big boys are moving into the craft beer patch. Marstons has launched the ‘Revisionist’ brand – one that looks, to all intents and purposes, like a genuine small batch craft beer – but merely uses the visual language of craft beer to capitalise on the sector growth. The beers are available on draft, and via an exclusive deal with Tesco, in the supermarket’s stores. 

These are nice beers, keenly priced, and, with the distribution might of Tesco and Marstons behind them, will eat into shelf space that may have gone to more authentic craft brands. But right now, ‘craft’ is seen as enough of a brand in itself, and a space that is up for grabs by anyone. 

So a vital question to ask here is: does any brand in this space (not just ‘craft beer’ in general) attract loyal fans?

There are a few that seem to fit this bill. American pioneer stalwarts such as Anchor Steam, and Scottish first-movers Brewdog have not just helped to create the craft beer craze, but have also created brands which are known as reliable by consumers – and as such, are widely stocked by major retail and supermarket chains – a sure sign of wide appeal. And though for some aficionados, these brands are now ‘too mainstream’ – they are certainly accepted as viable and largely respected craft brands. 

Of course, not everyone can have first-mover advantage. So those that want to stand out and grow need to develop new ways of doing so – by creating sustainable brands with stong brand values first and foremost, and tying them in to long term business plans. A good brand can weather almost anything – and as the craft beer market develops in the next few years, it will be those with the strong, stable and well-prepared brands that are left standing.

2 April 2015