Under-Promise, Over-Deliver

Disappointment. (Adapted from a 1920 illustration in The Story of Doctor Dolittle by the author, Hugh Lofting.)

That was an idle Tweet from the pub (Wetherspoon’s) where we’d just had a pint of real ale billed as ‘rum and raisin’ from a brewery we’d never heard of.

We didn’t expect much but it was actually pretty tasty — a solid, fairly dark best bitter. Based on how we codified our thoughts on expectations back in January, it was merely enjoyable but unexpectedly so, and therefore a pleasant surprise.

As for the mention of hype, we did, unfortunately, have in mind Siren/Magic Rock/Beavertown Rule of Thirds. (We say ‘unfortunately’ because it has become the centre of some fractious debate between brewers and drinkers.) Back in October, it was trailed thus:

The Rule of Thirds takes 1/3 of each of our individual recipes and process’ & promises to bring together the best of each of our flagships and come up with something greater than the sum of the parts. Which is no small boast.

That kind of message — this beer will be even better than three of the best-loved beers in the country! — combined with restricted supply, and a pre-emptive buzz on social media from bars and beer geeks, meant that the actual taste of the beer could surely never be as good as the idea of drinking it. We had a bottle and found it enjoyable, but perhaps expected delightful, if not instant top ten.

Here’s a longer quote from our January post:

On the flipside, there are breweries and beers surrounded by so much hype that they can only be a disappointment, even if the product itself is, objectively speaking, in the green zone on our scale. For example, if we’re promised a ‘metric fuck-ton’ of hops but only get a 0.65 fuck-tons, we might feel let down, even if that’s actually more than enough.

In other words, as managerial types are wont to say around the bird-table meeting zone, it can sometimes be better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way round. Depending, that is, on whether you want to shift stock, or build a long-term reputation.

PS. Later this week, we’ll get some thoughts together on the hipster school of thought.

19 thoughts on “Under-Promise, Over-Deliver”

  1. “three of the best-loved beers in the country”

    How can you say this about the “flagships” of Beavertown, Siren and Magic Rock knowing full well only a vanishingly small percentage of people who drink beer in this country will have heard of the breweries, let alone the beers? Come to think of it I couldn’t tell you what their flagship beers are, and I buy and sell beer for a living.

    1. ‘Best-loved’ is suitably vague, isn’t it? Didn’t want to spend a whole paragraph footnoting and caveating, but hope people will know what we mean, for the purposes of this conversation.

  2. Jeff – think it was an example of marketing hyperbole, rather than B&B opinion.

    B&B – agree with under promise and over (or at least consistently) deliver for long term growth. Look no further than the likes of Adnams, Dark Star, Oakham, Salopian, Fyne (off the top of my head) among many other notable medium sized breweries for how that’s done.

    Will be interesting to see how many of these ‘young upstarts’ achieve that scale and consistency for long term success.

  3. it’s fun to get excited about a beer though. i mean, the Mikkeller / Alesmith collaboration that’s coming up. HOLY SHIT!

  4. Never one to under promise, it will be interesting to see if/how Brewdog adapt their marketing in the future, as the “we’re so rebellious we use lots of hops” schtick becomes less of a differential for them. I quite like their beers but all their shouty bravado does get up my nose a bit.

  5. The obvious catch with “surprisingly good” is that more-or-less by definition you have to plough through quite a lot of “unsurprisingly poor” to get to it, though…

    The Adnams / Dark Star / Oakham thing is a bit different, I think. That’s more about having a smallish range of beers and not selling anything that isn’t basically pretty good rather than having an endless cavalcade of new releases that vary from mind-blowing to substandard. Both approaches have their merits but maybe the former is on the upturn at the moment, both in traddy and new-wavey circles?

  6. I don’t see the overhype so much as a source of a let down as a red flag violently waving. A friend and I once had a rule: when someone says “actually” the statement that follows will conceal a lie. From big craft to needy nano, the same applies. The beer will stand on its own if left alone. If it needs boostering oaths and song and dance, well, it has already failed.

    1. There’s an old proverb, “a good wine needs no bush” – bushes being, apparently, what tavern owners used to use in lieu of a sign. The same idea’s expressed in the line “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” (originated by Ralph Waldo Emerson apparently). Never mind the hype – a good enough product will succeed whether you shout about it or not.

      I think a big part of the hipster mentality – and (at least in Britain) the ‘craft beer’ mentality – has to do with the embrace of hype. There’s a mindset which says that shouting about how great you are isn’t actually a separate activity – which may or may not be justifiable, honest etc – but is somehow part of the job description of being a (hip, radical, craft) brewer. And there’s an associated assumption, which is that hipster hype somehow isn’t hype at all – it’s just people independently and sincerely evaluating some beers as being the best (without the need of advertising) and beating a path to their door. And then shouting about it.

      It’s a circle of hype, really, involving drinkers as well as brewers – all of whom agree not to think of it as hype.

      The good beer that needs no bush sure as hell isn’t produced by BD – or Magic Rock, or Siren. Adnam’s, now…

      1. Much as I like Adnams, a cynic might say that you also don’t need a bush if you’ve got a well established national brand, a tied estate of 70 odd pubs and the capacity to supply major national distributors, pubcos and supermarkets.

        1. Chicken and egg, though. They didn’t build that brand identity – or that production capacity – by shouting a lot and building a noisy fanbase.

          1. No, their expensive national marketing campaigns tend to be a bit more subtle than that, because they’re going for a different approach to a different market.

            Conversely, Siren and Magic Rock have generally succeeded in building a “noisy fanbase” where many similar breweries haven’t because they back up the “shouting” (and fwiw, I come into contact with Adnams’ marketing a lot more often than I do with anything coming directly from “hipster craft” breweries) with a habit of producing extremely nice beer.

  7. I’m a big fan of Siren, tbh (and would still be a big fan of Magic Rock if they’d only turn away from the primrose path of kegging – I just don’t get it). Certainly nothing wrong with the quality of the beer either of them are producing.

    But my point about Adnams is that a large part of the reason why they’re a big deal in 2014 is that they were just sort of there in 1994, not to mention 1974, 1954 and 1934. They built the base they’re starting from by just making good beer, without much of an image or much in the way of marketing.

    Ticklish question, but can you think of any new brewer who’s tried to go down the HEY! WOW! LET’S MAKE THIS VIRAL! route and failed because the beer quality didn’t back it up?

      1. I did think of saying “apart from Brewmeister” – they surely have no credibility left to lose (or, more to the point, never had any credibility to lose in the first place). And if they’re still going, I think we can score one for HEY, WOW! and nil for Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    1. a) I never held them up as a “marketing-free brewery”; my point was that they got where they are now by selling good beer without much fanfare, and by doing that for long enough to establish a reputation – on the back of which they could then market themselves.
      b) But, since you mention it, I’m struggling to think of anything I’d describe as “Adnams marketing”. Their PR people mailed me when they launched GS & subsequently sent me a bottle, which was nice. But if I weren’t a blogger I don’t know where I would have seen the name Adnams, other than on the shelf in Sainsburys (alongside Badger, BrewDog, Shepherd Neame, Harbour, Marstons, Ridgeway, Guinness, etc, etc).

      1. Phil — Adnams’ reputation has been up and down, though. There was a longish period in the 70s-80s where their beer was thought to have gone right downhill. Also, as we mentioned here the other week (para 3) their survival through the Big Six period is generally put down to their being insulated from changes in the market by geographical remoteness.

        A lot of their marketing will be ‘business-to-business’ but they also have a large in-house PR team which, we suspect, is focused on coverage in upmarket country living magazines rather than old-fashioned advertising.

        But, when we lived in London, there were a couple of years where they blanketed pubs with these gorgeously designed beer mats, leaflets and posters. Last time I was there, a mate of mine turned up at the pub with an Adnams’ Ghost Ship branded Oyster Card wallet, a set of stickers and loads of other bumph they were handing out at around the city. They might not drive around in a tank, but projecting a ghostly ship on to buildings is similar ‘woo-hoo let’s go viral’-style marketing, and arguably much slicker.

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