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Generalisations about beer culture marketing

Why people choose to buy beer brands

Consciously or otherwise, people take into account all sorts of factors when choosing which beer brands to buy – and when it comes to indie/local status, there’s plenty of ground between ‘I don’t care’ and ‘I would die before buying from a multinational’.

In the pub on Friday night, we were amused to hear two lads discussing Beavertown at the bar.

“Ah, they’ve got Neck Oil!”

“Tell you what, you see that everywhere these days.”

“They’ve done really well for a small independent brewery, haven’t they?”

A large chunk of Beavertown is, of course, owned by Heineken, which is why it can afford to have ads on the side of every bus in Britain and now turns up in all sorts of unlikely places.

Do we think these lads would have ordered something else if they’d known about Beavertown’s ownership? Probably not.

Do we think they’d have been furious or felt betrayed? Again, probably not. But we bet they’d have looked a bit crestfallen and said, “Oh.”

We say that because we’ve had this conversation with friends and colleagues, with regard to both Beavertown and Camden. These are people who like beer and are conscious of their choices but not, it’s fair to say, obsessed with it.

To generalise about their response, we’d say (a) mildly disappointed and (b) a bit embarrassed not to have known already – a sense of having been tricked by sneaky marketing.

Without conducting a full-on survey (tempting) we can’t say with any certainty how people weight different factors when buying beer. We reckon, though, that for most people, it’s something like this:

1. Want a lager or IPA.
2. Want the best available version.
3. Like the brand.

If you break down ‘liking the brand’ you might find all sorts of other stuff going on, including a preference for independent and/or local.

When you learn that a beer isn’t independent/local, it might stop you buying it – but you’ll probably still want the best IPA or lager on offer in the pub you’re at.

That’s certainly how it goes for us.

But if there’s a choice of another beer that’s also in the right style, and tastes decent, but is also indie/local, you might choose that instead. In fact, you might even be willing to compromise a bit on the quality. It’s a matter of preference.

As we’ve said before, if multinational brewers didn’t think independent/local appealed to consumers, they wouldn’t keep buying independent/local breweries and would proudly declare their ownership on the packaging.

7 replies on “Why people choose to buy beer brands”

Bit less disingenuous than inventing entire fake ‘craft’ beer brands I suppose.

Not picking on them particularly – other big breweries do it – but (now Carlsberg-)Marston’s happens to have sprung to mind first. Back around 2015-16 it launched Revisionist. From the way promoted in the early days one might have got the impression it was started up by a couple of guys in a garage somewhere. And its Facebook page still appears to avoid giving any indication anywhere of any connection to Marston’s – though the taps and bottle labels do carry an acknowledgement in small lettering they’re by Marston’s. Can make no comment on the quality as never drunk any of the range. Some may be good for all I know; but don’t like the idea of being taken for a fool as a consumer by purposeful concealment.

Then DE14 (around 2018?) popped up. Did buy a couple of cans of those. Nowhere on the labelling was there any indication at all who was brewing them. Took a lot of searching (at that time) around the net to track down was another Marston’s front. Both examples tried were (IMO) drinkable but poorly constructed low quality beers.

Have immediate suspicion of products where the producer attempts to hide their identity. If they don’t believe in their own product why should I?

On the “purposeful concealment” issue, if you were Marston’s and you commissioned a market researcher to find out what drinkers associate with the Marston’s name, and the results came back that Marston’s is perceived as a company that makes twiggy brown bitter for old men — surely it’s fair game if you decide to downplay or remove the Marston’s name on a product you’re pitching at a younger market? You seem to be implying that if a brand has gained a narrow set of associations that the owner should be condemned to wear that as a sign around the neck of its products for all time.

I think it’s odd that if someone is vegetarian we expect them to make their own enquiries about whether a product suits them or not, when there’s no information provided either way. We wouldn’t be sympathetic when they found they had eaten meat if they didn’t ask “does this have meat in it?” You should have checked, mate. Yet for some reason a drinker who prefers beer from small and independent breweries should not be obliged to find out if their particular lifestyle choice is being catered for — it must be spelled out to them because they’re seemingly incapable of doing their own research and just blithely assume everything’s kosher, so to speak.

What’s generally recognised as ‘craft beer’ in the UK is overwhelmingly dominated by a few multinationals, in the form of Beavertown, Camden, Meantime and (gulp) Magic Rock. (In low-volume sales environments – theatre bars, licensed cafes &c – ‘craft beer’ has had a particularly pyrrhic victory: lots of it about, but it’s very unlikely to be anything outside that short list plus BrewDog.) They all look the part and they all do ‘craft’ types of beer; they just aren’t independent. Which, ironically, means they wouldn’t qualify as craft breweries under the American definition, which is where this whole thing started.

The odd thing is that if you look at US ‘craft’, contemporary British ‘craft’ and ‘real ale’ as three distinct sociocultural phenomena (and why not), it’s only the first of them that makes a big deal of ownership/independence. That said, I think CAMRA’s origins gave it a very healthy suspicion of big breweries: there’s no reason why they shouldn’t produce good beer and carry on doing so indefinitely, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that they won’t. (Which is another reason why punters might swerve Beavertown et al if they knew they weren’t independents any more: the beers might still be good, but ‘still’ is the operative word -ithey’re on borrowed time.)

My own starting assumption is that as soon as a brewery’s been bought out both it and its beers effectively cease to exist – what the new owner has bought is a brand, and whether the beer attached to that brand continues to be any good is entirely up to them (and see above re: healthy suspicion). I still drink Magic Rock, mind you.

“The odd thing is that if you look at US ‘craft’, contemporary British ‘craft’ and ‘real ale’ as three distinct sociocultural phenomena (and why not), it’s only the first of them that makes a big deal of ownership/independence. That said, I think CAMRA’s origins gave it a very healthy suspicion of big breweries: there’s no reason why they shouldn’t produce good beer and carry on doing so indefinitely, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that they won’t.”

Great point. I would add: when researching the sociocultural phenomenon of UK craft drinkers in 2013, part of that movement seemed to be a reaction against CAMRA’s attempt to impose a definition on “good beer”. As such, there seemed to emerge a principled reluctance to allow craft beer or craft breweries to be officially defined in any shape or form (although people took some pleasure in informally debating the definition of ‘craft’ as part of the general discourse, of course). Who knows whether an industry-standard definition would have made any difference to the development of the UK craft beer sector, but it’s interesting that it was never seriously pursued.

Don’t have enough knowledge how the US debate was fought out in detail, but it’s such a vast market my understanding is it settled on 6 million barrels of production (plus some recognition of % corporation ownership) as the cut off point – which would be an absolutely meaningless differentiation over here.

So, couldn’t we have just scaled that volume down?

But then we have the aspect of Cask beer, which despite the odd brewery over there dabbling, is irrelevant in the US market. Cask beer is, potentially, bang on the emotional perception of ‘craft’.

This is where think CAMRA lost the plot. It was so tied to its (very worthy and commendable decades old) battle for Cask vs Keg. It thus completely missed (or simply refused to see) what was happening out in the beer world – until perhaps now (many still kicking & screaming), but a decade too late. CAMRA is a powerful voice, and it could perhaps have made a difference. But by the time it began to realise/accept what was happening… the moment of any influence on outcomes had been lost.

So now ‘craft’ here in the UK is what any brewer, from the tiniest nano to the largest multi-national global corporation, merely chooses to stick on its UK marketing label.

It was pursued. Lots of people spent an inordinate amount of time pursuing it, and poor old Pete Brown is still desperately chasing after it today. The reason nothing came of the pursuit was that they were trying to square a circle. The short-lived lash-up of Brodog, Camden and Magic Rock tried, but the only criterion they could find that included them and their pals, but excluded all those they wanted to exclude, was the non-use of high-gravity brewing. And that is an even weirder fetish to put on your banner than cask-conditioning.

It would be very difficult to apply a strict definition for craft beer; whereas CAMRA were fighting for a particular type of product at a particular time, when that was product was under threat. For CAMRA to morph into some sort of assessor of quality for all types of beer, or as some arbiter of brand value, would be to take into a completely different area. It just happens to be that they coined the “Good Beer” phrase for their famous pub guide. Real ale though can be defined quite well, given it’s distinctive method of production. Craft beer is a more marketing orientated term but fans of Craft could always form their own organisation if they so wished, however CAMRA was created in response to a threat, not as necessarily just an arbiter of pure quality, though of course many of the early members did feel that real ale was better in quality too, which then it often was. As stated above some big brands were seen as virtuous at the time as they still produced and promoted real ale despite being big firms, such as Fullers. The point was that real ale in general was in decline and was being pushed further into decline by less quality orientated brewers, and indeed historical brands, together with products, associations with place and buildings, were often lost. This was part of an age when big was being celebrated; horizontal integration, big plant, big factories, big housing estates, television adverts for big brands, heritage was a bit of out of fashion and traditional beer came to be seen as part of a country in decline; big brands, and lager in particular, was modern. A small brand did not have the value it might have today, whether it is beer or any other food product. If anything “Craft Beer” is in the opposite position, it is on the rise. If any campaigning was needed it would probably be more about promoting the best quality products rather than strolling through a town centre with a coffin. Though look at the positive, at least the big boys are interested in offering something and experimenting a bit; if the public are fooled well that there is own lookout! We are all adults after all.

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