In the craft beer scene, local is going large. Whether at restaurants, food pairings or the garage fridge, customers are looking for local flavor and local companies to support. “People are starting to realize that there are more than just a couple of beer makers out there,” says Ryan Libby, marketing director and co-founder of Minneapolis-based 612 Brew.
This makes connecting these customers with the brand of a local brewer imperative. While national companies have the marketing dollars and reach, local companies have some inherent, built-in advantages of their own, says Brian Hoffman, co-founder of Minneapolis- based Fulton Brew. “Our ability to differentiate ourselves as a brand is easier to do at a local city or state level, than at a national one.”
What are some of those differences? We spoke to brewers about the right mix of ingredients needed to make a successful, local brand.
If you happen to be one of the 2,000-plus people each week who tour and sample products at Atlanta-based SweetWater Brewery, there’s a good chance you’ll bump into one of the company’s brand makers. It didn’t come from an outside source, like a marketing/advertising agency or think tank investment group.
Steve Farace, director of marketing for SweetWater Brewery, says that the brand is essentially an extension of the people who work at the brewery. “It’s so true to the people who work here. We can be responsive, be small, be fun and be open. People can walk in the door, and in two seconds they can see the folks who are making the beer and running the show. They can have conversations with us. They can come to the tours.
“Half of us are down there ourselves, sampling the beer regularly,” Farace continues, “That kind of openness and access to us as people is great, because there is a face to go with the brand. It’s not just some brand that people don’t know who is making the beer. For most people who want to know, it’s pretty easy to find out who we are, and come talk to us about it.”
Fulton Brew’s Hoffman says a face-to-face presence is important in the marketplace. “While we continue to have more and more accounts, and can’t be everywhere, we take the time to set up events a few times a month, and when we do an event, we do the event ourselves, rather than sending outside sales reps or beer girls. For one, this is one of the best parts of the job: getting out to a bar, having a few and talking about beer. Also, this helps continue to make the [four founders] a big part of the brand. We can tell the story ourselves, how we came up with the beers, why we did what we did to start the business, how we met, etc.”
Jeremy Ragonese, director of marketing for Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewing Co., says craft brewers in general are connecting with consumers on a personal level that the large multinational corporations can’t. “Simply by being smaller and having fewer resources, our brand is much more approachable and product-centric, and less about selling the idea of good times or a specific lifestyle through the use of national media. The more interactions or experiences we can share with a consumer, the better our chances in gaining their loyalty – our brand must resonate with them on an emotional level, and our tactics largely reflect that.”
What’s popular on the West or East Coast may not play well in the Midwest or the South. National companies are at a disadvantage, because there is such a wide range of pallets in different markets. They’re not able to be as specific in their product offerings or as flexible, should a local market change tastes.
“For us, we can make a ‘hoppier’ beer, and as the Minnesotan taste buds change, we can do something different,” Libby says. “We can take more risks. We can push the envelope. We can focus on individuals and not markets. Our placement within this market is great, because it’s a growing market in the Midwest. We can break it down to know who our consumer is, who is going to enjoy our beer.”
Even a perceived limitation – distribution – can work toward a local brewer’s favor. For example, because SweetWater doesn’t pasteurize its beer, it has a shorter shelf life than the national labels, which can ship their product across the country or ocean. But pasteurizing beer also leads to a loss in flavor, something SweetWater won’t compromise. “We’re a small brewery and our beers are packed with flavor,” Farace says. “We want that fresh beer to come across. When people open up a bottle or get a draft, we want that fresh taste that we know and love ourselves here at the brewery. We want that to be the experience folks have, regardless of where they have the beer.”
A face-to-face presence is important in the marketplace.Brian Hoffman, Co-founder, Fulton Brew
The success of a craft brewery comes down to the beer, and whether its taste catches on with consumers, Hoffman says. Quality matters. “If the beer isn’t good, you will have a hard time creating a fan base.”
It all starts and ends with the product, Farace says. “When you’ve got a great product, you put as much time and energy into continually making it as great as you possibly can. Then the rest of the stuff can take care of itself. Obviously, good design and good local partnerships are great. People like supporting what is in their backyard, regardless of whether you make beer or ground beef or widgets. People are looking to support the local. But local doesn’t always mean good, so if you’re products are not good, you can be local all day long, but it’s not going to help.”