Updating the Beer Story

I’m a child of the 1970’s. I know, because sometime during that decade, I started collecting things. Lots of things. Things my wife is still trying to convince me to get rid of, like Matchbox Cars.

It was also the decade I started to get more interested in my Dad’s beer can and bottle collection. I bring my collecting “problem” up because I’m not the only one who’s got one.

In the 1970’s, beer ruled the day and spirits were something you blew the dust off of deep in the basement. Apparently, the major brewers liked this story, because they decided that it was enough, that their stories of being the best brands in the world were all they needed. So their collecting problem is that they stopped collecting all of the great stories people had about consuming their brands.

We’re talking almost four decades of consumers and customers experiencing these brands; plenty of stories and plenty of learning. No one collected them, so we’re seeing the same ones again and again, just as if the major brewers’ offerings had become carbonated soft drinks.

We’re seeing the results now. Beer is in trouble. Yes, crafts and imports are up. But that’s the exception that proves the rule. Those products have stories, they have artful labels and smart names and unfamiliar brewing styles. They speak of foreign lands. They tell stories, and they’re getting business.

You can’t control younger drinkers’ development of a sophisticated palate. Blame cable. Blame the Food Network. But also blame the major brewers for not catching on. They need better ads that resonate for more than the 30 seconds they’re on the air. They need better promotions that don’t look like something a sixyear- old would be interested in if you removed alcohol from it.

So what do you do as a retailer? First, realize the big brewers need to move past cutesy catchphrases – and you have no control over when they will do that. The only thing you can control is your real estate. But believe me, you can be your own Bob Hope in your retail environment.

I’ve found that people become loyal fans of something either because they’ve found a way that it complements their lives, or they find it convenient. For example, consumers probably aren’t drinking (insert archetypical 400-calorie stout here) on a beach in 100-degree weather, but maybe college kids are drinking it at slopeside pubs to cut the spiciness of their 25-cent wings and to fill up on carbs. If this is the case, you’ve just identified a brand story; an honest, grassroots, consumer-generated story that can place a brand you carry in a specialized light. This is information you can use as a platform for several different retail promotions which support this story and, in turn, supports the fans that created it.

So, how do you find the stories?

Walk the floor. You’ve been in the neighborhood for some time – ask people about the beer they buy. Ask them about time and place. Ask them about their favorite brand. Ask them if they remember their first beer. Then, imagine your beer cooler is a meat counter, and act just like the butcher would. He or she presents the meat, chicken, fish, in the way it makes them most sense for the meal. The food is part of the butcher’s story. The beer should be part of yours.

The upcoming generation’s ample palate should only encourage retailers. It’s not so much that they’re looking solely toward imports as it is that they like variety; and this preference includes looking for different reasons to tie in brands, big and small, with certain occasions, activities and people. Maybe there isn’t one big story anymore, but you can learn a lot of smaller ones.

Stories that are interesting, relevant and authentic are the type of stories that sell. Beer stories are very different than soda pop stories. Bring them to life. Unlike soft drink consumption, beer consumption is predominantly social. People sit around beer as they do around a campfire. By building a mental file of stories, you’ll be able to personalize and distinguish brands for your shoppers. And it just might help your store create the type of success stories that the big brewers are missing.

Darrell Jursa is the founder of Liquid Intelligence, an influencer/word-of-mouth marketing agency for the beverage business. The company specializes in helping beverage companies grow profitability through new product and service development, branding and effective marketing strategies.