The importance of crafting a story

Craft Storytelling

People want to hear stories AND drink great beer

I’ve been lucky over the past few months to visit a lot of excellent breweries and distilleries around the country.  Some big ones, some tiny ones, a few that have been around for over a decade and several that have yet to celebrate their first birthday.  Every one of them is doing well, which is great news.  The market for smaller, independent drinks makers is moving in the right direction for them; for example the Brewers Association reporting an acceleration in the growth rate of the craft beer segment from 17% in 2013 to 18% in 2014.

But what will ensure their success in the future?  More drinkers are turning to “better” beer and spirits, so what can the makers of these drinks do to keep people coming back for more?

In my view, three things:

  1. Be authentic – which I’ve written about here.
  2. Keep improving their product until it’s as damn near perfect as it can be. Then improve it some more.
  3. Tell their story, and tell it well.

The first two of these should be what they’re already doing.  One means staying true to themselves and what they set out to do, and the other should be their number one focus every day.  If they’re not looking to make the best stuff they can for their customers they don’t deserve to succeed.

The third, the art of storytelling, doesn’t necessarily come easy to everyone.  But if you want to succeed in today’s market, you’d better start working on it.  A Mintel report from 2013 showed a staggering 45% of craft beer drinkers would choose a beer if they knew more about it, and 39% say they choose beers based on their personality as well as their taste.

Here are a few observations on how to get your message across – both in how you construct it and how you get it out there.  And as ever, these don’t just apply to craft – they work as well for established drinks producers.


Base everything on the truth

As the boy who cried wolf found out to his cost, people don’t like liars. While some of the best stories out there are fiction masquerading as fact, it’s not a good approach to make stuff up about your company or your products if your goal is to create loyal fans of your brand.  While out-right lying is illegal, you can be economical with the truth. But it is not advisable.

The craft beer community is particularly harsh on what it sees as inauthentic positioning or marketing.  The area that gets called out most often is big beer pretending to be little beer, aka crafty not craft.  As I’ve noted several times, I have no issue with Blue Moon or the other Tenth & Blake beers, nor with ABI buying Goose Island, 10 Barrel et al.  But that’s not to say a lot of beer drinkers out there share my perspective.

An example is Batch 19, a pre-prohibition style lager released by Coors in 2011 (a more innocent age for big brewers perhaps?), which was marketed with the ethos of “back when men were men and beer was beer”, as on the brand’s website.  What wasn’t mentioned was that it was the product of Coors Innovation Department.  This approach didn’t go down well with the craft blogger world, as illustrated by this post called simply “Big Beer, Big Lies“.

Another area that excites beer drinkers is beer brewed away from home – as with Beck’s in the USA.  Beck’s, at one time Germany’s biggest beer brand, is owned by ABI, and Beck’s sold in the States is brewed by ABI in St Louis MO.  I understand why they do this, and in fact support fresher beer; but suffice to say some people are disappointed when they discover Beck’s is made in America.  Or a little angry, such as the man who decided to sue ABI for misleading him when he found out.

The lesson here is to stay well away from blurring the truth when talking about your business, your brand or your product.

Use information as your foundation

Selling drinks has for some time been about branding.  When products are hard to differentiate physically – eg. the abundance of pilsner-style lagers in the global beer market – consumers need an emotional reason to choose one over the other, which is why we have TV commercials that have nothing to do with the beer/drinks they’re advertising.

The US drinks market is shifting away from the brand-as-differentiator model, as consumers want to know more about what they drink and who makes it.  This is traditionally how the market for wine has operated, and beer and spirits are now catching up.

For instance, here’s an interesting nugget you may not know: it is not legally necessary in the US to tell consumers the ABV of your beer.  But does that mean you shouldn’t do it?  Absolutely not – it’s something people are now looking out for.  Likewise people are interested in IBUs, the hop varietals used, how long beer has been aged, and its taste profile.  In spirits people want to know the base starch of a vodka, the mash bill of a whiskey or the botanicals used in a gin.

Drinkers today want facts to enable their decision-making, not just brands to make them feel good.  If you don’t present them people may feel you have something to hide, but more importantly you’re missing an opportunity to sell your product.  Outside of the mainstream, consumers want honest, informative branding and marketing.

Feature real people in your communications

craft beer pint draught

Drinks are about people.  There are few products in the world that are more social.  The allure of a fine glass of single malt whisky and a good book aside, by-and-large drinks are made for getting together.

Perhaps because of that, it behooves a drinks producer to talk about the people behind the product.  As mentioned above, 39% of craft beer drinkers choose a beer because of its personality, and beer brands tend to be reflections and extensions of the people who make them.

The craft beer world is defined by the personalities behind the breweries.  From Jim Koch to Greg Koch, every major craft brewery’s founder is a minor celebrity in the beer world, and getting to know them helps people connect to the beers they make.  (After I read Ken Grossman’s autobiography Beyond The Pale I was drinking only Sierra Nevada for weeks.)

For this reason, most every successful craft brewery and distillery will happily take every chance to tell you about their staff, from their founders to their cellarmen, from their brewers to your local sales rep.  I’d urge every brewery and distillery starting up to do the same.

Make it interesting

An old boss of mine used to start classes on brand management like this: “Tell me the difference between the following two sentences.  “Last night a man was found dead from bullet wounds in Brooklyn.” and “Following reports of a disturbance, the body of an unidentified man shot to death was discovered last night by a distraught local teacher near the East River in Brooklyn.””

Both say the same thing and contain roughly the same information, but one makes you want to find out more. This approach is the foundation of storytelling – putting your facts together and conveying them in a way that interests people.

The undisputed master of making his beers interesting is Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head.  It seems to me that nothing leaves the gates of Dogfish Head’s Delaware brewery without Sam having challenged his team to make it as interesting as possible.

Take the case of their excellent wheat beer, Namaste.  Many brewers would hit upon the recipe for a delicious, refreshing wheat beer, give it some eye-catching packaging and wax lyrical on the label about its ingredients and how good it tastes and get it out the door.  Not Mr Calagione.  While working on a lemon-grass infused wheat beer, he heard about 3 Fonteinen brewery in Belgium losing most of their fermenting beer due to an accident.  So he decided to devote the beer he was making (including some of its profits) to 3 Fonteinen brewery, hoping not only to give them some financial relief but to draw attention to them and have people try their beers.  Sam’s wife, who practices yoga, came up with the name Namaste, which means “the spirit in me recognizes and respects the spirit in you”, and which perfectly summarizes the beer’s support for a fellow brewer.

A great beer, but also a world class story.

(See Sam give a master class in making beer interesting, including the Namaste story, here.)

Ensure consistency to create familiarity

A good brand is a consistent brand.  A brand, after all, is a promise of the quality and personality of a product, so to be effective it must be reliable.  And trust builds over time.

For many a small company, the temptation, especially if you face financial pressure, is to get product out as quickly as possible and to make up the branding as you go along.  This is not something the wise entrepreneur succumbs to.  Your brand needs a roadmap, so make sure you have your story in place before you get going if possible.  Changes in course once you are in business – such as changing your name, your look and feel, or your logo – come at significant cost.  You will essentially burn the equity you have built up in your existing materials.

A brand’s look and feel can of course be tweaked over time, but it needs a clear and consistent direction.  My own favorite beer, Guinness, has changed its logo several times in its 257 year history, but the basics are always the same: black, gold, white, harp, Arthur Guinness’s signature.  This also applies to a brand’s tone of voice or even the style of the drinks it represents.  People need to believe the brands they like have firm foundations.

Waste no opportunity to spin a yarn

The most critical part of a story is its telling.  There are two ways for drinks businesses to look at this: getting the basics right, then being opportunistic.

The basics these days are packaging and website.  These are your most permanent presence: standing out to and informing the drinker when she picks your brand up in a liquor store, and reinforcing those impressions when she Googles you on her iPhone.  I’ll be provocative and say that even with the best beer in the world, you will not succeed unless you have a great looking pack (and/or tap handle) and a beautiful, well-structured website.  These two media must contain the basics of your story, and they must communicate them fluently and with compulsion.

The more opportunistic bits are the more transient pieces of your marketing mix.  If you have big budgets, this means advertising.  Whether you have big budgets or not, this means your social media presence, your press releases, your blog, your merchandise and – here’s the tricky one – the things you and your employees say out loud.  No drinks manufacturer should waste any chance to get a good story into the public domain.

Oh, and one more that’s critical in my view: your business needs a home, and that home needs to tell your story at every little opportunity.  For most drinks makers this means a brewery or a distillery.  The place the stuff is made that is (or should be) open to the public.

Do not underestimate the power of an evangelist for your business, and the most effective way to convert people to evangelism is to welcome them into your home with open arms and tell them a good tale.

Iphone photos 302

The tap tower at Creature Comforts Brewing Co, Athens GA.



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