Big Beer Brands Are Fooling Us With Their Crafty Looks

Indie brewers want transparency

In all this, the macrobreweries walk a tightrope, according to Allen Adamson, managing director at brand consultancy Landor Associates. On the one hand, if a craft brand is seen as part of a larger brewer, that could “undermine the perception that the beer is special and disrupt the process of discovery,” he says. And yet, trying to mask a brand’s ties to big beer could well backfire if the consumer perceives the strategy as an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of beer lovers.

“Being provocative, witty and irreverent plays well in the craft marketplace—being secretive doesn’t,” notes Brian Hankin, partner at Prophet, a strategic marketing firm. A craft brewer doesn’t have to be small, “but it must be transparent because of social media and because that’s what millennials value,” Hankin says.

For an up close and personal look at how the craft of craft beers works, one can stop by the Lagunitas Brewing facility on almost any day of the week. With brands like Censored and Lagunitas Sucks, the Petaluma, Calif.-based brewer comes off like some wacky fringe player, but it’s actually one of the largest and fastest growing craft breweries in the U.S.

Founded two decades ago in the sleepy village of Lagunitas, near San Francisco, the company hit sales of $61 million in 2012, almost double that of just two years earlier. This year, sales are up 68 percent versus last. Lagunitas’ main facility is expanding this year to handle almost 600,000 barrels. And another facility is being planned in a former steelworks in Chicago to initially produce another 200,000 barrels a year. In other words, times are good for Lagunitas.

The company makes its beer in a boring, suburban business park that includes an outdoor “beer sanctuary” which attracts upwards of 1,000 beer fans on weekends. On a recent, warm Sunday afternoon, it’s standing room only in the sanctuary, as musicians play bluegrass under the main tent and waitresses hoisting platters of nachos sprint between packs of intense (and, for the most part, male) beer nerds and more relaxed boomers.

A twentysomething couple who share their table with us weigh in on which Lagunitas variety is best (she likes less hops, he likes more) while they imbibe and munch on free peanuts. They live a few hours’ drive away but always stop by when they’re in the area for the music and brew. Money is tight, the man explains, “and for five or six dollars, we’d rather drink really good beer than mediocre wine.”

“No matter how big we are, our brand will always be grassroots,” says Todd Stevenson, Lagunitas COO. It’s Monday morning and we’re sitting at his tidy desk in offices that are reminiscent of an oversized dorm room. A well-used kitchen counter shares the space with overflowing bulletin boards, and a dog lounges between two desks. “The identity and the attitude of the brewery are the important parts of the brand,” says Stevenson. “The functional part is how good our beer tastes. That taste part is expected—it’s the cost of entry in the craft category.”

Stevenson believes traditional marketing goes against what his consumer base expects. “People want to know who we really are, what our philosophy truly is,” he says. “As we get bigger, our message will not be contrived to present what we think consumers want.”

So, Lagunitas’ marketing approach is centered around those weekend get-togethers and tours of the brewery. It also includes sponsorship of events in the community and an annual camping trip for staffers, retailers and the most devoted customers. Besides the offbeat names of its beers, the brand expresses its personality via point-of-sale displays, blogs and packaging.

Founder Tony Magee is responsible for the unconventional labels for which Lagunitas is famous. (Magee reads the label for Censored Copper Ale: “Originally called the Kronik, this beer was censored by the federal label-approving agency, claiming the word had some sort of marijuana reference. We slapped a ‘Censored’ sticker on it as a joke and they accepted it. Whatever.”)

Magee and Stevenson have confidence that fans of craft beers are savvy enough to tell the large brewers’ boutique-label brands from the real deal. “In beer culture, people talk,” says Magee. “Distributors talk to retailers, who talk to consumers about who owns what. What will help us in the long run is that essentially we are not in the same business as the multinational brewers. We are selling community, and they are selling liquid.”

Continue to next page →

Adweek Blog Network