Big Beer Brands Are Fooling Us With Their Crafty Looks

Indie brewers want transparency

Other craft brewers, meanwhile, are fed up with the megabreweries trying to ape their style. In a gutsy move, the Brewers Association, a trade group of around 1,500 independent U.S. brewers, is demanding that big brewers put their names on the packaging and promotions of their craft brands, particularly Shock Top and Blue Moon.

“Large multinational brewers blur the lines between their craft-like beers and true craft beers from small and independent brewers,” says the association in a statement. “We call for information to be clearly presented to allow beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer.”

That statement hit newspaper op-ed pages, beer blogs and social media in December and since then has generated scores of media stories. The hashtag for the campaign: #craftvscrafty.

But do beer drinkers really care who owns the brewery that makes their favorite ale, pilsner or stout?

“People want to know if they are supporting large brewing companies or the brewer down the street,” argues Julia Herz, program director of the Brewers Association. “Our members say that in stores and restaurants, people talk about craft beers when they are referring to beers that not owned by independent brewers.”

A Mintel research report in January found that fully half of craft beer devotees are interested in locally made beer, while 25 percent are interested in purchasing craft beer only where it’s brewed.

The large brewers say hogwash, maintaining that most consumers care only about how a beer tastes, not about who owns the brewery. They point to other product categories like automobiles, in which a brand like Audi doesn’t make reference in promotions to the fact that it is owned by Volkswagen.

“Our craft beers need separate identities in order to fulfill what the brand promise means to consumers,” says Paul Chibe, U.S. CMO for Anheuser-Busch. “We are marketing as a house of individual brands.”

At SABMiller, Libby Mura, marketing director of MillerCoors’ craft brands, offers that “the name on the label does not define the beer,” adding that it’s the smaller craft brewers—rather than consumers—who seem to be pushing for more transparency.

MillerCoors tried putting “Crafted by Coors Master Brewers” in small print on cans of its new brand Third Shift during its test rollout this past January. But the Coors name ultimately was nixed, and the labeling changed to indicate the brand is brewed by “Band of Brewers.” Third Shift hit stores nationwide in February, backed by ads via TV, billboards, magazines and digital media.

One might wonder, why not take advantage of the well-established Coors brand name? “We want to focus on the rich story of the new brand,” says David Kroll, innovations vp of MillerCoors. “People can uncover the association to MillerCoors as part of their discovery about the new brand. It’s all about the liquid, after all.”

Straddling the fence in the fight over transparency is Widmer Brothers Brewing (whose varieties include Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout and Drop Top Amber Ale) and its sister craft brewers Redhook Ale Brewery and the Kona Brewing Co., all based in the craft-crazy town of Portland, Ore. A-B InBev owns 32 percent of those brands’ parent, Craft Brew Alliance, but is mentioned on none of their packaging or in any of their promotions.

The Brewers Association demands that the CBA brands reveal “in some way” that A-B is part owner—something Andrew Thomas, CBA’s president of commercial operations and a former Heineken executive, says almost makes him laugh. “Our distribution partnership is not important to people and is increasingly so,” he contends.

Ownership and coming clean about it may be in dispute—but what isn’t is that when it comes to beer, distribution is everything.

A-B InBev and other large companies benefit from enormous global distribution networks that tend to squeeze out craft brewers for desirable shelf space at retail chains. The smaller brewers believe that if more consumers seek out independent craft brands, more retailers will stock them.

Says Herz of the Brewers Association: “We hope informed beer lovers will drive more marketplace diversity.”

That is already starting to happen. Consumer demand for crafts is leading to more availability and shelf space at convenience stores, hotel chains and grocery stores, say industry insiders. Choice Hotels, for example, has started requiring that all its Cambria Suites locations offer at least two varieties of local craft beers because of customer demand, according to a rep for the chain.

The bigger the craft brands become, the more it stokes business for the indies—and potentially for big beer.

A-B CMO Chibe is optimistic. “If people do the work to find out that we own these craft brands, God bless ’em,” he says. “We have nothing to hide. Our reputation is strong for quality, for efficiency and for being green. The fact that Shock Top is Anheuser-Busch is no problem.” 

Adweek Blog Network