How Brands Are Tapping Into Beer Culture Through Brewery Collaborations 

Brands including Dunkin', IHOP and Planters are in on the trend

Some branded brews are stunts; others are seasonal collaborations that could have staying power. Sources: IHOP, Dunkin’ Donuts, Planters, Getty Images

If the craft beer revolution has taught brands anything, it’s that beer drinkers love a good pint.

An increasing array of brands are tapping into craft beer through collaborations with independent breweries, allowing them to reach new audiences and gain media attention with unexpected collaborations.

It’s unclear when the trend started, but Pennsylvania Tuxedo, a pale ale with spruce tips brewed by Delaware craft beer pioneers Dogfish Head in collaboration with outdoor clothing company Woolrich, and Stanley Park Brewing’s Sunset Strawberry Wit for apparel brand Lululemon are two earlier examples, both dating back to 2014. There’s been an explosion of collaborations in 2018, with L.L. Bean, Carvel, Dunkin’ Donuts, IHOP and Planters teaming up with brewers for promotional beers.

“This is a trend that capitalizes on the collaborative spirit of craft brewing,” Brewers Association craft beer program director Julia Herz explained, as well as brewers’ tendency to experiment with new ingredients.

For IHOP, a brand with “hop” in its name, the opportunity proved irresistible, according to IHOP spokesperson Stephanie Peterson. The name wasn’t the only reason it was a good fit. A beer offered IHOP a way to stand out from a crowded pack of pumpkin-spiced offerings, and built off its expectation-flipping “IHOb” campaign this summer. In fact, Droga5 group creative director Scott Bell noted, during the teaser portion of “IHOb,” that many expressed a hope that the “b” stood for “beer.”

To bring “IHOPS” to life, IHOP partnered with Keegan Ales, a brewery known for its flagship milk stout, Mother’s Milk.

Craft beer drinkers are “a group of people that don’t just drink beer. They talk about beer,” Bell said. “We knew we had a built-in engine there to get conversations going online and then … bigger news outlets would also pick up that story.”

IHOP enlisted digital influencers to unveil the product with testimonials, first introducing it at the Bacon and Beer Classic in New York before releasing it at select bars around the city. IHOPS led to 330 million earned media impressions within the first few weeks of launch.

Another prominent national brand utilized an ingredient commonly associated with beer in an unexpected way.

“Craft beer is a booming market that plays perfectly with our target,” said Ashley Tople, marketing director at Kraft Heinz on the Planters brand, which partnered with Noon Whistle Brewing on Mr. IPA-Nut, adding, “For us, it was important we didn’t just put our name on a beer; we wanted to be active partners in making a great beer.”

Creative partner mcgarrybowen launched a Twitter-based “#BeerGoesNuts” campaign asking fans to help create the “nuttiest beer ad ever” to drive engagement.

“We want to reinforce that nuts and beer are the perfect pair,” Tople said, “making it a natural foray for Planters to enter the beer space.”

The beer, a limited release around the Chicago area, sold out.

Collaborations such as IHOPS and Mr. IPA-Nut are designed to be one-time, limited releases generating novelty interest. For brands that are ubiquitous but struggle to stay top of mind, like IHOP and Planters, such beers engage consumers in a unique way that generates discussion online and in media outlets.

Harpoon Brewery collaborated with Dunkin’ on a product that consumers actually purchase in stores. Dunkin’ Coffee Porter grew out of a relationship dating back 10 to 15 years, including small batch collaborations of a similar beer for conferences and events. Launched in October, Dunkin’ Coffee Porter is distributed throughout Harpoon’s network in the eastern U.S., with the scale of a “seasonal or year-round” release, which follows an earlier collaboration with Polar, pairing Harpoon’s unfiltered wheat beer UFO line with Polar’s Blueberry Lemonade Seltzer’ade. Harpoon vp, marketing Chris Bonacci said the collaborations “have rivaled our seasonal products in terms of overall sales.”

Collaborations offer access to a wider audience that “might be inspired to try a new beer from a new brewery they’ve never had if it’s one of these collaboration beers,” which “helps them get to know the flagship beers,” Herz explained.

For Westchester County brewery Captain Lawrence, that meant teaming up with Carvel for brewery-only release Fudgie the Beer.

“There’s a lot more people in the world that know Carvel than know Captain Lawrence, so it gives us the opportunity to introduce our beer and our brand to a wider audience,” Captain Lawrence owner Scott Vaccaro said.

There was a consensus among those interviewed that, even in the case of one-offs, an attention-seeking gimmick can’t be the only goal for a collaboration.

“Don’t just grab at something because it has a cool name,” Vaccaro said. “It has to make sense.”

Time will tell whether the trend has staying power, but for now brands remain enthusiastic.

“As long as people are willing to talk about it, brands will keep doing it,” Bell said. “Why not? Who doesn’t want a beer with your brand on it?”

This story first appeared in the November 26, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.