Craft Beer Marketing Series - A Case Study in Design Drinking (Thinking)

As I wrote this, the Brewer's Association announced that we had surpassed 4000 breweries in the United States. It's a great day. Back to your regularly scheduled program...

We'd like to think that grabbing a beer is as easy as bellying up to the bar and ordering one, and for the most part, that holds true. Beer-drinking is, on balance, a passive activity. Generally, it doesn't require too much thought.

Filling up pony kegs at Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company in Kiln, Mississippi

Filling up pony kegs at Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company in Kiln, Mississippi

But behind the scenes, sitting in a keg somewhere at the back of the bar, is an entire story in great design waiting for you. It's a story based on trial and error. It's a story based on a fierce love of great beer. It's actually quite complicated, and now that the modern beer drinker is more demanding than ever in their approach to great beer (as they should be), they've set a high bar for brewers to hit, both for the liquid itself and the narrative that got it there.

Rewinding this dialogue for a second, I want to explain a concept called Design Thinking, which embodies a comprehensive approach to the creation of new things and new processes. Design, generally speaking, is a critically important part of the product itself. Design turns complexity into pleasure, and helps folks make sense of a complicated, nuanced world. You see great design every day and you take it for granted, which is often times the entire point. It appeals to your sentience and it's just...nice. It's a deliberate practice, and it takes an enormous amount of energy, and the right framework, to execute properly. 

Design Thinking, more specifically, is a set of principles that should help to define the creative process.

  1. Empathy with the end-user or consumer.
  2. A disciplined proto-typing approach.
  3. A tolerance for iteration and failure.

I love the idea of applying these principles to the creation, or introduction, of something new in the beer industry. Breweries should be cognizant of how their products are introduced, what that means for the consumer, and how the story resonates when it's done being told. This concept can be applied to a variety of decisions, including branding, labels, beer, and external communication with the other parts of the supply chain they deal with on a daily basis, namely their distributors and retailers.

Silver City Brewing, which you'll see coming up on The Brew Enthusiast, is a great example of an entrenched business who keep the user experience fresh (literally) while continuing to iterate on their products and go-to-market strategies. As a brewery on the Kitsap Penninsula (western side of the Puget Sound....yes there are people there), they are acutely aware of their market in western Washington State. They've been brewing beer since 1996, and have garnered an admirable number of awards since then, almost always based on the quality and freshness of their beer, along with their innovative approach to new styles and flavors. They know what their customers want and have built a brewpub and production brewery that mirrors this idea. Their labels and designs are freshly modern and energetic, and their neighborhood involvement is prolific, bolstering an already solid reputation as a community business that cares. As you'll see, they're also willing to crack a few eggs in order to cook the omelette. It's authentic, bold, and progressive.

Design thinking can work to build value in all areas of business. Back when I worked for Magic Hat, my day was spent out in trade with my best accounts, educating them on our portfolio and running festivals to support the brand. I was also managing a network of wholesalers (which was almost a full-time job by itself) and I was often rethinking our communication strategy with them. We saw them as a valuable partner, but often times their ability to engage with a new brand or beer fell short. Their communication with my favorite accounts was poor and undetailed, leaving the brunt of the work on my shoulders to support the beer out in the market. This was part of my job...but was there a better way to get distributors on board with a new marketing initiative? What if we built a series of follow up conversations into the the launch? What if we knew, like a class you took in college, that the real learning took place at home? How could we build a more thorough experience for their sales team so that they actually understood, and took to heart, what we were trying to accomplish? It's a big question that amounts to a relatively small win, but it's the sort of approach needed to engage with and stand out to the modern beer drinker.

A tolerance for failure is the hallmark of a great craft brewery. Rebalancing a portfolio, relaunching a beer, or iterating on a recipe that's getting stale are all difficult activities, but long term value can be realized when you build this idea into your core competency. Stone Brewing Company constantly refreshes its portfolio, often screwing around with recipes that folks have come to love. Stone is a large, well established brewery with a dedicated following, but even they know what it takes to be consistently relevant in such a busy American market.

These aren't perfect analogs, but great design doesn't just mean a clever beer label and some brash branding. Design is an approach and a methodology, and the more we think about it, the more we'll realize how important the whole story, and all its players, have become. 

- Chris