Mention “marketing” and “beer” to the average beer drinker, and the first thing to come to mind is probably Super Bowl commercials. Clydesdales. Talking dogs and frogs. Maybe the occasional big-budget historical epic.
Small, independent craft brewers don’t have Super Bowl commercial cash. But then again, their most loyal customers aren’t average beer drinkers.
“The beer geeks, they get in pretty deep,” says Karen Hamilton, director of communications for California-based brewer Lagunitas Brewing Co., a company that straddles the line between craft and corporate (more on that later). “They want to know ingredients. They want to know the ABV, the IBU, the style, the process—all of those things.”
ABV is alcohol by volume, in case you’re stumped by the acronym stew. IBU is international bitterness units. Add them to the long list of in-the-know aspects of craft brewing, from hops schedules to barrel types, for a heady brew of information that appeals to a hardcore audience.
That hardcore audience—along with more casual drinkers who develop a taste for something that has more of an actual taste—represents a growing market, too.
The Brewers Association estimates the craft beer market was worth $23.5 billion as of 2016. That’s a market made up of 5,000-plus small to medium breweries, none of which are backed by Anheuser-Busch levels of money.
Do they need it, though? “The smart breweries, the ones we like to partner with, really embrace storytelling,” says Alan Moreno, co-founder of Plank Road Tap Room in Elgin, Illinois, with wife (and—full disclosure—Imagination project manager) Breanne Moreno. “They put themselves and their thoughts out there on Instagram. They even provide a peek into their personal lives once in a while.”
In other words, craft brewers are getting on board with what content marketing does well: authentic storytelling. Behind-the-scenes information, rich with details. Sharing the personalities behind the products an audience knows and loves to sip.
“There’s an ‘I liked the band before it was popular’ factor at work,” Moreno says. The key, then, is to give the beer geeks something to like.
In 2008, Michael Kiser started the “Good Beer Hunting” blog as a passion project. Beer was the first thing on his mind, not business. He had experience as a design strategist at an innovation agency working for Miller, and he sought to bring insider coverage of the industry, from craft to corporate.
More than a decade and countless pints later, beer is still on Kiser’s mind, but Good Beer Hunting is now a full-blown editorial operation. Its staff of around 25—writers, photographers, designers and videographers—creates content that has earned awards from the Webbies and Saveur, among others.
The evolution was natural. In a world full of beer blogs, high production value, insider perspective and strong stories made it possible to build a known name. “We were surprised by the low-production nature of industry coverage,” Kiser says. “It became easy to stand out by crafting high-quality content using professional writers, photographers and designers.”
It helps that the staffers, just like Kiser, are among the beer-geek audience.
They’re also not just producing editorial. The site may have begun as a passion project, but in addition to being a respected outlet, Good Beer Hunting has a consulting arm. Kiser and team provide branding strategy, design and other services to clients like small brewers and taprooms.
“They come to us for business, and they say, ‘You seem to get it,’” Kiser says.
Successful brewers operate with goals similar to Good Beer Hunting’s. By sharing stories and content that show a like-minded audience just how much they “get it,” brewers and other businesses become thought leaders you’d want to share a beer with.
“They are fans, too,” Kiser notes. “Many were home brewers. They never left behind that beer fandom and that desire for quality. And that becomes a communicable passion for their consumers.”
How craft brewers spread that disease is where things get interesting.
For example, a typical story series from Maine mainstay Allagash Brewing Co. may feature an in-depth explanation of the intricacies of white beer, followed by an extensive look at founder Rob Tod’s history with that variety of beer, which happens to be a major staple for the company. These stories offer a peek behind the curtain and a level of context and detail that appeals to a hardcore audience.
This scenario plays out again and again across social accounts and blogs nationwide. Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery Co., which has breweries in Colorado and Tennessee, experiments with social story modes (Periscope, Snapchat, Instagram Stories) to offer inside insight about new and special releases—typically from the POV of the people making the beer. Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. offers playful Instagram photos that sometimes look straight out of a science experiment—hello, brettanomyces bruxellensis (yeast). The culture matters.
Call it storytelling by beer geeks, for beer geeks. And it works for the people who sell and serve the beer, too. Plank Road Tap Room produces a video series called “Shift Beers” with a twist on the behind-the-scenes concept.
“What do the people who serve you beer talk about when they finally get you to leave?” says Moreno. “What’s it like to talk over that first beer after you mop the floors?”
The production quality has steadily improved since Plank Road launched “Shift Beers,” sometimes with the helpful feedback of audience members, but the concept and conversation remain the same. Moreno and a Plank Road cicerone—think sommelier for beer—host brewery owners and brewmasters, who in turn pour out insider insight over their beverages of choice.
It’s not about reviews. It’s definitely not about advertising. But when a guest like Ryan Clooney, a well-respected brewmaster from Crystal Lake Brewing who’s what we content marketers call an influencer, shows up, the view count goes up. That episode—which hit Facebook in August—earned 6,500-plus views, and customers sometimes mention it when they visit the taproom.
“It has been such good marketing for us, and we never even thought of it that way,” Moreno says.
"They never left behind that beer fandom and that desire for quality. And that becomes a communicable passion for their consumers."
Getting businesses to think of it that way may be the next step in evolving content marketing for the industry, Kiser says. There’s a tendency that will feel all too familiar to marketers: rushing to tactics while skipping over business objectives.
“I see this all the time, people not necessarily tying the content they’re producing back to the overriding brand strategy,” Kiser says. “Or they think their social strategy is it, but that’s false. Social strategy is a tool to serve brand strategy. You have to start with your goals.”
A production brewery—one focused on brewing but not direct consumer sales—may look around the Instagram landscape, see the shiny, slick taproom photos that permeate the industry and decide to replicate that tactic. This fails because the audience for a production brewery cares about the details of the brewing process. If there’s a taproom out front, it’s just window dressing.
Kiser—and in fact every person interviewed for this story—again points to Allagash as a brand that gets it right.
“They put amazing detail around their product stories, their techniques and the brewing process,” he says. “They use beautiful photos, and it all connects to the mission of local agriculture and the Maine lifestyle that connect with their Maine brewery.”
Those two elements indeed stand out across Allagash’s content. Stories on the brewery’s blog cover everything from the sourcing of local ingredients such as Maine wheat to recipes for Maine lobster mac and cheese to pair with your beer. In summer 2017, the Allagash team ate and drank their way across Maine in a picture-perfect social campaign. It’s easy to discern what Allagash is all about.
Likewise, Chicago brewery Half Acre Beer Co. aims for an aesthetic that is natural and spontaneous to match the unfiltered, raw nature of its product, says Meredith Anderson, marketing manager. The taprooms are all about carved wood and natural light. The photography throughout the brand’s social accounts is full of plants and natural scenery, plus vivid colors that match the company’s packaging.
“We value the photo very highly,” Anderson says, “so we don’t ever want to post anything just to post it if the quality isn’t representative.”
The representative nature filters down to the individual beer level, too. Each beer has its own personality, and Anderson lets that personality dictate how its story will be told. For the brewery’s Deep Space Double IPA, for example, the team wanted something appropriately spacey.
“My favorite thing is when an idea just works out,” she says. “We did this time-lapse video where I dyed 75 ice cubes different colors and then had them melt over the beer bottle. It looked galactic—space and time—and when they melted, they revealed the space beer.”
The company has an in-house artist for labels and other work, too, and artistry is a key selling point for Half Acre. For Lagunitas, the same goes for music, which is ingrained in the company culture. Founded in the California town that gave the brewery its name in the early 1990s, the brand has grown to other locations in California, plus Chicago and Seattle. Heineken bought half of the company in 2015 and the other half in 2017.
This makes Lagunitas a major craft beer success story, although many in the business don’t define success that way. Lagunitas technically is no longer a craft beer, both by industry definitions and by the reckoning of vociferous internet commenters.
“You’re talking about an audience that is staunchly into craft beers,” notes Moreno. “They’re offended when Sam Adams does national advertising. It’s a sign of the culture—like Metallica cutting their hair.”
For good or ill, perception has shifted for Lagunitas. The company’s response? Stay true to who it’s always been, says Hamilton. Her brother, founder Tony Magee, is a longtime musician and has always made music part of Lagunitas. The company puts on 15 or more concerts every summer at the LaguMiniAmphitheaterette at its home base, which is now in Petaluma, California.
These live events extend outward to a “More Songs Fueled by Lagunitas” music player on the brand’s website. And to fun, interactive games such as trading pins from concerts, bands or other music-themed pins—by mail—as prompted on Instagram. The company also eschews tried-and-true mass marketing methods such as email in favor of both in-person events and one-on-one interactions. “We are untraditional,” Hamilton says. “We’ve always been. It’s brought us to the point we are now, so why would we change that?”
Content marketing pros may recoil at the notion that a major brand, owned by Heineken, doesn’t do email. But it’s an important lesson in culture and identity. Even if Lagunitas is big now, relatively speaking, the company prefers to stay small, creative and highly personal in its communications. Sometimes mass communication tools and the measurements that go with them don’t suffice for tracking meaningful engagement among niche audiences.
For that matter, Kiser and the Good Beer Hunting team don’t really track analytics. “Analytics don’t measure how important or memorable a story was to the person who read it,” Kiser says. He’ll take the individual brewer who reads his stuff and then comes to him for his expertise over an impressive click tally any day.
That’s not to say brewers and taprooms don’t track, adapt and evolve, though. Moreno started out publishing the “Shift Beers” series on YouTube, then heeded advice to try Facebook Live instead. As a result, the series saw 20 times the traffic right away and an increase in the number of comments and shares. The resulting numbers would look small to a big brand. But the enthusiasm the show generates is exactly what a small company needs. And it comes down to a philosophy that applies not only to Moreno’s business but to other brewers and businesses, too.
“We want to be damn near everything to a very small group of people,” Moreno says.
“You’re talking about an audience that is staunchly into craft beers. They’re offended when Sam Adams does national advertising. It’s a sign of the culture—like Metallica cutting their hair.”
The examples below come courtesy of craft breweries, but they’ll go down easy for other small brands looking to step up their content marketing game.