When Anheuser-Busch’s sale to InBev was announced, years of branding began to unravel for the King of Beers. The maker of the Great American Lager (their slogan) was a family-owned business based in the American Midwest which had spent decades creating their brand based around nationalism and tradition; they were being purchased by a foreign corporate conglomerate. Almost immediately columnists were writing about how the sale was indicative not of globalization but of the American economic recession.
In spite of how the stories were framed, A-B products Budweiser and Bud Light continue to be the best selling beers in the United States (if not the world). The sale is only the latest consolidation between the world’s largest brewers; in the years prior rivals like Miller and Coors had combined into SABMiller, not to mention A-B’s own acquisitions before their own sale. The beer business is as complex as any other industry, but major brewers like Anheuser-Busch have relied on a wide national market empowered by mass market advertising to drive up demand for their product.
The rising popularity of Craft Beer parallels the changing media landscape of the past decade; as audiences become fragmented, their consumption choices are changing. Once mass market advertising for brewers would create print and broadcast ads designed to appeal to the widest audiences where they converged in a limited media market. Brand loyalty was thought to begin when young adults learned about their products, and like their beers these branding techniques were meant to reach the largest audiences. However this same target audience no longer converges in the same mass media sources, often turning online to learn about new products across a ever wider range of new media; about the only place this market would still see their ads might be watching the Superbowl, during which only the largest brewers can afford to advertise.
Consumers today have more choices in where they get their media from, especially online, which have opened up opportunities to build niche audiences like those in the craft beer market. Along with a growing audience of beer lovers, craft breweries have taken to blogs and social media to promote their products. This audience is passionate about their interest in craft beer, inspiring brand loyalty among those who are reached out to directly by brewers who share their values, not unlike the nationalism appealed to in Budweiser’s branding. Most importantly this passionate audience of craft beer advocates likes to tell others about the beers they love, usually acting as opinion leaders within their network of friends and thusly growing the market for tasty craft beer every year.
Of course mass marketing still works in many markets; many consumers of Blue Moon (a SAB Miller/Coors product) believe it is a craft beer, and niche beers like A-B’s Michelob brand enjoy limited popularity. But the mass media advertising techinques do not work as well online, as demonstrated by the expensive failure of Bud.tv and other websites. It has been suggested that beer in America’s national beverage, and as America changes so will it’s tastes.
You can learn more about Beer marketing and the craft beer movement by reading my blog The Brew Noob (on Twitter @BrewNoob).