Critical Drinking

Off the Wall — Is a Structural Shift in Beer Marketing on the Horizon?

Since my Sunday evening TV routine has lately been dominated by Game of Thrones, I’ve found myself carving out 25 minutes each Monday to watch the latest episode of Rick and Morty. I came late to this absurdo-NSFW comedy, but find it has some of the smartest, funniest writing I've ever seen in a TV series.

My favorite running gag is Rick's obvious and hyperbolic breaking of the fourth wall. The show’s misadventures take place in infinite conceivable universes (which Rick has access to via a portal gun of his own design), so, one might argue that despite being an animated character, Rick actually knows of our universe and that we're watching him, making his self-referential audience addressing even cleverer. The eye contact with the viewer and awareness that he lives in "episodes" creates an unreliable-but-hilarious narrative element in an already batshit world.

But breaking the fourth wall has another effect beside comedy, one made famous by Hamlet’s soliloquies. By slipping into a direct narrative with the audience, we not only get to know a character’s monologue (where we would have only been guessing at it otherwise), but more importantly, by hearing his thoughts rather than adding our own, we empathize with him more than we would normally. 

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Shattering the fourth wall gives us something we crave as a species—direct connection and a relationship with characters we care about, instead of a bird’s eye, voyeuristic view into another reality. But what happens when technology and society push us in the opposite direction?

Most modern brands rely heavily on not breaking the fourth wall with their customers. When you walk into Target to buy some bagels and toilet paper, you see exactly what Target Corporation™ wants you to see: organized displays, streamlined aisles, carefully placed ads and graphics. What you don't see are the employees on break in a back room, the guy stocking shelves overnight, the huge trucks pulling up behind the building to unload pallets of merchandise. That's all deliberate. You're being marketed to—marketed at?—with a specific, curated message. And you’re being sold a brand on the basis of repeatable, consistent elements that you come to associate with something you like.

I've spent a long time trying to figure out what exactly made the last decade of beer marketing successful, especially in an environment with little to no traditional TV or radio advertising outside of the very big players like Sam Adams, Miller, and Budweiser. While obviously the taste of the beer itself drives a huge portion of sales, we've come to understand that locality and authenticity forge the chain that makes up a successful, modern beer brand. 

But I submit it's more than just getting involved in the community and using locally sourced ingredients. Smaller brewers didn't build comprehensive brands that manicured an image to sell a product—they sold themselves. As people. As humans. As accessible small business owners that were not too busy or too big to say hi to a patron (even if they were, actually, too busy for that). The ability to see through a brewery—literally into the brewhouse and metaphorically into the humanism of its staff—proved a powerful marketing tool. 

Small brewers, took a sledge to the fourth wall of beer marketing, perhaps more out of constraint than intent. The divide that separates Budweiser and your local brewery is much larger than the BBLs/year disparity between them. Budweiser has—by necessity, given their size—created and fostered a lifestyle brand that they package and sell. This is true of many other international brands: they cannot possibly play the one-on-one game on so massive a scale, and must instead market a concept and narrative that attempts to connect to drinkers on some level outside of personal relationships. Some may attempt an ad campaign that feigns an interpersonal approach (think: Coca Cola's names-on-bottles "Share a Coke" campaign), but ultimately lack the oomph of really knowing the people behind the brand. It's like writing "you" and relying on vague pronouns, instead of directly using a person's name. Indeed, many large brands, in the absence of anything personal to say about themselves, attempt to hold up a mirror and make it about the customer’s personhood instead. “You’re worth it.”

The early cult of personality in "celebrity brewers" we saw in the early 2000s was the first obvious attempt at cashing in on this built-in marketing capital, and introduced beer drinkers to a person that was representative of the brand they loved. After all, we’d seen celebrity chefs run successfully with the model all over our TV screens and airport hospitality extensions. These breweries—Dogfish Head, Stone, Lagunitas—all broke that fourth wall with gusto (and their celebrity status), using social and other media avenues to speak openly and candidly about their products and processes, something most beer fans hadn't seen before from large brands.

They were also all so beautifully human: Jim Koch's iconic blue shirt and dad-khakis made him seem like the oddly-approachable billionaire success story. Sam Calagione's eccentricity and charm, his life as a surfer, and his good looks made him endearing and likable despite the quirks, just like his beer. Even Greg Koch, the oft derided co-founder of Stone, felt genuinely human and appropriately flawed when his rants veered a little outside of comfortable PR norms. 

For all ferments and purposes, it worked. To an extent. 

This model resonated deeply with Gen Xers, who saw intrinsic value in knowing who made their drinks, not to mention where and why. And brewers have seemed happy enough to follow along. After all, it was easy and cheap, and sociologically natural for a generation who grew up during a time when people could get famous (and rich) for spouting random shit on YouTube. Small beer’s share surged to 12% of the market in only a few years on the back of a trend-bucking bull. But then it stalled.

While demonstrably effective as a marketing strategy, clearly the concept of allowing the audience to see right into the mis-en-scène of a brewery wasn’t a silver bullet that would put down the werewolf of macro in a single shot. Just as breweries adopted an open-taproom-door policy, the rise of social media and Millennials’ general disinterest in direct contact with other people created a problematic juxtaposition. Being transparent will still win over people who seek connection, but what do brands do when personal connection ceases to be the drinker’s prerogative?

"We're marketers marketing to marketers. They're very aware of their social status. So brands that can serve them, that can give them something they need to help them with their status, do well."

That’s Norty Cohen, CEO of Moosylvania, whose ad agency recently performed a five-year, longitudinal study of Millennial brand habits. They found that 51% of Millennials have no preference between private-label and national brands, a trend that could prove dire to businesses who have built a model around being local and exclusive, while neglecting what their brand means to their drinker’s own personal brands. (Please know that I hate that I wrote this sentence unironically.)

Much to the delight of the authors of “things Millennials are killing” articles, the behavior of the youngest demographic in beer marketing might prove fatal to the idea that got us this far. Where Gen Xers tore the wall down, Millennials would see it rebuilt: their love for a digital engagement layer might render all the efforts to build personal reputations moot. As GBH founder Michael Kiser told me as I was working on this piece, “I don't think people  in their twenties are seeking out that kind of connection as often as we think. They want a cool interaction with a brand, and some value in their experiences that’s personal, but not necessarily with the person making it.”

And here, AB InBev’s strategy seems sage, albeit perhaps also cynical. The purchase of RateBeer, of choice craft breweries with strong, existing brand power, and delivery services—these all cater to the idea of interaction with brands being more important than interactions with people. A business model built on the people and relationships, while emotionally satisfying, pirouettes on a knife’s point. As we recently saw with Scofflaw Brewing out of Atlanta, it doesn’t take much for an ego (or set of egos) to turn PR success into PR disaster. A brand, on the other hand, rarely lets a person down. A brand simply provides a product in a way you’ve come to respect and appreciate, albeit less personally. How many of us would rather order a pizza via Grubhub than by picking up the phone? A stroll through an airport reveals a sea of glowing iPads at the table where a waiter used to be. We tweet our complaints at airlines instead of talking to the person at the counter 10 feet away. For a generation of brewers wondering if the intimacy of their fourth-wall marketing plan will work outside of a very small bubble need only look at their own behaviors in realms beyond beer to see the challenge.

It’s impossible to soothsay, but precious few beer brands appear prepared for a systemic change in their marketing approach to a mainstream audience. Social media presence is one thing, but selling your brand as "status enhancer," for example, snarls a completely different beast. Eventually, the adoration of new and different will fade as it becomes ubiquitous, and even quality may become less of a differentiator, if it ever really was in the first place. While many brought down the fourth wall with zeal and aplomb, and built wildly successful brands by it, they might find themselves scrambling to build it back up when the rest of the world is looking for a conventional front door.

Words by Oliver Gray
Graphics by Mike Duesenberg