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Irresponsible marketing and craft beer

If you want to hear a craft brewer whine, just ask about competing with Big Beer.

beer glassesMost will tell you they operate at incredible disadvantages versus their Goliath-sized opponents. Distributor access. Raw-material costs. Financial leverage. Transportation efficiency. You name it. Everything is an uphill battle for the little guys. Oh, they’ll brag about the advantage they enjoy when it comes to the flavor of their beer, but on the business side, woe is them.

They aren’t being entirely forthcoming.

In one critically important marketing aspect, craft brewers enjoy a powerful advantage over the likes of Budweiser, Miller, and Coors. In fact, if their beer formulations are the pebbles these Davids aim at Big Beer, this marketing advantage– an unfair advantage to boot– may be their slingshot.

One of the restrictions placed on breweries long ago prevented them from saying certain things about their beer. “Responsible marketing” meant avoiding unseemly selling tactics, however effective they might be. Very specific regulations and industry guidelines were adopted. And when interpretations were needed, erring toward caution became the path of choice.

For example, back in the late 1980s, the claim that had powered Coors Light’s growth over several years– “The Silver Bullet won’t slow you down”– was ultimately re-appraised by regulators. They decided it was akin to claiming multiple servings wouldn’t affect physical or mental acuity. End of claim.

Many marketing gimmicks in advertising, naming, and labeling were placed off-limits. This was especially true for wording or images deemed to promote underage drinking, celebrate alcohol-effect, or encourage irresponsible consumption. It was hard to disagree with these marketing no-fly zones, so beer companies learned to live with the restrictions, and in great part, police themselves. Ultimately, promoting responsible consumption became a point of pride for every major brewer, and for their distributors as well.

To this day, Big Beer still plays by these strict ethical-marketing rules. But apparently, not so all the crafties.

Shown here are ten particularly irresponsible craft-beer labels, at least as defined by traditional review standards. Although the notes in red are this writer’s, not a regulatory agency’s, I have personally witnessed comparable (but far tamer) label and name ideas so flagged and killed.In years past, not one of these labels would’ve been approved.
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(To see the runners-up, click here.)
Exactly why such questionable labels and brand identities are getting a pass from regulators and public-interest groups remains a mystery. But it’s pretty clear what the motivation is behind their creation and use.
Responsibility-challenged appeals like these can be powerful marketing weapons, especially when aimed at the coveted younger drinker group. Permitting their use effectively grants a competitive edge to the brand owners. And since most craft brewers rarely advertise in more expensive media, label-rendered brand identities often represent their most important marketing investment. It’s a very advantageous place to garner special treatment, especially if a brewer is not constrained by conscience.
Are we over-stating how big a competitive advantage this ethical double-standard represents? Ask Anheuser-Busch Inbev how much more beer they could sell by advertising you can drink Bud Light… all day.

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