Mark Cullen
The views expressed in db Reader do not represent the views of the drinks business.

Why craft beer needs to evolve

There’s definitely change afoot in the craft beer market. Supermarkets and big brewers are muscling in on production of “craft style” beers (Meantime has been bought by SABMiller) and critics are starting to, well, criticise those craft brands that experience strong growth and success (as per a Mintel analyst’s recent critique of Brewdog in these very pages).

Craft-BeerCraft beer definitely has something that the big players want a piece of. But at the same time, true craft brands that start to experience genuine commercial success seem to attract brickbats rather than praise.

So what is going on here? Craft beer, it seems, has a brand problem. The artisan authenticity of the sector makes it a desirable space for big brands. But when any craft beer brand becomes a brand in its own right, it seems to go, for some, against the unwritten rules of the category. Why is this?

Well, craft beer has traditionally occupied the “adventure” space in the mindset of buyers (supermarket buyers, as well as consumers). A consumer buying beer for a party might pick up a ‘safety’ choice, a 12-pack of a well-known lager brand. But for a night in with friends, the same shopper may choose more unusual beers where not knowing how you’ll like them is all part of the experience.

And for craft beer in particular, the deservedly celebrated drinks trend of the decade, this presents a potential problem.

While the adventure narrative is working well for the sector right now, it isn’t a sustainable route to growth for any brand. And as craft brands look to go, it’s this positioning which is in some ways holding them back.

Adventure products such as craft beer expand market sectors, hence why right now the craft beer sector is growing, benefitting everyone within it who is simply able to ride the wave. But simply adopting this “adventure” approach to your brand doesn’t allow any one brand to become a go-to choice, and therefore to grow as a business.

Beer pairing: Up to now, a geeky pursuit

For some businesses this won’t be a problem – they may want to forever retain their maverick status and stay small. But “staying small” really isn’t a great business option for most brands.

For craft brands to develop, they need to think about their product in an entirely new way, while still maintaining their craft credentials.

This might seem like an impossible brief  for some fans, developing a strong and sustainable brand for a craft beer would be anathema to what the movement stands for.

But building long-term preference for your brand, and equity as “not just another craft beer” will be vital for anyone who wants to grow faster than the sector, and to still have a great business when the shine comes off the craft beer craze. And yes, that means looking to the likes of Brewdog.

Brands like Anchor Steam and Brewdog have not just helped to create the craft beer craze, but have also created brands that are known as reliable by consumers and as such are widely stocked by major retail and supermarket chains, a sure sign of wide appeal. And though for some aficionados, these brands are now “too mainstream” they are certainly largely accepted as viable, respected and pioneering craft brands.

Those that want to stand out and grow ahead of the sector need to develop new ways of doing so by creating sustainable brands with strong brand values first and foremost, and tying them in to long term business plans.

A good brand can weather almost anything and as the craft beer market develops in the next few years, it will be those that take the steps now that will be left with the strong, stable and well-prepared businesses.

Mark Cullen is a planner at brand consultancy agency Good.

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