by Bobbin Wages
Product names attract consumers, especially in the craft beer market, says assistant professor Cameron Verhaal. However, what microbrewery enthusiasts expect from their beer expands far beyond clever names and even tasty flavors.In an episode of the sketch comedy television series Portlandia, a couple dining at a restaurant probes their waitress on the history of the chicken they soon will eat, including its breed, former diet, personality and name: Colin. They even visit the farm where Colin was raised prior to finally placing their order. Despite the episode’s satirical nature, consumers who care about the source of products they purchase comprise considerable market share. (According to the Brewers Association, “craft brewers are doing better than ever – reaching 11 percent of market share for volume of beer sold in America in 2014.”) Cameron Verhaal, an assistant professor of managerial sciences at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University, contends that their numbers will continue to grow and that businesses, even large ones, should take heed.
Verhaal’s research focuses on how craft-based industries such as organic food, high-end coffee, and microbreweries can maintain authentic identities while gaining mass market appeal – a balance that is difficult to manage since national distribution can turn off customers who seek out exclusive, local goods. “What’s interesting is this paradox,” Verhaal explains. “These industries are predicated on the idea of being small and artisanal, and their success is undermining their ability to project a coherent identity that they really are small and artisanal.”
Verhaal is particularly interested in craft beer, a niche that has risen in popularity and begun to compete with big players like Budweiser and MillerCoors. Verhaal suggests that in the craft beer industry, a product’s taste is less important than one might think; after all, during blind tastings, consumers and self-professed aficionados cannot distinguish between brews that are produced on a small or massive scale. Beyond flavor, craft beer enthusiasts care about whether the morals a brand stands for align with their lifestyle and, often, clash with mainstream culture. “It’s not necessarily about the product,” Verhaal elaborates. “Products are the conduit through which brands create a dialogue and build a relationship with customers.”
How can a single bottle of beer project a set of values to consumers? One of the most powerful mechanisms that organizations use to connect goods with entire lifestyles is product naming. However, even though buyers associate titles like Bell’s Two Hearted, Smuttynose Finestkind, and Revolution Anti-Hero with counterculture on a psychological level, those words only go so far. “A name is a simple, relatively cheap way of communicating that you’re authentic,” Verhaal says. “But being in the industry for 20 years, having an impeccable reputation, and earning awards are what win out at the end of the day.”
In reaction to microbreweries’ success, mainstream beer producer MillerCoors launched Blue Moon Belgian White in 1995, and printed “Blue Moon Brewing Co.” on the label to further its guise as a craft brewer. The facade not only enraged consumers but also prompted the Confederation of Belgian Brewers (CBB) to sue MillerCoors because of what CBB called misleading packaging. (“Belgian White” implies the product was produced in Belgium when in fact it is American-made.) In addition to inviting a lawsuit that ended in a private settlement and label change, MillerCoors’ attempt to take over some of the microbrewery market share backfired and introduced its customers to craft beer. “It was sort of a gateway,” Verhaal chuckles.
As microbreweries reach broader audiences, hipsters who take pride in supporting the “shop local” movement might equate that success with selling out. Some microbreweries respond by pushing the envelope with off-the-wall flavors or adopting the nanobrewery concept: producing no more than one batch during each production cycle. Other small-scale breweries simply don’t care. “They say they’re still staying true to craft characteristics and can’t make everyone happy,” Verhaal says.
Microbreweries and other craft artisans are tasked with reaching consumers through a wall of marketing noise, and at times their differentiating factors seem like farce. For example, Teavana’s Silver Needle white tea is harvested by hand only two days each year, while Kopi Luwak coffee is collected from animal feces as part of its production process. How far will companies go before their efforts to distinguish themselves become meaningless? “At some point it will lose its effect,” Verhaal predicts. “Organizations that are able to cut through all of it, send a simple message, and stay true to that message ultimately will be successful.”