The Storyteller’s Craft

It’s more or less a no-brainer that success within the craft beer segment begins and ends with the quality of the product that’s put into bottles and kegs. However, craft brewing being a business and all, there’s this little thing called marketing that has to come into play if a brew’s going to make it, and a big part of that is establishing and nurturing a consistent brand identity.

“[Branding] is the thing that you do as a company that turns the facts of your business into feelings and into emotions from the consumers’ perspective,” offered Jeremy Ragonese, director of marketing for Boulevard Brewing Co. (Kansas City, Mo.), on a marketing panel at the Craft Brewers Conference last month in San Diego. The panel, moderated by New Belgium Brewing Co. (Fort Collins, Colo.) co-founder, president and CEO Kim Jordan, also included Brooklyn Brewery co-founder, chairman and president Steve Hindy (who also delivered a keynote at the conference earlier that day) and Meg Gill, who recently co-founded Los Angeles-based Golden Road Brewing, of which she also serves as president.

Brooklyn Brewery’s somewhat minimalist approach to brand design—best illustrated by its recognizable logo created by iconic graphic designer Milton Glaser (of I *heart* New York fame)—has been highly effective for the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based brewery. “I think a really good brand solves a lot of problems about marketing,” Hindy said. “We’ve probably been pitched by 500 or 600 ad firms, but we’ve never used an ad firm. They all kind of wanted to identify Brooklyn, put their finger on it.” Some, he said would try to incorporate the stereotypical Brooklyn accent, or “try funny stuff, or ‘hipster’ Brooklyn,” Hindy added. “We really just stuck with putting the logo everywhere and let people make associations with the brand and with Brooklyn.”

On the opposite coast, Gill—the relative newcomer on the panel—also wanted a local identity for Golden Road. “Our core philosophy is to become L.A.’s local brewery,” she said. “‘What is L.A.?’ is a very tough question to answer.” Part of defining L.A. involves using iconographic images of the city on tallboy cans of Golden Road Hefeweizen and Point the Way IPA. “Our focus is on providing beer to a very small area with 10 million people and kind of translating what our brand means to all of those people.”

Storytelling is a big part of any brand’s identity and that’s where, generally speaking, craft brewers have an advantage. “That’s something everyone in this room has: a story,” Gill noted. “That’s what craft beer is. It’s about authenticity.” She added that Golden Road puts “110 percent” into both social media and PR.

It’s also critical for distributors to help carry the story. New Belgium frequently invites its wholesalers back to Fort Collins for beer school. “The more they can have in their mind’s eye a picture of what New Belgium is like, the more they can ‘be us’ on the street,” Jordan said.

After all, a brewer can’t be everywhere the distributor can be. Or where media can be, for that matter.

“Stories are our lifeblood,” Hindy declared. “History has kind of played into our hands here. Thirty, 40 years ago the big brewers monopolized television advertising and that was a very, very powerful medium and a very powerful way to get to people. The media have kind of splintered since then.”

But that dynamic, Hindy said, favors craft. Any time a local media outlet runs a story on a brewery, that article could end up in Google searches. “Google is a research tool for all journalists,” said Hindy, himself a former journalist. “That’s perfect for companies like ours because we can afford to tell our stories and have it picked up and archived on Google. Social media has come at a perfect time for us. And the big guys are just so burdened with the kind of big-guy attributes to carry around that they find it very difficult to maneuver these little tributaries of media that you have to work with now. And a simple, honest story is a very, very powerful tool for you to work with.”

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