Since the Great American Beer Festival is going on right about now (and I am happily among the 50,000 strong at the annual Super Bowl of beer in Denver), I’ve been thinking a great deal about the festival experience. And I’m not the only one: If you tuned in last month to our webcast, “Craft Beer’s Climb: Tapping Into Profit,” you will have heard panelists Irene Firmat (Full Sail Brewing Co.) and Dale Katechis (Oskar Blues Brewing Co.) share their own festival memories, both good and bad.
The consensus seems to be that when brands are determining which festivals to be a part of, steer clear of the ones organized by opportunistic promoters looking for nothing more than to cash in on one of the hottest trends in the beverage business. Stick with the ones that have a proven track record or, if the fest is new to the scene, are run by organizations, individuals or groups that are reputable within the craft beer world (or wine, spirits, etc., if it’s a festival for one of those sectors).
You also can get a good sense of the quality of a festival just by looking at the quality of the attendees. Are they, by and large, aficionados/curious consumers looking to sample new offerings and enhance their beer education in the process or are they fratboy binge drinkers looking to consume as much volume as is humanly possible in the space of a four-hour tasting session? If the answer is yes to the former and no to the latter than it’s a pretty safe bet to align your brands with such an event.
The events that offer the best experiences for beer drinkers tend to be the ones that sell out quickly and are talked up incessantly across social media.
Then there are those that, in many ways, transcend even the best of them. It’s one thing to participate in a festival and connect face-to-face with your brand’s biggest fans. It’s an entirely different scenario when your brand IS the festival. That’s what struck me about this year’s edition of Brewery Ommegang’s annual Belgium Comes to Cooperstown, presented this past August on the vast, 140-acre grounds of the Upstate New York farmhouse brewery. It was the first time I had been since 2007 (having been in 2005 and 2006 as well) and the event was bigger than ever. Tickets always sell out in minutes based on reputation alone, and this year was no exception. Craft beer lovers make the trek into the countryside, turning the brewery property into a sprawling tent city for the weekend as they camp on site following the afternoon tasting session. Imagine that the brand profile you’ve created is such that—for a weekend at least—you don’t have to reach out to where consumers are; they come to you. And it’s also a testament to the dynamic of the segment you’re in that you invite 50 or 60 other brewers—what most would call “competition”—to sample their wares alongside your own. There’s a good chance that many of those visiting products might be superior to your own, but that matters little because A.) as the cliché goes (and as I’ve heard repeatedly from craft brewing evangelists) a rising tide lifts all boats and B.) everyone there knows it’s your house and your party.
Now that’s what I call branding.