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Takeaways From This Year's Craft Brewers Conference

AUTHOR Brock Whitfield DATE 05-27-2024

Ten years ago I took a hiatus from my advertising career to pursue a longtime passion project: working as a brewer at a local craft brewery. Back in the mid-2010s, the craft beer scene was booming, with an average of two new breweries opening every day across the U.S. We all saw the bubble forming, but we pressed on, fueled by passion, idealism, and entrepreneurial spirit.

When I attended this year’s Craft Brewers Conference, I encountered a very different, more mature industry. A saturated market combined with softening demand has squeezed margins and divided the category into winners and losers. The bright-eyed optimism of 2014 is now tempered with hard-nosed pragmatism, and a laser-focus on results. “Growth” is being defined by profits and efficiency, rather than barrel production. The conversations have shifted from “How can I expand my distribution footprint?” to “How can I win in my existing markets and increase profitability?”

As a former brewer, it’s hard not to pine for the glory days, when having quality liquid was enough to keep your taprooms full and orders rolling in. But as a marketer, I left the conference feeling inspired and energized by the ingenuity on display. If pressure creates diamonds, then the challenging market conditions are bringing out new levels of focus, resourcefulness, and creativity to meet the demands of today’s market. So in the spirit of conviviality the craft beer industry is known for, I thought I’d share a few of my biggest takeaways from this year’s Craft Brewers Conference.

1. Branding in a World “Beyond Beer”

A decade ago, craft beer’s biggest rival was “Big Beer.” Today, it faces threats from every direction - alcoholic seltzers, ready-to-drink cocktails, boozy kombuchas, non-alc products, canned tepache, and even THC/CBD-infused beverages, all often competing for the same shelf space.

To keep up, many breweries have added their own line extensions of “beyond beer” products, but doing so comes with a risk. Attaching your parent brand to a flagging line extension can dilute the brand you worked so hard to build. Do you launch your new seltzer line under the parent brand umbrella to leverage existing brand equity, or take a “house of brands” approach and stand up a new product line? Answering this question requires a deep understanding of your audience and how they perceive and interact with your brand, which is why having a cohesive portfolio strategy is becoming table stakes for modern craft breweries.

2. The Power of White Space

With a record high 9,900+ breweries operating in 2023 and openings continuing to outpace closures, the single biggest challenge facing breweries today is figuring out how to stand out among that sea of competition.

The keynote speaker at the conference Fawn Weaver (who interestingly comes from the spirits industry, not brewing) shared how her whiskey brand Uncle Nearest found success not by copying her competitors, but instead by bucking the conventional wisdom of the category. Instead of launching in one state and then expanding gradually, she launched the brand in all 50 states. Despite being told by her colleagues that “awards don’t matter,” she doubled down on award submissions, making Uncle Nearest the most-awarded bourbon and American whiskey for the past five consecutive years. These strategies paid off big for Uncle Nearest, and despite the case study coming from an adjacent category, there’s a lot of wisdom in that for craft brewers. In a crowded category, it pays to look for the white space - when everyone else zigs, sometimes it pays to zag.

3. Optimizing Your Marketing Ecosystem

As breweries expand, they face the daunting challenge of evolving their marketing ecosystem to align with changing objectives and market dynamics. Initially, small breweries typically rely on grassroots marketing and word-of-mouth to build local loyalty. However, as they grow, they must adopt more sophisticated strategies to maintain that momentum and reach increasingly broader audiences.

This shift requires a comprehensive and evolving strategy, employing digital marketing, paid media, and data-driven insights to deliver results. Crafting a unified brand message across various channels is crucial to establishing your brand and maximizing impact. Leveraging analytics allows breweries to better understand consumer behavior and tailor their campaigns accordingly.

For example - targeted social media ads combined with retargeting can measurably convert casual browsers into loyal customers by catering their media to their audiences’ specific preferences and purchasing patterns. But over time breweries must remain nimble, continually adjusting their strategies to reflect their evolving goals, market trends and consumer feedback.

Ultimately, optimizing your marketing ecosystem requires a balanced mix of creativity and analytics, enabling breweries to balance short-term sales while creating long-term awareness to expand your customer base.

The challenges facing modern craft breweries are more complex than they were a decade ago, and they require a different set of tools and strategies to overcome them. If your craft brand is struggling to find growth in the crowded craft beer space, it’s time to try something different. Not sure where to start? Drop us an email to learn how we can kick your marketing function into overdrive.

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