Monday, December 24, 2012

Poseur, Prancer, Donner, and Ditzy?

Before Santa comes along, Rudolph is pretty much an outcast and a freak with little to no direction or purpose in life besides being mocked. In this way, the little reindeer that could is a fairly good analogy for how Big Beer must view the craft beer market, which owes it's origins to the legalization of home brewing. Or so the story goes.
“While America’s small and independent craft brewers have reached a record 6 percent market share, they lack the economies of scale and the huge marketing resources of the big brewers. They’ve relied on grassroots efforts, an appreciation for local, and authentic and delicious products to attract their consumer base. 
Beer enthusiasts have responded by embracing these breweries and their unique, innovative and flavorful beers, brewed locally by neighbors and friends who are very visibly involved in their communities. They have chosen to support small-business entrepreneurs, who are the embodiment of the American dream. These entrepreneurs are the underdogs bent on reviving a sense of independent craftsmanship.” (emphasis mine; source#)

But, if an interview with Big Beer's Graham Mackay is any indication, it seems Big Beer wants Rudolph to light the way to bigger profits for everyone already involved.

The great pretenders. It's a story being told all across corporate America. People are waking up to the sad state of mediocrity of which standardization is the greedy, soulless culprit. In short, people are bored, and home brew (and by extension, craft breweries) is bridging the gap.

“It’s a matter of taste, not arbitrary numbers. The real rub lies here: Over the last few years, craft beer sales have continued to grow while the overall beer sales in the U.S. have declined (i.e., macrobrewery sales have declined). In reaction to this trend, global beer companies have either purchased or invested in existing (now not) craft beer breweries, or expanded their portfolios with new subsidiary craft-emulating beer brands that offer styles beyond the lager and lite lager. These beers aren’t intrinsically bad. But, the labels don’t always disclose the parent company, and that’s seen as a problem.” (source#)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Big Beer imitating what the good folk in their communities are achieving via their grass roots efforts. I’d wager I’m not the only one who found a gateway to craft beer through a Blue Moon or a Shock Top (owned by Coors and Anheuser Busch respectively). The problem is, things like this have a way of starting out all Jingle Bells and ending kind of shitty.

And their labeling, or lack thereof, is surreptitious at best.

The question is, can Big Business prioritize their product and their profits? Does it matter if there is a soul behind the mask? Does the consumer have the right to know who makes their beer, and is the corporation who sells it obligated to own up to their own deeds (good or bad as they may be)? Will beloved small craft breweries whose beers we've come to know and love be compromised for the sake of a profit margin's bottom line? These are some of the core questions that are emerging from the "craft vs. crafty" conversation that is being had across bar tops and through the virtual beer channels.

Mackay already knows there is a problem:
“Tenth and Blake is a creation of MillerCoors to solve a specific problem, which is that we under-index in the growth segments. We need to grow our portfolio more in that direction.” (source#)

But it’s insulting, and more than a little bit arrogant the way Jolly Old Graham Mackay seems to think he can sidle up in his red hat, switch the feedbag on the reindeer, convince Rudolph to light the way through foggy back lots and dim garages where people are already lit up and cheering on the underdogs without anyone noticing much of a difference.
“We have our own craft brands. We also look selectively to acquire, or form partnerships with, or cozy up to people who have incubated good businesses. It's difficult for big companies to incubate small brands. That, at its heart, is the dilemma. To start a small brand in a credible, consistent, sticking-to-it kind of way is hard for big companies. That's what small entrepreneurs do best.” (emphasis mine; source#)

It's not just beer. It's personal, as Mackay well knows:
“For most beer, the proposition is emotional. It's not functional. The beer is not that different. And even if the beer is different, there are others that taste much like it. So you're trying to create new emotional associations in people's minds. To do that, you've got to act like a small company. You've got to incubate it for a long time.” [emphasis mine; source#]

The "flattery" (if you can call it that) strikes many as insincere, which makes Mackay look more like a clown with a suspect grin than a velvet saint. What Mackay suggests is that the problem isn’t just one of market share. It’s a problem of emotion, and of faith. People simply do not care enough about their beer, and they aren't convinced that Big Beer cares either.

It's an unwieldy frame of mind, and one that relies on (or at least benefits from) remaining hidden. 
"Over the last few years, two giant companies—Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, which together control 80 percent of beer sales in the United States—have been working, along with giant retailers, led by Costco, to undermine the existing system in the name of efficiency and low prices." (source#)

The problem is, to be convincing, they will need to craft a story people care about. One people will believe. And there's not much they can do about that, aside from waiting around for their chickens to hatch (or "incubate" as Mackay is so fond of saying in the interview). But what they can do is manufacture a narrative, or at least buy an existing one, not unlike the one co-opted by Colgate-Palmolive when they purchased the lion’s share at Toms of Maine

Money can manufacture all manner of illusions and faux empathies. But it is a disingenuous floundering that threatens to make a mess of something authentic, connected, and real. Or so many people suspect.

The problem is, at least in the case of Big Beer (but likely in most cases of corporate greed), that they seem to fundamentally misunderstand the kind of beer drinker they intend to take to bed. What Mackay, and others, likely do not feel from inside their Emperor’s clothes is the naked stare they are receiving as they parade around their little foundlings, a dickish assessment of craft beer dangling unattractively from their lips. 

The target market they’d like to screw is reaching uncomfortably for their zipper and backing away from the old man in the big suit. We are not a group of misty-eyed adolescents waiting beneath the mistle-toe with our button already undone. We’re not waiting in line to exchange whispered desires with a lecherous retiree in costume. We do not wait up at night for the illusory knock of hooves on the rooftop, hoping some magic will fall down our chimney. 

Of course, Big Business isn't uncaring. It's certain their concern about profit is in earnest. They care, in-so-much as their profits are being funneled into small startups who know the consumer kinda sorta gives a shit about things like local control and small business. The transaction is a financial one, surely, but the exchange is more than dollars and sense

All I can say is, Prancer better kick up his heels because Ditzy ain’t gonna to stay stupid for long. However impressive the theatre that unconvincingly portrays Big Beer as “a small company,” the fact remains that they are not small, which is problematic for reason's Mackay has already mentioned, namely--credibility and time.  

The problem with big business is not that they are doing business; the problem is their ability to manufacture products at a distance, to perpetrate a kind of invisibility that clouds the process in a kind of fairy dust. To purchase, rather than craft, an authentic story. One that conveys a truth about what they contribute to our world, and by extension, to the quality of our lives. 

But I'd wager that most people just want to participate in something ethical, communal, and honest. Big business thinks the consumer doesn't care about the difference, and that might be true for a segment of the population. Taste trumps all, so the saying goes. But I'm betting the palate of the American Beer Drinker is more sophisticated than even we believe.

Their attempts to mimic what the "small entrepreneurs do best" will likely open doors to people who've never considered beer as anything aside from Pabst Blue Ribbon or Coors Light (which have their place, certainly). Everyone has to start somewhere, and if a Shock Top or a Blue Moon White begin you on a journey that ends up crossing paths with a Founder's Breakfast Stout, then God Bless. The more the merrier.

But for my own part, I think the Fat Man could stand to devour one less sweet from his full plate. 

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