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The ‘Craft’ Beer Movement Is Really a Marketing Win for Budweiser

We love any chance to opine on one of our favorite subjects: beer. When sudsy stories also involve branding strategies, we get a little excited.

That’s why we had to tell you about this AdWeek piece and its simple thesis: despite the very real popularity of premium “craft” beers created by independent breweries, most of the most popular off-brand beers on the market are, in fact, nothing more than the products of Big Beer companies’ successful attempts to co-opt the power of a story that was never theirs to tell in the first place.

See, most of the craft beer guys don’t have the resources to mount nationwide ad/promo campaigns. A large portion of their brands’ identities and business strategies lie in unique packaging (Flying Dog‘s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-style artwork), product names (Stone‘s “Ruination Ale“) and ingredients/origin stories (Dogfish Head‘s “Midas Touch” includes golden grapes, thyme and saffron). It’s all about emphasizing the anti-establishment attitude that helps these small producers inspire brand loyalty among their fans — much of it powered by word of mouth. We call it DIY or grassroots PR.

Over the past few years the Millennial demographic’s newfound taste for something beyond the ordinary has led to sales growth in a generally stagnant industry, so of course the big names are all over it. MillerCoors, for example, created its Blue Moon “craft” line before the trend even really took off. The AdWeek story, however, reveals that most of the nation’s top-sellers in the craft beer category are in fact nothing of the sort. Most are more like Blue Moon or Anheuser-Busch‘s Shock Top: products created by the world’s biggest beer companies in an attempt to fool people into thinking that they’re a little outside the mainstream. At least some brands like Goose Island used to be independent before the big guys bought them up. Trade group Brewers Association recently demanded that big brewers put their names on their off-brand products in an attempt to force them to stop being sneaky with the public (not that it will do any good).

The “craft” spin has clearly worked for Anheuser-Busch and others, but they missed the larger lesson: The reason the craft beer makers succeed is because they have such a powerful understanding of their audiences and know how to use word of mouth and events like brewery tours to promote their products on the cheap. As Lagunitas founder Tony Magee tells AdWeek, “We are selling community, and they are selling liquid.”

Anheuser-Busch InBev has the money to buy up quality breweries like Goose Island while also ensuring that Shock Top will always sell more than any of the brands mentioned above. But that doesn’t mean that its products — or its strategies — are “craft” quality in any way.

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