The Marketing Collision of Sports Advertising and Craft Beer

I recently read an article on the site Good Beer Hunting about beer advertising during televised sporting events (side note: GBH is a great site that offers a lot of strong content about craft beer - long-form stories, news, photos, podcasts, even merchandise). The piece’s author, Bryan Roth, opened the article by stating his surprise in seeing a television ad for Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA during a commercial break of the most recent World Series.

There were three things about the ad that really caught Roth’s attention:

The messaging. The Ballast Point spots weren’t the highly polished beer ads we’re used to seeing that emphasize humor, aspiration, camaraderie, or tradition. Instead they relied on Sculpin’s impressive BeerAdvocate ranking. As Roth said, each spot utilizes aspects today’s consumer relies on and relates to: online reviews are seen as valuable as personal recommendations, beer shoppers use technology to better understand their options and, fittingly, scores have a useful psychological impact, creating more curiosity and influencing purchase decisions.”

The beer style. Ten years ago, in the ‘old beer world’ of adjunct lagers, no one would’ve imagined money being spent to advertise an IPA on national television. These ads show how quickly and dramatically the beer landscape has shifted and, more importantly, how much consumer tastes have evolved.

The brewery. Yes, Ballast Point has been acquired by Constellation Brands, giving them some added marketing muscle (and money). But it’s still remarkable that the World Series broadcast included ads for Ballast Point alongside ads from Samuel Adams, Twisted Tea, Modelo, Pacifico, and Budweiser. Roth said, and I wholeheartedly agree with this, “The fact that Constellation spent more than half a million dollars on advertising is news on its own, a shot across the bow of sorts toward players like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors—companies that have long held sports as an arena of their own.”

Roth’s article expanded on each of these three points much further as he gave some of his own perspectives. Two significant questions he posed were: 1. Will other craft brewers follow Ballast Point into big sports advertising? 2. Should craft brewers do big sports advertising?

The second point was more interesting than the first, at least to me. Craft beer drinkers tend to skew younger than drinkers of mass-market beer brands. With millennial sports consumption habits being very different than older generations, maybe money shouldn’t be spent on baseball or football. Basketball and soccer are more popular with millennials. Esports even have a growing base of fans. When you factor in cord cutters, or those who have never had traditional cable, there may be other marketing approaches to more effectively reach the core craft beer audience. Perhaps streaming advertising or digital advertising would offer more benefits.

Yet, after I read the article, I kept asking myself the question, “should craft breweries do televised advertising at all?”

Roth mentioned:

“Advertising has never been a large part of craft beer or its ethos, instead relying on a growing fanbase and word of mouth to entice new drinkers toward fuller flavored beer. But as the country surpasses 6,000 breweries and things continue to get tighter for regional and national brands, space traditionally held exclusively by the largest corporations is now diversifying. Whether on TV or digitally, there are ample opportunities to recognize and target audiences relevant to pushing craft beyond its roughly 12% market share of U.S. beer. The challenge is going about it in a smart and effective way.”

What he says rings very true for regional and national brewers, so to adequately assess the question I posed about doing TV advertising at all, I think you have to divide craft breweries into groups. You have some that are larger with national distribution - Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Stone. Roth mentioned that in 2014 he’d seen ads from Kona and New Belgium (though they were much less expensive placements than Ballast Point’s). I feel like I’ve seen some from Goose Island in the past as well. For brands like this, it probably makes sense to at least consider national television campaigns.

But then on the other hand, you have small, local craft breweries. Of course they lack the budget to do any national advertising, but what about cheaper local television campaigns for them? Would they do it? Would it help?

I say no. As Roth pointed out, craft beer has never really embraced advertising. They rely largely on word of mouth and loyalty marketing approaches, such as email. Some have PR budgets. Social media has started driving results for some, but still on a small, local scale.

My hunch is that if smaller craft breweries began doing more traditional advertising, there would be some backlash among their hardcore followers. Many craft beer drinkers are purists. They want to discover the next new great beer or brewery. If there’s an attempt to push it on them, they sniff that out quickly and turn their backs on it. If one of the popular smaller breweries, like a Trillium, Russian River, or Three Floyds ever ran a TV spot, I think they’d lose some fans (and buyers). Part of the appeal of the craft brewing scene is being ‘in the know’. If that group suddenly expands significantly, I think the brewery would lose some of its luster.

Of course I have to state that for most small craft breweries, this conversation about TV campaigns is ridiculous. Aside from being limited by budget, they’re also limited by space and production to do something like that. If you start ratcheting up your advertising, you’re sending a signal you want to acquire a lot of new customers. While mass amounts of new customers sound good in theory, many small breweries can’t handle that, at least not without alienating those customers they’ve already groomed into loyalists and advocates.

So where does that leave us?

This television advertising topic isn’t something that the vast majority of craft brewers need to worry about. But what they should start thinking about is expanding their customer base in a scalable manner. There are a ton of breweries in the United States now. The landscape is becoming more competitive by the day. Breweries should be thinking about new ways to market themselves - but in an authentic manner. Start with the basics - website, social media presence, and an email program. From there consider a PR program. Then maybe a loyalty/ambassador program. Once you’ve done those things, you can get a little more creative in targeting new demographics. Partnerships and events are a big one that I think hold a lot of potential. There are others as well, but every brewery is different, so each needs to consider what could work for it - while remaining authentic to the brand and customer base they’ve built.