Branding beer: So Many Choices; So Few Reasons to Choose
By Tom Dougherty, CEO — Stealing Share
The battle for market share
The battle for market share and marketing advantage in the beverage industry has never been keener. Marketers in every beverage category are struggling to create even the thinnest shred of product differentiation in a mind-numbing field of brands.
As brand managers from soft drinks to flavored malts grapple to identify and claim a distinctive spot in the minds of beverage consumers, it’s time to take stock. Have we crossed the line into that marketing paradox where competitive brands’ attempts to be different are all starting to look the same?
As the beer industry wakes up to the “morning after” its annual marketing binge surrounding the college and NFL football postseason, suds advertising and promotion provides a ready opportunity to examine the possibility of “pseudo-differentiation.” Beer outlets have never had so many offerings.
The competition is fierce and the choices seem endless. To the consumer, the selection is almost overwhelming, with imports, domestics, light beers, low-carb formulas, upscale brands, budget brands, the burgeoning flavored malt beverage category, and so on. Each commercial break or trip to the beer aisle unveils a raft of choices the beer consumer has never even heard of, much less developed any preference for.
Steal the market share
Such a splintered scenario must be a marketer’s nightmare. Genuinely gaining share (ideally from a competitor’s brand, not one of your sister labels) in such a carnival midway-like environment requires the ability to return to the marketing truism that beer purchasers often are looking beyond quenching their thirst. They also are seeking touse their choice of a beer brand to express a facet of their own identities. This being the case, marketers are correct when they segment the marketplace to better define the terrain where they do battle. (Read a case study on Fat Tire here)
Beer brands and segments overlap, but they also are distinct and give consumers the opportunity to connect with different brands in different situations. For example, sometimes a beer drinker might be in a frugal frame of mind and purchase a mass-marketed domestic beer. At other times, the same consumer might see him- or herself as an aficionado, and be willing to fork over the bigger bucks for a micro-brew or an imported choice.
What Consumers Buy
At still other times, buyers will identify with “personality” attributes displayed purposefully by the brand itself and then they… they… they… do what? Fact is, we don’t know what consumers do when motivated by identity with a brand because with so many brands and sub-brands saying relatively the same things to the same target in the same manner, consumers have a hard time locking in on a single brew with which to identify. This spells trouble for beer marketers. The consumer’s earnest search for a brand with which to identify leaves him or her faced with a maze of brews whose only distinguishing feature is that they are the choice for people who like to party, like sports, like to have fun with friends, like to date attractive people, like to listen to rock music… you know the rest of the prototype.
For consumers, the ads all seem to blend into one faceless and funny joke. They remember the joke, they remember the characters, but they simply can’t remember—let alone connect to—the brand. So, what do they buy? A huge market share prize awaits the marketers who find a way to separate from the pack and create positioning beer drinkers can settle on.
The need to build a unique, “ownable” connection with the consumer is why the hallmark of great advertising, as we all know, is being different and better. We all know that we should look at not just the message of the brand but the way in which it is communicated as a jumping-off point in advertising and brand execution. If you want to steal share you need to be seen by consumers not only as distinctive, different and better, but also as the brand meant for them. Who wins when consumers continue to be confused over which brand is “theirs?”
The answer is as obvious as it is distasteful to brands whose mission is to steal share. When beer drinkers fail in their attempts to see themselves in a brand’s “personality,” many will in effect allow other beer drinkers help them make the choice. They default to the perceived market leader. Pop the top on another “King of Beers.” Clearly, not every one loses when supposed brand differentiation in reality degrades into brand homogenization.