The difficulty of building brand loyalty in the wild west of Alberta’s craft beer market

This is going to sound like a joke, but it’s not:

Q: How do you make a professional marketer anxious?

A: Ask them to create a marketing plan for a product that has no brand loyalty.

Like craft beer.

Q: So, there is no brand loyalty? None?

A: Correct. It’s kind of like Groundhog Day. Every time a target consumer buys beer, they stare at the cooler as if they’ve never bought a beer before, but they really only want something new and different. Every time.

Heavy, resigned sigh.

The craft beer market is an ADHD consumer’s nirvana. Virtually every brewery is focused on tickling their customer’s fancy with new hops, new trends, new collaborations, and new hybrids. This drives an insatiable need amongst beer drinkers to try new things. It fuels the market, but how does a brewer respond?

While that may be fun for beer drinkers and brewers, it is very difficult balancing act commercially, potentially unsustainable. After casually asking two retailers how many craft beer customers buy something new with each visit, the unscientific guesses were astounding: 80 per cent and 90 per cent!

Jim Button, co-Founder of Village Brewery, puts it this way: “As a brewery, you have to be coming out with new things all the time. Our old guys say, ‘Why don’t we just have one or two beers?’ The new generation is all about trial and exploration. The way you deal with that is coming up with new things, but you become the safety net with consistent quality.”

How do retailers manage stock when today’s hot new product may become tomorrow’s ho-hum-yawn?

Ismail Bynoe, a partner in The Beer Vault, a N.E. beer store that sells all of their beers in single containers says, “Our main demographic is between 25 to 45, and they want to try different things, primarily local stuff, but anything that is new and different. Our customers are about 60 per cent craft beer drinkers and they want to try different things. Twenty per cent will be the core that wants ‘regular’ beer. The other 20 per cent are the people that are used to drinking the domestic beers, but they are curious. ‘It looks interesting, but I don’t know where to start.’ ”

Shayne McBride, creative strategist at C&B Advertising, who has worked with a number of breweries sums the market up this way: “I think that’s the difference we are seeing with craft and the traditionals. The craft culture is based around trying new things and variety. It’s already starting from a place of trying something new all the time — the newest thing, the hottest thing. I don’t think it’s going to go fully away. What you see if you look at the numbers (is) people have their discovery side, but there also tends to be their ‘safe’ beers for friends that come over who don’t want to push beyond.”

Writer Bryan Roth supports McBride’s assertion, but notes, somewhat alarmingly, in a piece called What We Talk About When We Talk About IPA on, “In a different poll released at the beginning of 2017, Nielsen reported that respondents who self-identified as ‘craft beer drinkers’ claimed an average of 20 different brands as their ‘go-to’ choices.”

If beer drinkers are no longer loyal to their favourite beer, what are they loyal to? In the void, it appears that breweries have become the brand. Whether they are known as high-quality, innovative or outlandish, many breweries count on core customers sticking to their beers, even if they buy different ones each time. Bynoe notes, “There are certain breweries that pump out better beers than others and people gravitate to those more regularly.”

As McBride puts it, “For example, someone might say, ‘I’m a Blindman-man. I like their New England-style beer. I like their Session Ale. They have a Porter. What is their new beer like? I trust them, I know it’s good. I’ll try the new things.’ ”

However, brewery as a brand is a double-edged sword when there are more followers than leaders.

“It’s becoming more mature,” says McBride. “In the last few years, you could brand as craft — it’s handmade, batch-brewed, local — but if everyone is the same, there needs to be something else. It will come back to Brand Building 101, being different from competitors and, right now in craft brewing, that’s the challenge. You are seeing a bunch of breweries that look and act the same.  It can’t be, ‘We are local guys who really (have) an affinity for beer — come, and get it’ because there are 25 of those that started in the last year.”

Button asserts, “I think the highest priority for any company, regardless of whether it’s a craft beer company or not, is purpose. But, I would agree that the brand is being switched over to the brewery. It was imperative that our name is synonymous with the beers: Village Blonde, Village Bobby.”

The way breweries are attempting to build strong brands differs. Who is leading?

According to the retailer, Bynoe, “Zero Issue, Siding 14 — I love their cans and labels. Really, really good.”

Button points to some fellow brewers as examples. “I always see Beau’s and Phillips. Both do (marketing) really well. Persephone. Locally, companies like Cold Garden have an incredible taproom and that’s all they need. What is marketing in that case? Do they need any more?”

McBride highlights others, “Village has a good story to tell. Big Rock is similar since they have the original origin story. I always like people that do interesting things with their labeling. On the shelf, it is an area to stand out. Collective Arts does something interesting by bringing artists in. Collaborations are really interesting, too. I think you will start to see targeted collaborations, not just chummy industry folks.”

In the short term, the craft beer drinker is clearly the winner. While breweries sort out how to be sustainable longterm or which beers to keep brewing or which seasonals to release, the amount of choice available is magnificent. Enjoy it while you can and revel in a mostly unbridled market.

Jay Nelson is a beer geek, not snob, who has written for a small number of mostly forgotten publications, in a wildly erratic manner, since being named the Editorial Editor of his High School newspaper. He is a non-award winning home brewer and a non-BJCP certified judge, although he aspires to both.