How My Favorite Beer Became My Favorite Beer

As a business development manager at Warc — a service devoted to helping advertising professionals create, buy and sell effective advertising — I spend eight hours a day talking to prospective clients, promulgating the value of research and insights as the backbone of an effective ad campaign.

My day job, combined with my friends Gil and Elliot’s recent interest in advertising*, got me thinking about why I’m loyal to some of my own favorite brands.

*Gil and Elliot have begun to take notice of contemporary advertising platforms like product placement, native advertising and highly-paid YouTube celebrities, a.k.a. YouTubers. And since they know I work in advertising, they ask me a lot of questions about how it all works.

And where better to start than a product I buy quite a bit of: beer.

I’d consider myself a bit of a beer snob, but I didn’t start that way. Ten years ago, then in my early 20s and always on a budget, I generally drank whatever was cheapest. My first question when I visited a bar was, “Do you have any specials?”

It wasn’t until a trip to visit my uncle Frankie in Arizona back in 2007 that I started to form a connection to one beer in particular.

When I got off the plane, happy to trade my heavy winter clothing I’d brought from New York for a t-shirt and jeans, Frankie picked me up from the airport and brought me to his favorite local sports bar, Zipps, for some wings and beers.

As I reviewed the bar’s domestic beer selection, Frankie suggested a beer I’d never heard of from a brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. The beer was called Fat Tire.

“Do you mean Flat Tire?” I asked.

“No man, it’s Fat Tire,” Frankie replied.

I ordered the beer with the odd name, and I liked it a lot. It wasn’t too fancy, just a simple, drinkable amber ale. It had more flavor than the cheap, light beers I was used to drinking.

Frankie and I had a great weekend together. Frankie is just six years older than me, so our relationship growing up had been sibling rivalry-esque. But on my visit we had a chance to hang out for the first time as adults. I was glad for the chance to bond with my uncle and, of course, try Fat Tire.

I was disappointed when I returned home and learned that New Belgium, the brewery that produced Fat Tire, hadn’t made its way to New York yet. I would continue to look for Fat Tire every time I visited family or vacationed in Arizona, Las Vegas or Colorado. I enjoyed the thought of having a “go-to” beer on the other side of the country. If a bar, restaurant or casino was serving Fat Tire, I ordered it.

When I got married a few years later, I was excited to learn that Fat Tire was available in Virginia, the state where my wife and I tied the knot. I made sure we were serving my favorite beer during the cocktail hour and reception.

Since that first visit to Arizona, I’ve tried many, many new beers, and have developed a fairly sophisticated palate when it comes to craft beers. Have I had better, or more complex beers than New Belgium’s Fat Tire? Sure. But I still consider Fat Tire my favorite beer. It’s not because it’s the best beer I’ve ever had; it’s because I associate it with that positive memory of my visit to Arizona, the subsequent visits Out West, and my wedding.

So, what does any of this have to do with marketing? What can an advertising professional — for example, someone at an ad agency whose job it is to figure out where and when to advertise on behalf of its client, a craft brewery — take away from my story?

Bud Light and Coors Light, which fall under the massive conglomerates Anheuser-Busch InBev and Molson Coors, have been associating themselves with the things Americans love for many years, particularly when it comes to sports. It’s just about impossible to consume an American sporting event — watching on TV or online, listening on the radio, or in-person — without seeing several ads for these beer brands. And whether you consciously notice it or not, you’re associating the (hopefully) positive experience of watching your team play with the brands that advertise alongside it.

Of course, an independent, employee-owned brewery like New Belgium, or the many even smaller breweries like it, doesn’t have the budget to flood the airwaves with commercials to raise awareness for its beers. But when my wife and I attended a small music festival in Charlottesville, Virginia a few years back, New Belgium was there with a sponsored tent, pouring four of its beers I’d never had before including a tasty summer brew, Snapshot. I’ve purchased Snapshot and other New Belgium beers since then, and I continue to associate their beers with positive memories.

As it turns out, New Belgium didn’t have to spend millions of dollars on a 30-second Super Bowl commercial to create an opportunity to earn my business.

Now, let’s be realistic: I don’t stand in the beer aisle at my local grocery store and stare blankly into the cold cases while replaying all the Fat Tire-related highlights of my life in my head every time I buy a six-pack. But on some level, I’m thinking that when I’m buying that beer, a positive feeling will come along with it.

The craft beer business these days is brutally competitive. While there are more tiny breweries making great beer than there have been in any point in American history, it also means they’re all vying for market share (from beer snobs like me) and, unfortunately, they won’t all get it. But with the limited marketing dollars they do have, they might consider testing the waters with a smaller scale, grassroots approach.

As Peter Sims suggests in his book, Little Bets, if you can cheaply and quickly test an idea, it’ll allow you to tweak a good idea until it’s great — or rule out a bad idea all together. Maybe that means hosting a beer tasting at a local food truck festival. Or sponsoring a tent and selling your best beers at a small concert. Or just pouring small cups of cold beer for sweaty volunteers on a hot day at a charity event, or for runners at the end of a summer 5K.

Small craft breweries will never compete on marketing budgets with AB Inbev and Molson Coors. For most, the best case scenario is to gain enough national attention to get acquired by one of the “Big Beer” companies. Even the biggest American craft brewery, the Boston Beer Company (which brews Samuel Adams) isn’t close. Jim Koch, the BBC’s founder, likes to point out that these mega brewers pour more beer down the drain than his brewery produces in a year. (“My passionate life’s work,” he says, “is their industrial waste.”)

But if you can start small and local, and connect your beer brand with something positive that your prospective consumers can look back on and smile about, I’d say you’re off to a pretty good start.

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