Faris Yakob wonders whether the explosion of the craft beer industry and resulting decline in the fortunes of the brewing behemoths carries any lessons for advertising?
I'm in London this week and, having not been back for a while, I was struck by the visibility of craft beers, which I hadn't noticed to the same degree before. Peckham Pils, Camden Hells Lager and a host of new beers with fun names, even at the local corner shop. The craft beer tidal wave has well and truly landed on UK shores, as it flattens out in the US. Of course, Britain has always had a cask ale tradition of seasonal and experimental flavours, but these were mostly restricted to proper pubs and the Great British Beer Festival.
I was thinking about this when I went to a riverside bistro to have lunch with my aunt. It was posh modern English fare (i.e. not a cask ale in sight) and so I cast a glance at the beer menu and instinctively chose the beer I did not recognise, which gave me pause for thought.
That's not how this is supposed to work. The mere exposure effect means we like things we have seen before, brands invest innumerable sums creating sustainable price premiums through the dispersal of symbols, decision-making is tiresome and fraught with uncertainty, a reliable McDonald's burger will attract custom from a weary traveller in Thailand, and so on. So, I wondered, what's going on here?
Of course, there has always been a segment of the market drawn to difficulty. The early technology adopter who likes tinkering with new platforms, the hipster seeking cultural capital through the knowledge and consumption of things unheard of by the mainstream.
Craft beers initially attracted consumers interested in being interested, which is to say, geeks. Any brewery tour is plagued by 'questions' from bearded men that are just demonstrations of knowledge. As the market grew, it matured. By early 2016, two new craft breweries were opening every day in the US while overall sales have been flat for several years, but that hasn't helped the mainstream giants they were stealing share from. Anheuser-Busch InBev, owner of Budweiser and Stella Artois, have said that beer sales in the US fell 5.6% in Q3 2017.
Budweiser now sells only one third of the volume it did in its peak in 1988, and in an early response to this flagship brand's long-term decline, its parent began one of the greatest consolidations in corporate history. Masterminded by Brazilian investment firm 3G, it assembled the world's largest beer portfolio, with over 500 brands, and it continues to acquire more as new entrants achieve scale.
Especially with beer, it seems, there is a corporate effect to being 'owned by Budweiser', which has a particularly bad place in the hearts of serious beer drinkers. Its purity and consistency are undeniable, but those very factors that helped it become the 'king of beers' make it unmistakably, unremarkably 'drinkable' to quote an old Bud Light campaign. Recent articles such as 'Is Craft Beer a Lie? A Peek Inside the World of 'Big Beer'' highlight the essential problem of folding upstart artisanal brands into a global industrial production system.
Corporate consolidation is increasingly obvious, even when the brands are carefully kept separate. For those consumers looking to make an alternative choice, this is rendered moot when your favourite craft beer becomes part of a behemoth. Historically, consolidated categories present the illusion of freedom through the illusion of choice, but consumers have grown wise and are looking for alternatives, especially in developed markets. Consolidation drives competition on price on the one hand and luxury and differentiation on the other, which is what's happening across the board, with the hollowing out of the middle. The luxury market doesn't want to buy high-end beers from the maker of Bud, which was made clear when AB InBev laid off 90% of its high-end salesforce (380 people) last month.
Another industry that has experienced dramatic consolidation, of course, is advertising, under a handful of holding companies. Brands have been kept separate, but sophisticated buyers know it's an illusion of choice. What, then, does this mean for advertising, and for agencies, when I'm buying brands specifically because I haven't heard of them?