Over the weekend, the AFR published the latest piece in what has become a periodic refrain in media coverage of the beverage industry. Whether it’s private label wine brands pushing independents off shelves, or coverage of the ACCC’s investigations into tap contracts, or a look at the home brand beer labels designed to emulate craft beers, the overriding message is one of siege. The big boys are on the attack, doing everything they can to piggyback off the efforts of hard-working independent producers, or lock them out altogether, and confuse punters in the process.
The work that is being done by industry bodies and outspoken producers is vital, and laudable. In a perfect world, the government would create more stringent labelling requirements, introduce a fairer excise taxation regime that doesn’t disadvantage small producers, and bring an end to anti-competitive practices and punitive use of market power.
Call me a cynic, but if we even get one of these things, it will be a miracle. And while people have to continue to fight the good fight, they also need to find ways to survive and thrive under current conditions.
Yeah, I get it. Your job as a small, independent beer/wine/spirits producer is hard. Margins are tight. You work long hours. The market is getting increasingly crowded. You have to wear a lot of hats, from production to sales to accounts to marketing. Nobody gets into this game for riches or an easy life.
But you need to do better, and you need to think less about your disadvantages, and more about how to capitalise on your advantages.
I have done work with a lot of small producers across the food and drink space. Mostly brewers. And the most common thing that I hear is “I just want to make a good product. I only do the other stuff because I have to.”
While I understand the sentiment, this is not good enough. There is way too much apathy in the craft beverage world when it comes to marketing, and if small producers are going to survive, they need to pull their pants up and understand that marketing isn’t a chore. It is central to their survival.
And yeah, this means time, and resources, and money. But more than anything, it means giving a shit, and getting away from the mindset that all you have to do is produce a better product, and leaving the rest to take care of itself.
Because by the time most punters will get a chance to experience your better product, they’ll have had to put down their hard-earned for the privilege. On this score, many producers rely on their sales outlets to do the heavy lifting. The process goes something like this: Reps drop off samples, come back to talk to the people who are in a position to buy, maybe do a bit of staff education. Their product gets on tap, on the list, or on the shelf, and then it becomes the job of the venue or the bottleshop to hand-sell the beverage to consumers. Throw in a tasting or event here and there, the odd sponsorship or partnership, and maybe some halfassed social media, and you’ve got the sum total marketing strategy for most craft beverage producers in Australia.
Not. Good. Enough.
Let’s break it down, for activities outside of an owned venue or cellar door: 1) Your major internal marketing resource is your sales team (or “Brand Ambassadors” or whatever we’re calling reps these days); 2) You abdicate most of the conversation with consumers about your product to consumer-facing sales outlets; 3) Beyond this, you rely on third parties — event/tasting organisers and other partners — to push the consumer conversation around these activities; 4) You throw some stuff on social media and hope it gets traction.
The first item is something that you already pay for. The second doesn’t cost you any time or money. The third can cost a bit in money and product, but minimal time, other than showing up on the day. And the fourth costs nothing in cash and a minimal time investment.
Not. Good. Enough.
Beyond the quality your product, the only thing you have as a small producer, the only weapon you have access to that the big boys don’t, is your story. It’s a real story, and a true story. It’s about care and craft and passion, and about the fact that (in most cases) you worked in this business, gained expertise, and decided that even with all of the other great options out there, you wanted to do something differently. Different flavours, different ingredients, different processes, different styles. You busted your ass to start your own thing because you wanted to do this in a way that you feel is the right way.
And you know what? The customer wants this story. It’s one of the reasons they’re willing to spend a few extra dollars. They want a sense of connection to place, and ingredients, and the hands that made what they’re drinking. And the minds behind what they’re drinking. They want trust and connection. As corny as it sounds, they want a sincere experience.
This is your brand. And the act of putting your brand into the world is marketing. As much bullshit as gets heaped around both of these words, this is all that they mean. It doesn’t have to be scary or phony or esoteric.
But the job of defining your brand, and marketing your products, does not belong to your sales staff. It doesn’t belong to bartenders or the guy down at the bottleshop. It doesn’t belong to people who run festivals, or charities who get a few slabs/cases as donations. And it doesn’t belong to your cousin who does your graphic design for free, or your mate from uni who built your website for a bit of cash and some booze. It doesn’t belong to your long-suffering partner who takes the photos for your Instagram account. And, although they’re a huge part of the process, it doesn’t ultimately belong to your dedicated fans who strong-arm their mates into buying your stuff.
This job belongs first and foremost to you, and then to professionals who put as much care into their work as you put into yours.
And contrary to popular opinion, there are good professionals out there, who will care as much about your story as you do. Good designers, social media managers, content producers, PR people, who all want to do great work that we can be proud of when we finish up at the end of the day. And we like working with people who have a real story to tell, who are doing something genuine. Not only because it makes our jobs easier when we’re working with dedicated people with a real story to tell, but because it’s rewarding when someone says “you made a real difference in our business” or “I never would have tried this if I didn’t see that post/ video/ website/ article.” Just like your business, we work in a realm where there are a lot of shonky operators and a few people who are in it for the right reasons.
It’s up to you. You can wait for the government to come in and fix things, you can hope that the big boys suddenly develop a conscience, you can keep telling yourself that your only real job is to make great booze and that everything else is bullshit and noise. Or you can use the most powerful tool at your disposal — the story behind what you make, and why — to start building a bond with customers. You can make it so that they know where to get the good stuff, and understand the difference between fake brands and the genuine article once they get to the pub or to the shop.
But first, you have to start caring. And then you have to be willing to put resources behind this process commensurate with how important it is to the survival and growth of your business.
When you’re ready, we’ll be here to help.