The Art of Storytelling and the Craft of Beer

beer story_jpg

From an early age, we are drawn to the mythic nature of stories.Wondrous lands, conniving villains and our heroes that save the day.

The stories we share are a connection between us – some kind of tether to the centuries of ancestors before us who regaled each other with tales of foreign lands or make-believe creatures. Truly, storytelling is part of who we are:

…human beings are natural storytellers—that they can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.

In our modern society, this is particularly relevant as we move past cliched marketing trends of the past. We’ve reached a point where it now takes more than shining lights and pretty faces to sell a product. Especially when it comes to beer.

In a previous post on gender, beer and male expectations, I wondered: what happens when we no longer have to rely on the stereotypical marketing ploy of sexed-up women?

When our focus goes beyond “yellow fizz” of BMC beers and is retrained on the culture of craft, our assumptions change.

When we no longer need gimmicks to sell a product because the product sells itself, what’s the next step for the beer industry? For that, we must make a beer or a company bigger than just something in our glass.

For that, we need stories.

When crafting business plans, breweries now must consider the broader appeal of their beer. In a crowded market, how can their product stand out? If 45 percent of craft beer drinkers would try more beers if they knew more about them, how could you turn away from that?

In the territory of craft beer, that might mean sharing more information about what hops you use or the process of which a beer was made. At a base level, that’s still a function of storytelling – you’re sharing the intimate details of how a beer went from grain to glass.

But in marketing a product, the context for the beer is also key. For example, take my local hangout, Fullsteam. They recently began selling cans of a pale ale, but their choice to sell it in cans was deliberate:

[Owner Sean Lily] Wilson said that the liquid plays an important role in Fullsteam’s choice of the package type and size — as well as the accompanying price tag — in that the brewery attempts to pair taste and the drinking experience with the vessel itself.

“Beers for conversation,” said Wilson, “are beers that kind of sit in the background.”

A beer for YOUR storytelling.

Their beer, Cackalacky, should take on a role for hanging out with friends and relaxing. The story may not be about the beer itself, but it is about you, the consumer. It’s meant to be part of the story you want to tell.

New Belgium focused hard on this last year when the company unveiled its first TV ad since 2005 – a national spot, no less – featuring the tagline, “pairs well with people.”

But the real shift in storytelling has taken place at the macro level, where cultural shifts help to drive changes. We no longer want buxom babes or parties to sell us on our beer. Experiences and life lessons provide stronger connections. It’s perhaps rooted in aspects of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the feeling that as humans, we want to be important to each other and be a part of something bigger – a story.

For instance, take Miller Lite’s newest pitch for their beer, the “I am rich” campaign, which takes an approach I wrote about back in November to focus more on the core values of Millennial beer drinkers. In their commercials, they use the story of a 20-something male to highlight the “authenticity” of the beer and how this man (and you), along with their beer, can find value in life:

Friends coming into his apartment are greeted by his dog, while a voiceover suggests that his apartment overlooks Central Park and that they are greeted by his butler.

“My helipad is being resurfaced, so tonight we travel by more humble means,” the voiceover says, as you see the man and his friends walking down the street.

The push comes as smaller craft beers, often seen as more authentic by consumers, have eaten away at the sales of some more established brands.

“The search for authenticity is something that’s really important right now,” said Amanda Devore, marketing manager for Miller High Life. She said that Miller High Life has “great heritage” and “it’s the right time to support that.”

But it doesn’t end there. Consider Miller Fortune, which is promoted as an upscale beer for 20-somethings that encourages drinkers to create a story of their own and “open Pandora’s bottle“:

In one commercial, Mr. Strong says, “You never know where Fortune leads.” In another, he urges a millennial to go back into a bar he just left, “fight the coming of tomorrow and make it the kind of night most men can only dream of.” The spots end with the declaration, “Your Fortune awaits.”

AB InBev is also focusing on this advertising style with one of the country’s fastest growing “craft” brands: Shock Top.

Members of the company recently participated in a special YouTube “bootcamp” in order to learn tricks of the trade for creating online video content. The reason? Their brand new campaign to encourage drinkers to “Live Life Unfiltered” with their beer.

For early brand commercials, that meant one man hiking to “America’s highest bar” in Telluride, Colo. and a woman who wanted to jump from the world’s tallest bungee bridge in South Africa. In both cases, Shock Top is telling the story how these people are living “unfiltered” with the help of their beer, showing that as a lifestyle brand, Shock Top is able to help consumers live the stories they want.

And there lies the problem.

What’s the contrast you see here between craft and Big Beer? These are admittedly cherry-picked, but I’d dare say craft advertising, no matter what it may be, differs in this big way: Big Beer wants to be a part of your story, but they want to narrate it. Craft also wants to be a part of your story, but they want you to lead the way.

As marketing continues to shift, this will be pivotal. Consumers – especially those craft-chugging Millennials – don’t want to be told what to do. Brand loyalty is no longer guaranteed. Not just as drinkers – but as humans – we want to be part of something big. We want to be part of a story.

But for beer companies, it’s important to remember that when everyone is trying to tell your story for you, all they have to do is stop and listen to realize you’re the better story teller. It’s in our nature, after all.


+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac


16 thoughts on “The Art of Storytelling and the Craft of Beer

  1. I just clicked from you to BMC beers. New one for me. Two stories. I once asked a micro brewer from England what he really thought of Fosters. He said “It’s great! I use it to wash out my fermenter.”
    Second story: I asked the brewer at our local Ballarat boutique brewery what he though of Fosters. He said it was great. When I asked why, he said that because it had no taste he used it to test out different hops. He take a stubbie of Fosters and put one pellet of a new hops in it and leaves it for a while and then tastes it. It gives a good indication of what effect that hops will have as a finishing hops.

    1. That hop experiment is a great idea. I haven’t tried it myself, but I remember reading last year about a homebrewer who would buy a case of Bud Light and do that exact test with hops to prepare for his next homebrew. Plus, I suspect it makes drinking those types of beer much more palatable – and the cost is great if you’re buying hops, too.


      1. By the way, have you looked at my beer page on my blog.. at the moment I’m concentrating on moonshine

      2. This would also be a great way for a blogger to explore different varieties of hops, provided that one could buy a very small amount of a bunch of different hops easily.

  2. As a baby boomer I’m not afraid to admit that I’ll miss the buxom blondes to a certain degree. After all, if I have to live through a Miller commercial, boobs help. Just saying.

    I’m glad beers are trying to be more intelligent (can I use that word?) with their ads. The newer ones (I like the “Rich” ones) are at least focused on making a statement to the beer drinker that doesn’t involve vortex bottles, shotgun cans, magical mystical mountains or marketing slight of hands (like the brewery that was pushing the distinction of its beer by saying it was made with genuine Pacific coast North West USA hops, as if no other brewer in the US uses hops from the North West).

    1. I think the first beer commercial that created a long-running memory for me was that Miller Super Bowl commercial that had the women wrestling and tearing their clothes off. Because, you know.

      But I’m glad that’s not the status quo anymore. Especially if these companies focus on the growing Millennial drinking population, where that kind of stuff just won’t fly.

  3. I think places like Stone Brewing (attitude), Evil Twin (kwirky) and Parallel 49 (bottle art, awesome names) have really nailed the story and brand combo. I have seen a lot of craft beers put a silly story that is all marketing gobbledygook which does nothing for me and seems like a lame attempt. However, labels like “too much coffee man” from Gigantic and creative names will get my attention. I won’t be buying a “Victory Bottle” anytime soon though…

    1. Many breweries are doing a good job focusing on their brand positioning, which is more important than ever given the crowded market. In truth, every craft brewery could probably push the “quirky” angle – I’ve rarely encountered a business that didn’t have some of that aspect – but focusing on what’s unique to your local base is really important, too. It’s fun to see the inventiveness of all these breweries.

      1. Very true, I think the key here is not to pretend to be something you are not (example, why when a commercial brewer pretends to be a craft brewer we get pissed off and don’t believe them). They need to focus on what makes them unique and go nuts with it, authentically talk about it whenever possible. I had an Evil Twin Disco Beer the other day and the tagline was “This Champagne of beer is a real party starter, no more shy beer geek. Drink it and you will own the dance floor”. That is perfect, it speaks to their audience (beer geeks) and links to the name of the beer and yet it is simple. Picking this up and reading that makes you want to buy it and enjoy it. Recently I picked up another beer by a company I won’t mention which made up some story about a mythical miner I had never heard of (nor has google), it made me want to put it down as it was meaningless and clearly made up gibberish. Personally I think the commercial beers should go over the top with their message, like axe deodorant does, that would be better than trying to play in the middle ground.

  4. I never watch TV live so I don’t see commercials. I do like some of the social media marketing that some local breweries have been doing lately. Two examples.

    Ballast Point frequently posts pictures presumably submitted by their fans of a ballast point beer in a far off place. Most often this is a can of Sculpin that happened to make it to the top of a mountain or other exotic place. I like the message this sends of “we are in cans now so go do fun stuff and take our beer with you!”

    Green Flash has been doing something similar but they decided to call their latest Rye IIPA Road Warrior so they could focus on images specifically of that beer all over the country. The suggestion is that the beer is traveling all over and this supports adventurous tendencies of consumers.

    1. Both are really good examples, too. The Bud Light and Coors Facebook pages often highlight user-generated content, but it’s mostly just shots of the cans in everyday locations or with animals. Crowd pleasers, sure, but I think your examples also speak to the commitment (and perhaps artistry) that may be more prevalent with craft drinkers.

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