April 1, 2011

The Session #50: I Know How to Run the Business, and I Can Make You Want to Buy the Product

The immortal Alan McLeod of the aptly-named "A Good Beer Blog" is hosting this month's Session, which is titled "How Do They Make Me Buy the Beer."

Be still the Curator's beating heart. It's like our Canadian friend threw me a nice, fat pitch right down the pipe. I mean, this is what my blog is about, right? So I should be going nuts. As Alan put it:

What makes you buy someone's beer? Elemental. Multi-faceted. Maybe even interesting.

Well, let's first dispense with the obvious: Statistically, you're more likely to buy a beer you've already bought and liked. Duh. And, for those of us beer geeks, we're going to immediately try a new beer because, well, that's what we do. So we're not talking about that. Let's focus instead on one potential decision. For a beer geek who sits in front of the majestic cooler cobbling together a mixed six on her way home, or the relative newbie who is trying to pick out a beer or five to try, what factors influence those decisions?

I had a relatively long Twitter conversation Wednesday night with a Philly area designer/beer lover Swabreen Bakr, who suggested that she doesn't pay attention to labels much, but rather relies on descriptions and peer recommendations. Many other posts on this topic, as well, seem to be echoing the sentiment that we make our own decisions, and no one makes us buy their beer.

I teach psychology at a career training institute, and one of the main things I reinforce to my students is that the reasons we believe we are making decisions, largely, are not the actual reasons. As humans, we have all sorts of mental shortcuts and things that manipulate us without our knowing it. I know, I know, that must be true of other people, not of you. You, brilliant reader, are a savvy consumer and always know when you are being manipulated.

You buy things because he tells you to.
Except you're not immune. Neither am I.

Women are attracted to the color red. We feel more positively about the things on the same side as our dominant hand. We think about sex more when we are scared. Someone touching us on the right side makes us 30% more likely to say yes to them. A bottle of wine with a critter on it sells better than one without. The most commonly ordered wine in any restaurant is the second-least expensive. We like new things. I'm not going to link a study for all of them, but each of those statements is absolutely true, and I guarantee you none of the test subjects in the studies that confirmed such things ever thought they were true about themselves.

This is why design and branding matter; because we as people take mental shortcuts all the damn time. As a skilled graphic designer, Bakr might be inured to some of the charms of other designers, but I'd humbly submit that, for most of us, reading the description of 50 bottles, let alone the hundreds available at most bottle shops, is not realistic. Instead, we rely on visual cues and our own associations. One is mostly design, the other is mostly branding. So yes, they do make us buy beer. The ones who are really good at it do it without us noticing.
Would this man sell weak beer?

Good package design not only is eye-catching, it says something about the product within. You can put lots of hops and explosions on the label of a restrained, subtle porter, but you'll confuse the hell out of people, and after they get over the confusion of the first sip, they'll never buy the beer again. This is not to say that all good package design has clear pictures of appropriate ingredients and prominent flavor items. For example, Stone's label art, which has never featured a hop of which I am aware, easily lets you know you are in for intense flavors. Of course, their brand, which is national by now, helps with that.

Lots of craft breweries waited on branding, thinking of it as something that comes after you've gotten the operation up and running. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, we're now seeing that happen less and less. For production breweries, especially, it really needs to be something that comes before the beer even hits vessels. People are going to make an association with their first sip of your beer, and your branding is going to affect what those associations are. Are they classy, folksy, rustic, modern, minimalist, aggressive, artistic, sophisticated, fun, serious etc.? Is it the type of beer you can order at a business lunch, or... not.

I'll drink your beer if you promise not to devour me.
An interesting point of production breweries is that, unlike brewpubs, they often start by needing drinkers to be loyal to a beer or two. If you like New Brewing Co's IPA or stout, then you'll give their future efforts a shot. This outlier bias might be in part responsible for the extreme beer craze; if a brewery puts out a memorable DIPA or ImpyStout, you'll remember it and try their Kolsch when you need something less intense. If New Brewing Co. starts you off with a Kolsch... well, Lew Bryson and I will be happy, but most drinkers may not remember it as well as a 12% destroyer of tastebuds. Notch Session Ale has built a whole brand around lighter beer, which just shows they understand the challenges of trying to distinguish taste with a low abv.

Probably the best thing you can do as a brewery is convince drinkers they're already on your side before you ever pour drop one. If people already think you're a great brewer, they'll be invested in liking your beer more.  Consistency bias is one of the biggest reasons we do things; humans really like being right, and if we decide that New Brewing Co.'s head brewer was awesome and that it's the next big thing, chances are we'll give his beer every second chance and benefit of the doubt.

With 1700 projected breweries and climbing, I am coming to believe that there will be a little bit of an arc for most production breweries. They will start with bold, attention-grabbing design imagery to get people to notice their beer. Then, if the beer is good, as more people learn about the brewery and the market becomes more stable, the brewery can transition more to a consistent, stable brand that markets the brewery. A good logo (like Odonata's), or consistent design motifs across beer labels, can help make this transition easier.

We buy beer for lots of reasons, and taste and price are only two of them. Marketing, design, and branding matter. When you associate your efforts with things people like, it matters. When you associate your beer with well-known places and people, that matters. When you associate yourself with idiocy, that matters, too. All of these matter so much precisely because consumers are unlikely to realize every single association they have with your beer. We're going to pick one bottle - or six - and chances are we either won't think hard about it, or we'll think our decision is based on reason. But you, as an intelligently marketed and branded brewery, know better. That's how you make us buy your beer.

1 comment:

  1. When I first started getting into beer, I would often use the label design as a rough guide. If I felt it was classy or tasteful, I'd take a closer look. Nowadays, I have a good enough idea of what I want (or reputations of various beers/breweries) that I can narrow things down considerably, but I'm still often relying on Brand as a driving factor.

    It's fun every now and again to walk into a big bottle store and pick out something I've never heard of though, and I have to admit that label design is probably a key component to that process. Nice post!