I wore my finest tinfoil hat a few weeks ago when I probed the malty innards of Miller’s marketing monstrosity, Fortune, but that entire post was built from my own subjective interpretation of events. I had no proof of my assertions, just a hunch, an inkling, a little trickle of doubt that I saw turning into a deluge of truth at some point in the future.
But this time around, my crazy conspiracy actually has some tangible heft (in the form of documentation). I found a mangy little JPEG bouncing around Twitter and can’t attest to it’s veracity, but it certainly looks real enough, and if not just a clever piece of satire, reaffirms a lot of what I’ve thought about Big Beer’s approach for a long time now.
Anyone who has ventured deep into the dusty aisles of beer stores of late knows about Shock Top. It’s right there in cans and bottles, sixers and mixers, the silly anthropomorphic slice of orange logo grinning at you from his banner of “Belgian White.” It’s popularity (and in turn production) surged 61% in 2011-2012, and it surpassed all the other rapidly expanding breweries, like Lagunitas and Bells.
The beer is right smack in the middle of what I’d very scientifically describe as “meh.” But I’m not here to bash the beer. It’s not to my taste or something I’d buy, but a lot of people like it (if sales figures are to be trusted) and I’m not one to objectively analyze subjective wants and likes.
No, let’s leave the beer itself out of this. Instead, let’s focus on the creeping, sneaking message behind the beer.
It’s something a lot of those with their ear to the brewery floor have known for a long time: Shock Top lives a dirty, dirty lie. Like it’s competitive brethren, it wants you to believe that it was crafted delicately, intentionally, by a local, small brewery who cares about their beer and their customers. A meticulously crafted campaign dances on the beer store stage like an ornate Kabuki mask, distracting you, deceiving you, convincing you that you’re buying into the decadent world of craft beer every time you walk out of the store with a twelve pack of Shock Top on your arm.
Shock Top is owned and brewed by Labatt and ABInBev (a massive conglomerate that holds 47.2% of the beer market share in the US), not some local, small, craft brewery. The majority of people associated with beer already knew this, and the merits of “pseudo craft beers” have long been argued and analyzed in the “craft vs. crafty” debate. Most of the argument comes down to economics, with the Brewer’s Association (I might argue rightfully) not wanting the massive behemoths of beer cutting into their market share with dubious advertising strategies instead of competitive products.
But the “problem” with crafty beer was nebulous and hard to pin down, especially when trying to explain the differences between Shock Top and say, Allagash White, to the non-brewing savvy public. There was little to go on other than, “it’s brewed by a huge corporation and that makes it evil beer or something.” The defenders of small and local didn’t exactly have the strongest rhetorical basis in the world.
Proof! Long beautiful proof
This image appears to be a “Connections Brief” from Labatt/ABInBev regarding their marketing plans for Shock Top. While jargon-stained copy is typically boring and inconsequential, this particular document reveals a lot about how Big Beer views its consumers, and how they view beer, as a commodity, in general:
The main (and really only) ruse that Shock Top intends to perpetuate is that it comes from a “small brewer.”
This is the beating heart of the hideous beerbeast, the one thing it must do to continue feeding on the consumer dollars it needs to live. For a while, you could have considered that a side-effect of that brand, or some other unlucky coincidence, but here we see that this behavior is deliberate and intentional, the malicious brain child of an earnings report meeting and the executive board.
Regardless of how the beer tastes or if you like it, Labatt/ABInBev is lying to you to sell its product.
Sure, it’s lying by omission (as they’re not actively denying that Shock Top is brewed by a big company if you look into it), but it’s still lying. And that, as a consumer with dollars to spend, should piss you off. They want you to believe this came form that little guy down the street, the one who poured her entire life into a small business, who just wants to brew good tasting beer and sell enough of it to make a living doing what she loves. I’ve got news for you: the average small brewer doesn’t use phrases like, “drive penetration with Experience Maximizers in the “Reward Myself” need state.”
I mean holy shit, they don’t even call it beer, they call it “approachable liquid.”
Bad gets worse
Perhaps even more egregious than the omission of key information is the fact that Labatt is playing into the “craft beer is confusing and intimidating” idea. Their anecdotal drinker, “Matt,” claims (in rather palpably business-like tones) that most craft beers are too pretentious for him to even try them. This is Labatt swinging a baseball bat and hitting two demographics squarely in the jaw in the same follow through. First, they’re insulting their own demographic, suggesting they’re not sophisticated or educated enough to make their own choices about what to drink, and second, they’re insulting those who do choose to drink other beer, dismissing them as pretentious assholes.
To finish off this cavalcade of corporate shenanigans, Labatt has a plan to continue to “maintain micro/craft credentials” even though it doesn’t have any to begin with. Their entire campaign to sell an incredible 40% more beer is built off of the backs of all those small business based breweries (some who are still struggling financially), riding the “craft beer revolution” without actually adding anything to it, and literally cashing in on an insane amount of money in the process.
The whole point of this renaissance in beer is to give beer enthusiasts higher quality, better tasting options. It’s also sort of a grassroots resurgence in supporting local small business, giving back to your community economically, saying hell no to big-box and hell yes to family owned and run. Labatt doesn’t care about that. They don’t care about local economies, and more importantly they don’t care about the people they’re foisting their product on.
To the brewer down the street who puts a little bit of her own soul into every batch she brews, you’re a valued customer keeping her business afloat. To Labatt, ABInBev, and all the other big beer guys, you’re just a wallet that they need to set to the “Reward myself” need state.
And now we have the proof.
As an added bonus, I managed to find the original tracked changes version of the Connects Briefing with some notes that didn’t make it into the final: