Who Needs a Super Bowl Ad to Sell Beer? Not Craft Brewers' Clever Marketers

Games of Thrones Beer
Games of Thrones Beer

If there's one thing about the Super Bowl that's truly predictable, it's the presence of Anheuser-Busch InBev. The beer giant's flagship brand, Bud Light, will run not one but two 60-second ads during the big game, and it's also transformed a New Orleans hotel into "Bud Light Hotel." Meanwhile, fellow AB brand Budweiser will also make its usual appearance: It will run a 60-second ad depicting a newborn Clydesdale horse, and the company is currently asking social media users to help name the foal. It will also run two 30-second ads for Budweiser Black Crown, its latest offering.

But you won't see any ads during the game from the fastest-growing segment of the beer industry: craft brewing. These small brewers produce only a fraction of a percent of the beer sold by the likes of AB-InBev, so a $30-million Super Bowl ad blitz simply isn't feasible.

But that doesn't mean that craft brewers are content to just let the beers speak for themselves. As America's taste for microbrews has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade, small breweries are finding ways to make the most of their small marketing budgets.

A Growing Taste for Salesmanship

In December, Brewery Ommegang, a Cooperstown, New York-based brewer of Belgian-style beers, announced its latest creation: Iron Throne Blonde Ale. Fans of HBO's "Game of Thrones" quickly spotted the reference to the seat of power in the epic fantasy series. And the name is no accident: The brew is the result of a collaboration between the brewery and HBO; Ommegang says it will create new varieties to coincide with future seasons of the show.

The move generated significant buzz in the national media, getting mentions on outlets ranging from The Washington Post to The New York Times. "The scale of this is certainly significantly above anything we've had before, as far as publicity," says Bill Wetmore, Ommegang's marketing director.

Of course, the promotion won't reach nearly as many eyeballs as Bud Light's Super Bowl ads. But for a brewery of its size -- last year Ommegang sold roughly 31,000 barrels of beer, while AB InBev typically sells about about 340 million barrels -- it's nothing short of a marketing coup.

And Ommegang isn't the only small brewery to execute savvy marketing plays without an enormous budget.

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Dogfish Head, a Delaware-based brewery known for its 90 Minute IPA, was the subject of a Discovery Channel reality show, "Brewmasters," that ran for one season in 2010. Another brewer, Oregon-based Rogue Ales, teamed with celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto of "Iron Chef" fame to create a series of co-branded ales. And there are unauthorized celebrity tie-ins, too: Brooklyn-based Sixpoint got some media buzz in 2008 with a beer named for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama -- and even more buzz when the government ordered the brewery to stop production.

Proportionally speaking, craft brewers spend significantly less on marketing than the big boys: Agata Kaczanowska, beverage analyst for IBISworld, notes that craft brewers' marketing budgets were about 3.6% of revenue in 2012, versus around 7% for MillerCoors. But she says that marketing spend among craft brewers is definitely on the rise.

Aggressive Expansion

The increased focus on marketing has coincided with the rapid growth of the craft brew industry: Dollar sales for craft brewers were up 14% in the first half of 2012, according to the Brewers Association.

Greg Koch, co-founder and CEO of Stone Brewing Co., attributes that rapid growth primarily to the high quality of the product in the bottle. "I think craft brewing as a category is getting more mainstream attention based primarily on the beer itself," he says.

Still, he acknowledges that good marketing has played a role in garnering that mainstream acceptance. "Craft brewers are creative ones, and they enjoy applying [that creativity] not just to the formulation, but to the way we package it and name it." Indeed, Stone has a knack for picking attention-grabbing names for its beers, including Arrogant Bastard Ale and Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale. (For more clever marketing tricks, see the gallery below.)

But that growth has also meant increased competition. New breweries are popping up almost daily: The Brewers Association report noted that 350 opened between June 2011 and August 2012.

"Increasing competition is a major concern for brewers, especially those who have been in market a long time," says Kaczanowska. "Those brewers that already exist, they don't want consumers to stray too far from that brand."

Still, even the established brewers tend to be too small to afford national advertising campaigns. So they're left to get creative with what limited marketing budget they have, and that's how we wind up with clever promotions like Iron Throne Blonde Ale.

We may never get to a point where a craft brewer runs a TV ad during the Super Bowl. But many brewers are already proving that they don't need to.


Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

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