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Will the beer brand with the biggest cojones please stand up?

Categories: Food for thought

Posted on 09-30-10 at 12:20 p.m.

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As a former category insider, I was privy to the strategies and trajectories of almost every “relevant” beer brand on the Canadian landscape for well over a decade. As a result, I feel well-placed to point out the lucrative positioning opportunity awaiting the beer brand that can align itself with the dominant values of today’s young adult beer drinker. 

My distance from the beer industry has given me a refreshed perspective and a sorely needed reprieve from the hegemonic forces of groupthink – forces that pull brands inexorably into overcrowded positioning terrain and towards the nullity of advertising cliché.  Clearly, this is self-defeating.

More importantly, as CEO of CROP, the research organization behind Canada’s longest-running Social Values Program, I have repeatedly noted a glaring disconnect between the values of young adult male drinkers and the experiences offered to them by beer brands. While the audience shows a thirst for brands with more verve, attitude and edge, the industry serves up safe, interchangeable and played-out expressions of male bonding.

How many beer ads – which often feel like 30-second gag reels (some funny, most… not so much) – will the industry churn out to an increasingly tuned-out audience?

We all know the recipes: brand as champion (i.e. guy chooses beloved brew over the bombshell)… product as social lubricant (i.e.  the rallying force/binding agent for male bonding ritual)… thirst quenching cues (i.e. the cold, sweaty bottle, the spiralling pour shot)… the consumer has seen it all, probably a thousand times.

I’ve listened on countless occasions as beer lovers dismissed the formulaic character of beer ads, during focus groups, deep-dive one-on-ones or ethnographic investigations. I’ve also observed these sentiments systematically reflected in quantitative data. Let’s face it, the formula is generating diminishing returns. Brands that fail to acknowledge this are whistling right past a genuine marketing opportunity.

Granted, the nature of the category (the CRTC exercises power over creative expression), imposes limitations. Nevertheless, on the contemporary landscape of interactive media, viral communication and word-of-mouth, beer marketers have an array of powerful new levers to pull.

And out there is today’s young adult beer consumer, a far more transgressive and adrenaline-fuelled character than the archetype served up in mainstream beer ads (i.e. the Dork / the Fast Talker / the Average Joe / the Ladies Man).

The proof is the pudding. Shown above (in picture insert) is what we like to call our Testosterone Index (based on a combination of trends we track including Attraction for Crowds, Sexual Permissiveness, Attraction to Violence, Vitality, Pursuit of Intensity and Emotion and Penchant for Risk Taking). It compares three groups; the adult Canadian population, 18-24 year old non-beer drinkers and 18-24 year old beer drinkers. The verdict … beer drinkers have an appetite for pushing the envelope.

Of course, it is true that conveying intensity, attitude and edge carries its fair share of risk (hey, nobody wants to relate to a blowhard, or worse yet, an overbearing dude who can’t hold his liquor). However, other brands have worked this terrain to brilliant ends. I can think of countless brands that mix healthy doses of transgression, dissent, urban cool and aspirational value to achieve pop cultural relevance (Spike TV, Doc Martens, PSP, Red Bull, Harley Davidson, UFC, Jack Daniels and Nike, to name a few).

Right now, Budweiser and Molson Export would seem to roam closest to that Promised Land. In my humble opinion, both still fall short – not for any lack of strategic vision, but because of the weight of their existing equities and image assets. In the case of Bud, the brand is simply too big and mainstream to risk marginalizing itself in any way.

And so, a golden opportunity awaits the brand with the savvy to become super-relevant to a group of drinkers looking to have their values, attitudes and self-identity reinforced. The brand that successfully appropriates or, better yet, enables such an experience stands to benefit handsomely.

Contact us to discuss the marketing opportunities within your reach.