It defies normal beer-selling logic—why spend effort marketing your beer to audiences outside of your geographical area who have no regular means of purchasing your beer? For decades, though, brewers have done just that—sending beer to Denver for the Great American Beer Festival and ancillary events around the city that coincide with the event. The resultant excitement from local and visiting beer fanatics provided a reliable spike in brand hype, and awards won at the festival were reliable marketing tools for garnering organic coverage from local and regional press.
But the increasing decentralization and localization of craft beer has led to an array of new options for growing a brewery’s credibility and demand beyond the tried-and-true GABF. Today, smaller niche festivals, limited or expiring distribution contracts, and out-of-market collaborations provide great ways to build brand advocates in remote markets—customers whose interest can drive a more direct impact on your bottom line than you might think.
With some notable exceptions, the one-size-fits-all beerfest is largely a vestige of the past. In its place, smaller brewer-led festivals have arisen, allowing influential brewers to connect with likeminded breweries both in and out of their market. These “vanity” beer festivals are generally smaller affairs in terms of revenue and attendance, but their impact can be widely felt.
Once the province of larger craft brewers such as Firestone Walker (the Firestone Walker Invitational), Cigar City (Hunahpu’s Day), or 3 Floyds (Dark Lord Day), the festival drive has filtered down to breweries a fraction of their size, with everyone from Voodoo Brewery (Good Vibes Fest) to J Wakefield (WakeFest Invitational) to WeldWerks (WeldWerks Invitational) to Anchorage Brewing (The Culmination Festival) launching festivals over the past few years.
From a brand perspective, these festivals work in two directions—connecting the organizing brewery with “cool” friends while at the same time validating the visiting breweries as important and worth a very limited invitation.
From a financial standpoint, these festivals can also be effective business drivers for small breweries. One brewery that asked not to be named visited an out-of-state festival put on by industry friends, with modest expectations, only to find that it impacted their financial bottom line far more positively than expected.
In the months after the festival, inspired beer fanatics from that state traded and sought out their beer to such a degree that the brewery fulfilled orders for hundreds of crowlers to individuals who would drive more than ten hours each way to pick up beer at the brewery (and drive it back to their home state). Don’t underestimate the buying power of motivated beer fanatics.
More common, however, is the trading bump. A strong showing for a particular brewery or beer at a tightly curated festival in a larger city can drive increased interest from the trading markets, and once demand spikes, that demand begets greater demand in a snowball effect. Local drinkers who may have taken the brand for granted in the past no longer have that luxury, and the positive effect bleeds over from rare releases into mainstream brands as well.
The downside of this strategy is that a poor showing at a high-caliber festival can have the opposite effect in the inscrutable beer-trading underworld. Phoning it in isn’t an option, so take your “A” game or decline the invitation.
The concept of a short-term distribution contract is a relatively new one, gaining traction over the past three years as consumer interest in limited beers has convinced smaller craft-focused distributors to forego the typical franchise contracts. Such arrangements can be positive for brewery, distributor, retailer, and customer, as the brewery can move beer without the pressure to maintain a consistent volume, the distributor gains product they can use to incentivize volume from retail clients (in states where this is allowed), draft and package retailers have new and limited products to entice customers into bars and stores, and customers enjoy access to products that are not typically available in their market.
Caveats to consider with burst distribution include product handling—unscrupulous retailers may store that hazy, juicy IPA on a room-temperature shelf rather than give up precious cold-box space for this short-term SKU, which could result in customers having a lackluster experience with your beer. Be certain, too, that some familiarity with and demand for your beer exists in the target market.
Draft through influential beer bars is a more effective initial strategy than package through retail for this reason—bars have an incentive to market for you, and you can be more certain that the product will be stored properly through its life. Once the market has some familiarity with your brand, you can follow up with retail packaged beer.
A good collaboration with a respected brewery is like hitting the fast-forward button on consumer familiarity in an outside market. Again, the brand benefit works in two directions, benefitting the visiting brewery by familiarizing local fans with their oeuvre and increasing brand recognition and demand, and benefitting the host brewery by connecting them to the broader world of beer.
If you’ve ever taken a boyfriend or girlfriend for granted, but seen him/her in a new light after someone else expresses interest, you understand the dynamic at work here—we all take for granted that to which we’re closest, but external validation of our own choices works like a personal compliment.
The challenge to collaborations as a marketing strategy is that, due to the lag time between brewing and release, it can be more difficult to activate a collaboration at a consumer level with personal appearances by brewers, but a few well-placed Instagram photos can create the intended interest and stoke that through the weeks until the release.
One additional benefit is the increased interest in a collaborating brewery’s other beers. It’s not uncommon to see traders pay new attention to releases from a recent collaborator that they otherwise would not care about, and that increased interest translates directly into additional sales.
All collaborations need to be rooted in some authentic drive that consumers perceive as genuine because today’s consumers quickly sniff out cynical marketing ploys to connect two breweries for profit alone.
As brewery owners, operators, and marketers, you face an endless array of options and challenges when growing a brewery brand. As a result, out-of-state marketing opportunities are often some of the last any brewery will consider. But if you’re willing to put the additional effort into connecting with peers at a larger level through niche festivals, burst distribution, and collaborations, the results can be transformative.