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What Craft Beer can learn from the Beer Wars


I just finished rereading Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer. It’s a super fun book about the history of Budweiser and the American beer industry as a whole. 

This book offers loads of valuable insights for today's craft brewer, including:

  • Pivoting to stay viable (if you think the pandemic has been bad, imagine 13 years of outright prohibition)
  • How the beer industry evolved from artisan brewer to the world of mergers and acquisitions
  • The rise of advertising and branding theory
  • The perils of focusing on your competition instead of improving your own product, positioning and brand 
  • Bracketing, i.e. introducing multiple similar products in order to muddle product distinction and steal share. e.g. Miller Light (alone) vs. three Budweiser products: Bud Light, Micehlob Light and Natural Light. 
  • Brand Extensions and the risk of cannibalizing your own portfolio
  • The introduction of faux craft (e.g. Plank Road)
  • Hubris. Hubris. Hubris. 

There's a lot of fun stuff here, but there are two themes I want to focus on for today's conversation specifically—reframing value props and the importance of living by your brand values. 

1. Reframing Value Props (even negatively perceived ones) into powerful differentiators 

Light Beer existed for a decade or so without becoming a mainstream sensation because it was seen as an inferior product—something that women and men (whose doctors and wives had them on a diet) drank. A true blue collar guy (this was the 70's, relax people) wouldn’t be caught dead with the stuff. 

That is until some smart marketing folks at Miller Brewing discovered an interesting consumer insight. Some men were drinking Light beer not because they were worried about their health (or, presumably, their glorious 1970’s dad bods), but because it tasted about as good as “regular” beer, but was less filling. So they could drink more of it. 

This subtle shift—this alchemy—completely recasts the exact same product as not a drink for women and dieters, but for "real" men who want to drink more beer after a long day at work. 

Folks who study advertising history will recall a number of these reframing feats from the past, like Guinness’ Good things come to those who wait, or Hertz’s We're #2 so we try harder. 

Or even the perniciously powerful Marlboro Man campaign. Historically marketed as a women’s cigarette brand, Marlboro embraced the image of a stoic cowboy fending for himself out in the West (Flavor Country?) to capture the hearts of millions of male consumers who had returned home from war only to find themselves stifled by 1950’s office life. Gross and cynical? Yes. Effective and powerful? Very.

Quick aside here: this is also the quintessential examples of why Categorical Differentiation is so powerful. In doing this, Miller Brewing single handedly defined, and owned, the Light beer category for decades.

2. Compromising your values is a road to ruin  

Schlitz Brewing was once one of the best selling beer brands in the world. It was so powerful that it threatened to put Budweiser and Miller out of business for decades

Then in the 1970's, Schlitz management decided to start juicing profits by cutting production costs, namely, using cheaper ingredients and employing state of the art brewing process "efficiencies" (a churched up way of saying "make it faster and cheaper").

Looking for cost efficiencies is good business. But finding those efficiencies by using cheaper, lower quality ingredients and assuming your customers are too dumb to notice is bad business. 

Fast forward a few years and Schlitz's bad business practices caught up with them. A string of QC issues begat major PR issues begat a complete loss of trust from their customer base. 

The straw that broke the back of Schlitz's once powerful brand was a new stabilizer that caused proteins in the beer to bind and hang in the glass. This was described as being "Hazy" (they were about 50 years too early on that trend) at best, and "looking like mucus was in the glass" at worst. Ouch.

You brand (reputation) is your brewery's most important asset. Yes, even more valuable than your beer itself. But no amount of great branding can cover for a low quality product. And definitely not for a product whose quality suddenly declines. 

Since we're talking about beer in the 1970's, let's close this out with some sage grandpa wisdom:

Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose.

Actionable Takeaways

1. Here's a great podcast series that covers this book. Give this a listen if you're more of an audio person.

2. Don't ever cut corners when making your beer. Or at least don't let the accountants back near the brewhouse.

Watch our live talk tomorrow at 11:10am Eastern on YouTube

Four Strategies for Extending your Brewery's Brand Beyond Beer

Cody and I are excited to speak at tomorrow's Craft Beer Professional Conference about a few specific strategies your brewery can use to extend its brand beyond beer. This is a timely talk that will help your brewery navigate complex brand architecture decisions as you scale your business. ⁠It's also a sneak peek at the book that we've been working on for the last 18 months(!!!).

Here's a direct link to the YouTube video.

Or, register for free at the link below (and say hi in the comments tomorrow).

Latest Resources

Check out our brand refresh with Montana's BitterRoot Brewing

We worked with the BitterRoot team throughout 2020 on a subtle brand refresh. Our challenge: how to retain the same homespun charm that's been in place since 1998 while better presenting on shelf to boost sales. This work extended to core positioning and strategy, identity, packaging, merch and sales material.

Cultivating a Craft Podcast (CODO client spotlight)

Fertile Ground Brewing is a brewery in planning (and CODO client) down in Jackson, Mississippi. They've started a podcast to document their startup journey and were gracious enough to interview my business partner (and CODO Creative Director), Cody, about their branding process.

Sneak Peeks (works in progress)


Ready to learn more?


Craft Beer, Rebranded

Craft Beer, Rebranded and its companion Workbook are a step-by-step guide to map out a winning strategy ahead of your rebrand. Building on CODO’s decade of brewery branding experience, this book will help you weigh your brand equity, develop your brand strategy and breathe new life into your brewery’s brand.

Want to work together?

Email Isaac to get started. 

isaac@2x.png +1 (317) 403-3173
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CODO Design is an Indianapolis, Indiana-based food and beverage branding firm. We develop strategically-sound branding and packaging that cuts through the noise and drives long term revenue growth.

902 Virginia Avenue, Ste 200
Indianapolis, IN 46203

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