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Hopinions: The Cost of Doing Business

Every other Thursday, Brewed for Thought and BetterBeerBlog are teaming up for a piece called Hopinions. We will alternate who picks the topic and trade emails on the subject, two apiece. This week, I received some interesting packages from breweries. I wonder what Pete has to say about this and what this signals in the craft beer industry.

From Mario at Brewed For Thought:

It’s not something I generally talk about on the website, but part of running a successful blog about beer is receiving samples from breweries around the country. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about receiving these beers, I just don’t think anyone cares to hear about the packages that arrived on my doorstep.

With that in mind, I’d like to talk about the packages that arrived on my doorstep this week.

The craft beer industry is different from many industries. For one, it isn’t failing right now, which as a sole quality would make it stand out in this American economy. Other differences lie in the way that craft beer is marketed. There aren’t many TV commercials, definitely not on the national scale, advertising craft beer. Radio, is also free of these ads for the most part. For the most part, craft breweries don’t see the value in advertising through traditional means.

So the packages I received yesterday got me thinking. One package contained two bottles of a seasonal release and a Christmas tie. Another package had a can of seasonal release, a pecan pie and a USB drive. While my Twitter followers will easily figure out the breweries, the names of the breweries is not important. The idea of packaging gifts, no matter how small, thoughtful, or completely dead on the gifts may be, has been a standard of “traditional” marketing.

In an industry where “the beer speaks for itself” and breweries can eschew the bikini models and sunglass-wearing dogs, is it kosher to send party favors with your beer samples? Is sending beer samples an acceptable practice? What would you like to see in your sample kits? What was the coolest sample kit you received?

From Peter at BetterBeerBlog:

In light of my recent self-employment, my discretionary budget was cut to zero. Trips to my local bottle shops will now be farther and fewer in between. So any review samples I receive of craft beer will be much more appreciated (not that they weren’t before).

I am always grateful to receive tasting samples. Snail mail is dying, as a society we’ve grown accustomed to the ease by which we can now send sentiments to each other electronically. So it always gets me giddy to come home and see a package with my name on it. I feel like I’m back in elementary school and it’s pen pal letter day.  But the real reason I get excited whenever I receive a sample of craft beer is because I feel that my voice, viewpoint and palate was respected enough to warrant sending me something to try. I rarely ask for samples, which is why their arrival is such a treat.

The vast majority of the packages I’ve received have been unremarkable. They’re just brown boxes with carefully packaged beer. I don’t expect more but if there’s a little sumthin’-sumthin’ inside, I’m not going to complain about it. The most “extravagant” package I’ve received had a mini-keg of beer, a t-shirt, several door hangers, a bottle of beer, and a specialized pint glass. It was sent to me by the US-based PR agency because the brewery is over seas. To this day, I still use the pint glass and I’m doing what I can to lose some weight to fit into the t-shirt.

If there’s one thing I’d like to see in sample package, it would be some background information on the beers being sent. From a homebrewing sense, it’s always interesting to see what goes into a beer, literally. From a beer geek perspective, I’d like to know what went into a beer conceptually. With the holiday season right around the corner, I’d like to know how some of the upcoming holiday beers were developed. Were they developed with a specific context in mind? Was there a specific ingredient that inspired the brewery? I’d value things like that over branded USB drives.

As much as I value beer samples sent my way, I never feel entitled to them. I’ve spoken with some bloggers who actually feel entitled to be receiving beer samples and have bordered on anger for not receiving them in a timely manner. I don’t understand the sentiment, nor do I agree with it. In my opinion, sending samples to bloggers is a privilege and not a right. I understand the need to try and leverage social media and non-traditional advertising channels in situations where breweries need to roll capital back into the brewery instead of spending it on traditional advertising. Still, I think it’s wrong of us bloggers to expect these sort of things, especially if the supposed “exposure” the brewery receives doesn’t justify the cost.

Back when I was working corporate, we would send our products to a few, key bloggers as well. These were folks who had a measurable influence in the industry, with consumers, and were respected. We didn’t send laptops to any Joe Schmoe with a blog. While laptops and craft beer are not an apples-to-apples comparison, the point I’m trying to make is that craft breweries need to be selective of who they send their product to, even if it means not sending me any.

So is this the new way of doing business? Are bloggers the new media? Should we be part of the new, modern, integrated marketing communications strategy? What can bloggers even do to get on such a distribution list? What’s your secret?

From Mario at Brewed For Thought:

I use a highly sophisticated system that takes into account SEO, traffic algorithms and trending topics. It spits out a proprietary ranking system. With that information, I print it out, throw it away and simply ask. Please really is the magic word.

I also don’t understand the anger of not receiving free samples. I kind of compare it to the guy who gets angry when all the bananas are gone at a hotel’s continental breakfast. Go get your own.

As far as information included with samples, I find most companies include a couple data sheets and a press release. Even the branded USB is usually loaded with these things, links to videos or other useful marketing tools. I still have yet to hack into the tie’s operating system, so who knows what treasures it is sure to hold.

But its the act of the gift, the extra piece that I’m more interested in. The tie does nothing to help me enjoy the beer. I’ve received large PR packages full of extravagant sets of glasses and ice buckets, coasters, etc, all beer paraphernalia, but a pecan pie? That’s a nice snack, and I’m sure it goes well with the beer, but is it necessary?

While a USB drive is by no means a laptop, does the willingness of these breweries to spend money on simple luxuries hint at things to come? Does sending gifts of larger value equate to scantily clad women and mascots? Does it matter?

From Peter at BetterBeerBlog:

I’m sure being nice about asking for samples is all it takes. All I’m saying is that I think breweries should take a look at who they’re sending stuff to with a finer toothed comb. To be honest, there are people gaming the system and taking advantage of breweries for free stuff. So much so that it borders on abuse and that just makes it more difficult for the rest of us who actually about the industry.

While I think a USB drive is a far cry from scantily clad women, I definitely think craft brewers are faced with an uphill battle. Superbreweries such as AB-InBev have been using their vast resources to their advantage for a long time. We’ve all but been conditioned to believe that sexy women need to sell beer. As much as we may like to think we’re not, here we are writing about it.

As a result, craft breweries have to get creative with their promotions to catch our attention, even within the craft beer community. Personally, I’ve often used food to take the edge off of trying a new beer. I often say that I can’t just give someone West Coast IPA and expect them to love it as much as I do because hop bitterness is an acquired taste. But if I serve it to them with some food as a pairing, I think it takes the pressure off the beer to do all the work and people can see how beer can go well with other types of cuisine.

In that sense, sending you a pecan pie works. The brewery is introducing a new beer, they’re making a food pairing suggestion, and depending on the size of the pie, they may be counting that you have friends over to share both the beer and pie with them. At the very least, they’re hoping you talk about them. Mission accomplished? You tell me how good the pie and beer were. They did get us to talk about them, although we’re doing so indirectly.

I’m not sure if I can say that creative/extravagant gifts are a new “trend” in craft beer marketing more than they are a natural evolution of things. If anything, my suggestion to breweries would be to utilize “smarter” advertising. Use highly targeted campaigns to address specific issues and build from there. Take the emotion out of the decision making process and let the numbers speak for themselves. Personally, I’d continue to throw money at a boring campaign that gave me an 8x return over a funny and entertaining campaign that only gave me a 2x return. All day, every day.

Ultimately, it’s the beer in the bottles that matter, regardless of what came with them. A well crafted beer with no noticeable brewing flaws will always be paramount over the packaging it came with. Even if that packaging is wrapped in bacon and uses pancakes as packing foam.