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Marketing: Lessons From Beer

Mmmmm Beer. There's nothing like a cold sip to wash things down smoothly. When recently, in passing, I asked a group people about their views on beer, I was offered a spectrum of different views: it's a comfort factor, an every day drink, the beginning of (or perhaps the end to) a wild night out, a lazy Saturday afternoon in front of the TV, a frat boy's drink, and for some (like a loquacious group of old men who ritualistically visited the pub I used to work at in London,) just a way of life.

Whatever its connotation for you, it's clear that beer, more than any other alcoholic drink, has a deeply entrenched fan following. A recent BBC article on beer got me thinking – perhaps the lessons we learn from beer can also be applied elsewhere.

The article lists 5 reasons as to why beer sales have slumped – apparently they are at their lowest level since the 1930s.

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Health: There is a misconception that beer is less healthy, and more fattening, than other alcoholic beverages. But studies have shown that beer drinkers and drinkers of similar volumes of other alcoholic drinks, gain the same amount of weight around their stomachs (refuting the notion of the beer-belly.) The British Beer and Pub Association argues that a beer with the typical 4.6% of alcohol is less fattening than wine, and significantly less fattening than spirits, which contain 6 times more calories even without the sodas they are so often mixed with.

Dr Martin Bobak, an epidemiologist at University College London, argues that the idea that beer makes one fat stems from the fact that less educated people show a stronger proclivity to drink beer. In the West the less educated one is, the more obese one is likely to be, and hence, he relates beer drinking to education, and in turn to obesity.

The lesson here for everyone else is pretty obvious: people are becoming more and more health conscious. In an age of gym memberships and organic foods, if your product is labeled as having health issues, it could knock you out of the game. Keep this in mind as your research, innovate and market.

Food: Over the years, pubs have boosted their emphasis on food, and as a result beer has suffered. People tend to drink wine with their food over beer, plus nowadays people go to pubs not just to drink beer, but sometimes solely to eat.

This is pretty specific to beer and pub food, but there is something of a takeaway: Changes in context matter. Consider the bigger picture when you make business decisions. Is setting up a website going to erode your magazine for instance? Is allowing customers to sit around and read at Barnes and Noble, or listen to music at Virgin going to prevent them from wanting to make a purchase? A rise in something else's popularity, even if mandated by you, could erode your own market, so look before you leap.

Women: Pubs have become more women-friendly, but sales of beer have not kept up with the increased clientele. Women tend to avoid beer in favor of other drinks, due to cultural factors, and image association issues: beer is seen as a "man's drink."

My thoughts after reading this — unless you have a very specific target audience, make a conscious attempt to cast your net wide. If your clothes aren't just for hipsters, your tofu not just for tree huggers, your social network not just for teenagers and your beverages not just for men, well market yourself accordingly.

Cultural Changes: The article collates several cultural reasons for beer's decline – the decline of manual labor, the drink driving campaign of the 80s, the availability of beer in supermarkets coupled with the rise of satellite TV at home, and a rise in club culture that has made the use of recreational drugs more common.

I don't really have much to say on this one: cultural changes will happen. Companies and marketers just need to be aware of, and possibly foresee, these — in an attempt to engage in damage control or to exploit potential opportunities.

Fashion: A quest to be more fashionable and adventurous, as well as an increasing range of choice in the beverages market, has also contributed to the slump in beer sales.

My take on this: You can't prevent other products in your market from mushrooming, but you can make an attempt to stay competitive by identifying, and where possible catering to, emerging trends, and by innovating.

Something to be careful about however is the danger of taking a perfectly good brand or product and innovating just for the sake of a fresh look or a wider audience. (Tim Manners, one of Fast Company's marketing columnists, wrote a post for us on this a few days ago.) Beer for instance is particularly hard to innovate with, and breweries could risk diluting their existing markets by attempting to do so. The trick may be to leave the product untouched and attempt to influence consumer perceptions, or recruit new consumers, through smart marketing campaigns.

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