New Series: Dissecting Beer Brands

In business and marketing, there's this concept of "brand." As the American Marketing Association defines it, a brand is a "name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of other sellers." The idea of branding has evolved over the decades so that now it is suffused with cues to provoke emotion and loyalty, sometimes below the level of conscious thought.

There is a obviously a crass element to branding. It can become so dominant that a product hardly matters; people are buying a brand as a matter of personal identity. When this happens, companies are no longer competing with each other over making a better mousetrap; they're trying to make better ads. Branding can be used to deceive; advocates of the environment are constantly shooting down false branding by companies trying to "greenwash" themselves. As a result, marketers and branding experts are slightly less trusted than third-world despots, lawyers, and used-car salesmen.

But there's also something unavoidable about branding that is anything but crass. In a very real sense, brands are the personalities of companies and products. Companies can either highlight their great size (Budweiser) or their small size (micros). One may talk about its ubiquity (Coca-Cola), another about its exclusivity (Gucci). They may also be an expression of company values. Apple, with its every hip ad and product, suggests that it takes art and design seriously and is a product for people who agree. Would Bud be the King of Beers without its brand? There were other MP3 players on the market; why did the iPod become the standard?

I was thinking of this as a result of a comment flagged by Patrick Emerson in that long interview Ezra had with Brett Joyce of Rogue. In it, Joyce professed ignorance about the economic concept of "signaling." I have no doubt he was as ignorant of it as I was before reading Patrick's description--yet that doesn't quite tell the whole story. Rogue is easily one one of the most branded beer companies in Oregon. One could make the argument that its brand is clearer than any other craft brewery in the country. Joyce may not understand signaling, but Rogue knows branding.

If you look around at the major breweries in the Northwest, they all have pretty specific brand identities. These are rarely discussed (to suggest that something as base as "branding" would be practiced by homey, punky small breweries seems blasphemous--that's Bud's schtick), but they are nevertheless a serious part of the business now. And more than that, these identities shape how even astute consumers like you and me make decisions. We're no more immune to these subtle cues than we are to the personalities of the people we meet. So often, the comments I get on this blog express, at least in part, an appreciation of or opposition to a brewery's brand.

In the next few weeks, I'm going to look at some of our breweries and dissect their brand. I find all of this fascinating. Like any other beer geek, I have certain idle fantasies about owning a brewery, and this usually manifests at least partly in thinking about how I'd present myself. (Ask me about the labels for my "Old Codger" Old Ale.) Branding can be crass, but we live in a wonderful little moment where craft brewers can't sell bad beer. They compete over product, but they also present a personality. I confess I'm so enamored with employee ownership that my hand often reaches for a Full Sail (suggested delightfully by that little "47" on the bottle).

So let's have a deeper look. What are the breweries telling us with their brands? Since Rogue started it all, I'll begin with them sometime this week.