Behind the "Take Craft Back" Campaign

Yesterday morning, entirely out of the blue, media (and quasi-media like me) received an email with a link to a website. The language was entirely straightforward, announcing the launch of a new campaign by the Brewers Association:

Boulder, Colo., October 16, 2017—It’s official: The Brewers Association (BA), the not-for-profit organization that represents America’s small and independent brewers, has announced the craft brewing community’s intent to Take Craft Back from Big Beer. The #TakeCraftBack campaign—launched at—seeks to crowdsource the funds to buy Anheuser-Busch InBev, the international conglomerate that has been busy acquiring small breweries across the country.

If you click through, it becomes clear--eventually (longer if you're undercaffienated)--that this campaign is not quite what it seems. Although the stated goal is to raise $213 billion dollars--ABI's valuation--the actual goal is in support of the Brewers Association's effort to promote the idea of independence. This follows the summer launch of a effort to enroll member breweries an independent seal program. "Take Craft Back" is the second prong in the larger campaign--one that targets the practices of larger breweries.

It was a surprising, creative, and frankly aggressive move to engage the fight against "big beer." I spoke with Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the Brewers Association, to learn what was behind this campaign. I began by confirming that this was another component in the larger effort to promote the idea of "independence." (It is.) Then I asked her about the surprise launch and what the reaction was. Were people in on the joke?

“It’s definitely gotten people thinking. More than 5,000 people as of this morning have given pledges of support—they get it. We have more than $1.7m pledged since yesterday. So sure, this is a move to get people thinking. It’s also important that this effort go beyond the beer community and get the beer lover thinking about the beer they hold in their hands.”

The idea, then, is for people to take the campaign seriously, if not literally. Having had a day to reflect on it, though, I wondered what the endgame was. What if they make their goal? What if they don't? “We’re eternal optimists, so we’re going to keep trying. But if everybody on the planet gave ten dollars, we’d still only be a third of the way there.” When I pressed her about whether they would actually try to buy ABI she gave me a coy response: “Wouldn’t it be a fun plot twist if we actually got to our goal?”

To put this in clearer terms: the idea isn't buying AB InBev (ABI). It's further promoting the notion of independence by getting people to think about craft beer. The Brewers Association isn't concerned with buying ABI, but "taking craft back" from big beer--that is, reclaiming the term as a synonym for independent. The wordplay is effective; it hits on the two key points BA wants people to consider: the nature of craft beer and who has tried to co-opt it.

This is a pretty sophisticated effort, and someone (the Sterling Rice Group, as it happnes) has put together a great game plan. The first phase of the effort was aimed at the breweries, trying to get them to sign up and use the independent seal. In the four months since the launch of that initiative, 2,400 breweries have joined the effort--a good start, but not yet a critical mass. This phase targets beer drinkers, and uses the power of social media--the ultimate independent media--as the delivery mechanism.

We’re frankly taking a page from big beer’s playbook. Look at their Super Bowl ads, look at their marketing. Humor gets to our hearts and makes our minds think further.
— Julia Herz

Herz recognizes the nature of their challenge. She mentioned the survey data showing customers care about independence, but when I sounded a skeptical note--those surveys don't show how deep consumers' level of engagement with the issue is or whether it moves sales--she agreed. “We definitely have work to do, but we’re in it for the long haul.” And to that point, the Brewers Association has really mapped out their strategy. The independent seal wasn't a one-off. The BA is backing it with this campaign, and giving breweries the tools to promote it:

After launching the independent seal initiative, I encountered more skepticism than enthusiasm. That was almost guaranteed. Large, long-term collective action is really hard, especially at the outset. In successful campaigns, leaders have a multi-part, long-term strategy to build energy inside and outside the organization. They commit resources to training their members how to respond to questions and become agents of promotion. They use different messages for different communications. And when they do all that, it has the effect of multiplying the effort. It's almost certain that some breweries skeptical of the independent seal last week will look at the response on social media and have a different attitude. Excitement builds on itself; multiple initiatives support one another. Herz recognizes that and to skeptics says, “Give it a year and watch the effects.”

Again, the usual caveat: the idea of independence is still a long way from being entrenched in consumers' minds, and there's no guarantee it ever will be. But if I were to craft a campaign to move public opinion in that direction, it would look like this. Keep in mind that the Brewers Association has five thousand potential mouthpieces in their membership, and millions more if drinkers get inspired. Big breweries have money for ad campaigns, but they lack ground troops. Little breweries are powerful voices when they're organized and singing from the same hymnal. It's why AB InBev responded so badly to the independent seal. They recognize the collective resources the Brewers Association has if they can harness them.

And finally, the Brewers Association is taking this so seriously because they see it as an existential threat.

In the last few years, since the acquisitions and big beer getting into the full-flavored beer space, you’re seeing a squeeze in the marketplace—off restaurant menus and off the grocery store shelf. Big beer’s ‘one-stop shop’ for beer is not a good long-term solution for choice and selection.
— Julia Herz

For the large majority of small breweries who sell small volumes out of pubs and taprooms, AB InBev is not really a threat. But the Brewers Association has a larger message. Breweries have long had fairly good access to the market, including the grocery stores, convenience stores, and chain restaurants, but that's not a given. The health of the marketplace depends on diversity, and the Brewers Association is betting that this is a winning campaign. Time will tell, so stay tuned.