Clown Shoes Grows Up

A weird bit of beer news yesterday. Boston-based Harpoon announced the purchase of contract brewery Clown Shoes. Weird not because larger craft breweries don't snap up littler ones from time to time, but because Clown Shoes and Harpoon couldn't be more different. But this post isn't going to be about the acquisition. Rather, it's about how companies mature and markets sand off rough edges of any company that wants to stay around.

(My hot take: superficially, it makes total sense. Harpoon has excess capacity, and Clown Shoes is a contract beer company with no brewery. The constituencies of the two breweries have almost no overlap, so they can proceed on growth curves without cannibalizing each other's volume. Harpoon is straight-laced and traditional; Clown Shoes weird and silly. Whether it works out in reality is another matter.)

An unexpected theme on the blog this year has been the way some breweries debut before they're entirely ready for prime time. The personality type of the entrepreneur is often irreverent, cocky, and self-assured. Their counter-cultural attitudes give them a leg up because they see and exploit opportunities in the marketplace that trend-followers miss. The classic cliche for a successful business leader is "iconoclast," an overused term that nevertheless reveals this trait. But there's a big drawback: it also creates blind spots to that same mass culture. This is sometimes revealed by the weird names entrepreneurs give their companies (failing to see how the average person will react to them), or when they mistake their own bad behavior for "irreverence."

Our products don’t please everyone. We won’t ever shy away from our roots, but perhaps we have been a bit stubborn.
— Gregg Berman, Clown Shoes

The Scofflaw Brewing incident a couple months ago was a case in point. The brewery prized its own brash insouciance and didn't see how a combative attack on its critics (which is to say its customers) would be seen as hugely offensive by most casual bystanders. The attack mode that served so well in other moments was a disaster in that one. Eventually, painfully, the brewery was made to see their own behavior through the eyes of others, and they issued an apology and retraction. Empathy isn't great when you're fighting to start a small business, but it's critical when you're trying to appeal to a broad audience.

All of which takes us back to the summer of 2011, when Clown Shoes put out a couple highly offensive beers--keyed by Tramp Stamp. There's no doubt this was an offensive label--that was of course the intention. (I encourage you to click through if you have no idea what I'm talking about.) In the predictable fashion, founder Gregg Berman went on the offensive, attacked the woman who had been offended by the label, doubled down on his position, and offered a bunch of hand-waving, off-point diversions.

Berman didn't back off his support for these products for another five years, but neither did he repeat the provocation. Since 2011, Clown Shoes has embraced the comic book look. Its labels and names are humorous and fun--not far in tone and spirit from Gigantic. Critically, the depiction of women shifted from objectification to celebration, as in Galactica:

It's hard to say what the effect of Tramp Stamp and Brown Angel was. We can never re-run the experiment and see what would have happened if Berman had never gone down this road. Since 2011, Clown Shoes found distribution in 28 states and five countries, and sold about 13,000 barrels last year. That figure isn't terrible but puts them out of the top 200 breweries in the country. (It would make them the 16th-largest Oregon brewery, after Worthy.) Given the boom in the market that happened between 2011 and 2015, they might have grown substantially more, but hey, we'll never know.

They continued to brew the offending beers until last year, when Berman decided to dump them:

Our products don’t please everybody. The beers are distinctive, generally high in alcohol, and many of them are barrel aged or include unusual ingredients. The marketing can be edgy and or goofy, though it has been roughly five years since we have released a beer label that can be viewed with intelligence as out of line. We won’t ever shy away from our roots, but perhaps we have been a bit stubborn. Accordingly, both Tramp Stamp and Brown Angel are going to be retired. Several months from now these brews will be replaced by The Barista Breakfast Brown and Comic Strip Belgian IPA, with new recipes as well as packaging. Because we want to. Not because of haters. The labels and beers were fun and relevant when they came out, but are less so now. For instance, who gets a lower back tattoo anymore? When we introduced the beer, tramp stamps were a cultural phenomenon.

One can't know for sure why Berman discontinued these beers, but it's hard to avoid the timeline. A year after that announcement in September, 2015--after all the bottles should have been off the shelves--Berman went shopping for a buyer.

Clown Shoes approached [Harpoon's parent company] Mass Bay last spring about a deal, but the timing wasn’t right, according to Mass Bay CEO Dan Kenary, who said his company “had a lot going on,” including the rebranding of its UFO line of unfiltered wheat beers. “We weren’t all that interested,” he said. “We were not out actively looking for this one.”

No brewery like Harpoon was going to touch the maker of offensive beers like Tramp Stamp. Even 18 months after that beer was discontinued, I'm guessing it was still a major point of discussion around Harpoon HQ. Kenary and company want to see Clown Shoes grow, to find a deeper market than it currently has, and to complement rather than embarrass the core line. Based on the timeline, I think Berman had to know all of that going in. When he said he wasn't nixing his offensive beers "because of the haters," it's only half-true--and an admission of what a drag on the company they were.

So, the lesson is clear: when the iconoclast meets the crowd--which is to say his customers--the crowd always wins. In 2017, it may make narrow political sense to be as racist, misogynist, and generally offensive as possible, but it's broadly toxic. And "broadly toxic" is no way to succeed in business. As customers, we play a real and important role in not rewarding companies who insist on offensive labels. There are nearly six thousand breweries in the country and none make beer so good we have to overlook this crap. Ff they're going to succeed, they have to shape up. A lesson Clown Shoes learned ... eventually.