When Big Beer Thinks It's Still Craft

In an excellent article about Goose Island, Chicago Tribune reporter Josh Noel demonstrates not just how former craft breweries get the big beer treatment, but how folks at the company seem to think they're still embodying the ethos of "craft."

In a couple months, Chicago Tribune reporter Josh Noel will release his multi-year odyssey into the story of Goose Island and AB InBev. It is an exceptionally well-reported story about what happens to a brewery and its beer once it becomes a brand in an international corporation's portfolio. If you want a sense of what you'll find inside, I refer you to Josh's latest article at the Trib. It captures all the elements present in his book by describing the moves ABI is making with Goose to perk up a brand that tanked in 2017.

In order to give the article its due, I would have to quote basically the whole thing, so instead, you should go read it. The contours, though, are these: Goose Island's new president, Todd Ahsmann, who started bartending at Goose in the 80s, is trying to redress the brand's current slippage. Every product bearing the Goose Island name was down last year except IPA, but that growth came by discounting the product to Bud Light and Stella price points. ABI has hired a new ad agency to right the ship, and the strategy will be precisely the one ABI would use to promote, say, Lime-A-Rita or Shock Top. They plan:

  • The aforementioned price discounting.
  • Adding new flavors. Lime-A-Rita got ten different knock-off fruit flavors; Goose IPA is getting Midway IPA followed by Lu-Wow.
  • Lifestyle branding: No brewery "owns the idea of city in the way that Corona is beach or Coors is mountains. Ahsmann wants Goose Island to be that beer."
  • New packaging: cans (because of course). This is a classic example of Sally's rule--if you can't get people to buy the beer, sell them the packaging. “It doesn’t take a genius to walk around bars and liquor stores and see what’s going on,” Ahsmann said. “People are putting out innovation in 16-ounce cans.” Referring to the reason the brewery recently installed a canning line and paid for it out of the marketing budget, Ahsmann said, “I do think it’s marketing — it keeps you relevant. It helps affirm we are a craft brewery in Chicago.”
  • More new packaging: Sofie and Matilda will get new labels and a 500 ml bottle.
  • Trying to manufacture a sense of "cool" by throwing corporate parties and events and paying for celebrity endorsements.

Here is the newest ad produced by the new agency, which I'll leave you to evaluate.

Of course, none of this guarantees Goose Island will remain ABI's flagship High End brand. Goose IPA has fallen behind Elysian Space Dust sales in 2018, and the company has already given up the goal of making it the best-selling IPA in the US. (Remember this the next time you see a small-brewery sale and hear the former owner talking about how great the "partnership" will be for the brand.)

What's amazing, and what Josh captures so well, is how the people working with the Goose Island brand have failed to notice that they've absorbed the ABI/macro playbook wholesale, and are now merely using the affectations of craft as the gloss to move the product. "Authenticity" is now a pose to sell products almost entirely brewed outside Chicago in industrial plants. What's amazing is that it's pretty clear many in Chicago don't see it. 1994 Todd Ahsmann would presumably have been able to spot big beer in all these moves, but 2018 Todd Ahsmann doesn't see it.

In the fog of sales wars, it's always hard to guess what is a winning strategy and what isn't. But it's hard to read this article and feel like Goose Island's identity as a craft brewery--whatever that means--can survive much longer. These decisions will only hasten the transformation.

Jeff Alworth5 Comments