Has “Independence” Started to Win?
Last June, the Brewers Association announced a new initiative: the independence seal. Member breweries could put the seal on packaging and emphasize that they were not owned by large, multinational beer companies. As I wore at the time:
It is a concrete step in redefining the terms of war. Gone are the diaphanous PR gestures toward quality. Instead, the BA is betting that customers can be made to understand what independence is and why it's valuable. The success of this endeavor probably depends on widespread adoption by independent brewers, and if I were one I would start using it immediately. I'm an old labor guy and I understand the value of collective bargaining--or in this case--organizing. If 5,200 breweries start using the seal and 100 can't, that could well change a consumer's buying decisions.
Big beer had been successful both at concealing their ownership stakes in the little breweries they bought and selling the narrative that “all that matters is the beer.” As long as the lens through which consumers viewed beer was the product itself, big beer could compete on their preferred terrain. With the independence seal, the Brewers Association made a concerted, focused effort to shift the discussion. They want consumers--not all, but a sizable chunk--to at least factor ownership into the equation. Winning by this metric will come only after the trade group has slowly shifted the terms of debate. Much as when activist create a mental space favorable to their position--"death taxes," "gay rights," "entitlements"--this is a battle about messaging and framing.
All of which makes the following news most fascinating. Yesterday, Molson Coors Chairman Pete Coors sent out an open letter complaining that he didn't like the tone coming out of the Brewers Association.
"You must know that it is insulting to those of us who don’t meet the clever criteria of your self-proclaimed definition of “craft brewer.” This approach prioritizes insults and division over unity for a beverage that has been used to unify and celebrate together for generations."
Most of what Coors says is mild and fairly reasonable. He recalls a beer industry that was tamer and more outwardly genteel. When a few barons controlled the entire industry, they didn't call each other names--even if they did conduct virtual knife fights over distribution and retail placements. Coors isn't mad at the little breweries because of the competition they represent ("Competition in our industry should be honored and cherished"), he's offended by the message. And this is precisely the ground on which the Brewers Association has moved the fight.
This is the case of one man voicing his displeasure. It's not a statement from MillerCoors, and it's not clear what that company is doing to counteract the message of independence. This is not a war that will be won in weeks or months, but years, and its success won't be measured in open letters, but sales. And maybe that's the real reason for Coors' plaintive note. According to Beer Business Daily, MillerCoors shipments were down 7% in the first quarter of the year. No doubt ABI, Heineken, Constellation, and MillerCoors are all gearing up to take on the idea of independence. But Pete Coors' message may reveal more anxiety about the question of independence than he intended.