The need for leadership with humility in beer

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I wanted to write a thought piece on why the craft sector has shaken the confidence of the established beer brands and what they could do to re-establish their place as leader brands within the category.


Let’s get craft in perspective


I met today with a good friend who runs a number of pub businesses within Ei Group – the largest pub company in the UK.

I wanted to get his take on ‘craft’ and the publicans view on the so-called ‘craft revolution’.

As soon as I bring up the ‘c’ word, he smiles, rolls his eyes slightly and says “give me Carling, Fosters, and Carlsberg any day. And if you want to talk about something really interesting, let’s talk about how Amstel is smashing the premium 4% sector”.

What’s abundantly clear is he’s only really interested in what he can shift very large volumes of. And craft, by dint of how it’s been defined, can never be that.

Put simply, if craft, at least in part, means independently owned, small scale and small batch, then by definition, it can never be scaled, as it ceases to be ‘craft’ the moment you try to scale it. It is therefore of little interest to the large pub chains.

Conversely, if you remove batch size from the definition of ‘craft’, then staying small is no longer a necessity, which means they’re basically just start-ups – early stage breweries with a passion for producing a quality liquid, and a desire to grow. Which is exactly what all the big breweries once were.

They grew because they were good at what they did, and importantly, they’re still good at it today. A point best illustrated by VB going undercover to win the Surry Hills Craft Beer Festival in Australia in 2014.

Through this lens, the notion of ‘craft’ disappears. There is just small businesses who want to be big, and big businesses who used to be small. If the small businesses are good, they grow into big ones. If they’re not, they don’t.

Twas ever thus, so what’s ‘craft’ got to do with it?


So what’s the big deal?


It was refreshing to get this perspective, because it was one we marketing folk rarely get access to. A perspective not based on such theories as how economic structures have failed Millennials and left them fundamentally anti-establishment, which is the essence of the appeal of craft.

Instead it was a perspective based solely on the reality of business and the numbers. It gave me clarity but left me with a couple of questions still nagging at me.

Firstly, if all that’s happening now is all that’s ever happened – businesses launch, some grow and join the establishment, whilst others die – then why are the established brands so rattled by the emergence of craft? What is happening this time around that’s shaking the establishment into such a crisis of confidence?

And secondly, why are there so many more craft breweries springing up now than in previous years? In 2016, the number of UK breweries surpassed 2,000 which is the largest number since the 1930s, and has reversed over 70 years of industry consolidation.

Something must have changed to make more would-be brewers think they have more of a chance of success today.


What has changed is how to build brands


The first point to make here relates to the changing media landscape. It’s a fairy obvious one, but one worth outlining…

In years gone by, the dominant media of the time owned peoples’ attention. And they would sell bits of that attention to advertisers – be it via a page in their newspaper or a 30” spot on their TV channel. The most successful brands were those that could firstly afford to buy attention, and secondly utilise that space most effectively. The established brands such as Carling, Fosters, Carlsberg and Guinness became masters of 30” storytelling, and these stories were the backbone of their brand building.

The dominant media of today no longer ‘own‘ attention. Rather they provide platforms which enable people to make individual choices about where they want to direct their attention. This is fundamentally changing how and where brands can be built and maintained.

It’s no longer the case that the brands that buy the most, grow the most, and this has left the big brands without their security blanket, nervously looking over their shoulders at their smaller competitors.

The start-ups know this and are building their brands on authentic origin stories that people discover for themselves in order to gain social currency. It’s not a media dependent growth strategy and is therefore within their often-limited resources.

The second point which comes off this, is that the authentic, origin stories of the craft sector are making the established brands look very inauthentic by comparison. One could look at Carlsberg, a business with a wonderfully authentic origin story of its own and say ‘you had all that money and all that attention for all those years, and you used it to repeatedly tell a joke about being probably the best lager in the world’.

But in truth these brands were just responding to the rule of the time. A principle that stated ‘if you’re going to interrupt people’s viewing with an ad, you’d better make it entertaining’.


Brand building through leadership


There are no such beautifully simple rules to follow today. People get on board with brands they feel an affinity towards, and call bullshit on those they don’t. Craft drinkers champion the little guy and ruthlessly expose any big brand attempting to ape the language of craft.

So big brands need to figure out how to build brand affinity from their privileged position of category leader. It’s not easy, but the answer could lie in the way they choose to lead.


Leading with humility


A delve into the psychology of successful leadership reveals a growing volume of work outlining the importance of leadership with humility.

Humility is a word that all too often suggests a lack of confidence or certainty – characteristics at odds with the traditional associations of leadership.

But in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Successful leaders with humility have the confidence to ‘minimise themselves and maximise the bigger purpose they represent’.

What if the big beer brands were to apply this principle to their brand building? What if they started their brand planning by asking ‘how can we minimise our role within a bigger purpose we represent?’

Firstly, it would force them to outline a bigger purpose instead of looking in their rearview mirror (I need to note here that many brand purposes are self-serving nonsense. In truth Heineken’s ‘unifier’ serves no other purpose than an attempt to get people out drinking in groups more. I’m talking here about a purpose with some genuine cultural contribution).

The metrics for success would then relate primarily to the purpose, not the promotion of the brand, and the brand activations and activities would all be designed to provide a platform for people, partners, influencers, innovators etc. to contribute to the purpose – courtesy of the brand.

Of course, in reality, the success of the purpose and the success of the brand would be interlinked, but it needs to be executed with humility – in a way that doesn’t appear self-interested.

It’s worth a quick look at Guinness at this point as they’re the brand that currently comes closest to this approach (although I’ve worked on the brand and I know this isn’t deliberate). You could argue that the Made of More platform reflects a bigger purpose to highlight true character and integrity in the world. It then uses it’s advertising to showcase unlikely heroes such as The Sapeurs or various rugby payers. The Guinness Amplify initiative gives resources and spotlight to yet unknown musicians. Hop House 13 is derived from The Brewers Project which partners Guinness with small, independent brewers, and the Guinness honesty bar at Twickenham Stadium transfers perceived value of the liquid to the consumer.

Contrast this with Carlsberg. A brand that’s relied on the self-proclamation of ‘probably the best lager in the world’ (albeit slightly tongue-in-cheek) for many years, and is struggling more than most to find a groove in the contemporary world of beer.

Harvard business school has proven that humility in leadership, through acts such as altruism, inclusiveness and selflessness creates loyalty in the workplace. It would be very interesting to apply this learning to brands.


In summary


Craft is clearly impacting the big beer brands in a way that’s greater than their market share.

The reason for this is rooted in brand building – the big brands can no longer use traditional media in the way they once did, meanwhile craft brands are built on being small and authentic.

Big brands therefore need to find a new way to brand build from their position as category leaders.

We believe they could do this by leading with humility.

That means having the confidence to minimise their own role within a greater purpose they represent.

Have a brand purpose that has humility at its core.



About the author:

Steve Hopkins is a brand strategist at independent creative agency, Atomic. Steve has been a strategist for 20 years at a number of agencies including McCann Erickson, Mother, BMB and most recently was Strategy Partner at AMV BBDO. Relevant previous clients include Guinness, Carling and Bacardi.

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