The beer industry has initiated a marketing effort to elevate its image among women and “white collar” consumers, and packaging plays a key role. By Dana Dratch
It comes in a smorgasbord of flavors and hues and is poured out of bottles that evoke everything from sleek, metal rocket ships to old-fashioned copper brew kettles—with price tags ranging from a couple of bucks to big bills.
It’s beer. And it’s not your father’s six-pack anymore.
The industry has been reaching out to the wine-and-cheese crowd recently with more “intelligent” advertising campaigns for existing brands, new beer varieties aimed at a slightly older, more discerning drinker, and packaging that reflects an upscale attitude.
Experts say the push is an effort to boost stagnating sales. “Beer sales in the U.S. are declining somewhat—certainly flattening,” says Patti Williams, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School. “There is increasing pressure from alcoholic drinks and even non-alcoholic drinks,” she says.
That competition has left the beer category to play catch up, in a number of ways.
One of them, according to Gary Hemphill, managing director of Beverage Marketing Corporation, is “appealing to a higher-end market.”
Turning the tide
Though only a recent development, it is a move mainstream breweries are making—with Anheuser-Busch leading the charge. The company developed Bistro Harvest Press, a carbonated malt beverage still in test-marketing, to ‘fill the white space’ between beer and wine, according to Kathryn Sattler, the company’s innovations manager.
A retail four-pack features eight-ounce bottles with an elegant shape, an emerald green color and a spring-top closure. It presents like a wine, says Sattler, and the packaging is indicative of the product within. “It looks like it’s going to be refreshing, and it is,” she says.
Another brand to catch the attention of sophisticated consumers was A-B’s Anheuser World Lager (originally Anheuser World Select).
The company had gathered input from brewers in a multitude of nations and used ingredients like European hops to launch the brand three years ago. It was introduced in a green glass bottle that Andy Goeler, vice president of imports, crafts and specialties for A-B, says telegraphs the product’s international style. Green glass, normally associated with imported beers, speaks to the international recipe, slightly higher price point and sophisticated taste level of the consumer, he says.
Dan McHugh, A-B vice president of trademark brands, says the beer company launched yet another brand last February to cultivate that notable demographic. With Budweiser Select, he says the brewery is going after a 25-plus, white-collar consumer by packaging the product in a pinch-necked bottle made of heavier glass and dressed with a clear label from Spear and stylized red crown logo that is all “a little more sophisticated than a normal beer bottle.”
A-B had been using clear labels for more than two years with Bud Light. So when Select was launching “it absolutely made sense with the target we were going after,” says McHugh. “When you’re trying to reach a more sophisticated crowd, sometimes less is more.”
A ‘smart strategy’
Having an offering for the more sophisticated drinker is a smart strategy for brewers, according to Beverage Marketing Corporation’s Hemphill. “A lot of the growth in alcohol is taking place in the higher end,” he says. People are “trading up to higher quality and more expensive product.”
That’s not news to Jim Koch, brewer and founder of the Boston Beer Company, which makes Samuel Adams beer. “What I’ve been trying to do for 10 years is demonstrate that beer deserves a place at the table alongside the best wines and liquors,” he says.
For Valentine’s Day, the Boston Beer Company produced Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock, a maltier, more alcoholic beer steeped on a bed of gourmet cocoa nibs. Koch says the packaging made it clear that this was not your typical bottle of brew.
The wine-sized 750 ml bottle—complete with a cast pewter label—sold for $15. “It was designed to be consumed by couples as part of a romantic dinner,” he explains. “Retailers marketed it alongside their wines.”
Green, global, grown up
Packaging was also intensely studied for Heineken’s recent launch of Premium Light. “We wanted to borrow as much equity from the packaging of [regular] Heineken,” says Andy Glaser, brand director for Heineken USA.
That explains the use of the same Heineken green glass used for the offer. “It communicates the same profile,” Glaser says. Though because it is a little taller and slimmer, he says, it better communicates the lighter proposition.
Graphics were also a strategy to accomplish that. The company went with a clear label (also supplied by Spear) and vertical design that was “very minimalist”. And while the medallion present on all the line’s packaging recalls the brand’s pedigree, the medallion on the Premium Light label also includes touches of silver, which Glaser says is a visual short-hand for light beer.
Miller Genuine Draft has also shifted its marketing practice, but it isn’t to target a new demographic so much as a new life stage, according to Chuck Hardinger, director of brand identity and packaging development for the Miller Brewing Company.
Hardinger says the brand’s target consumers have reached “a turning point in life” where they are more serious, more settled, more thoughtful. A new slogan—Miller Genuine Draft: Beer, Grown Up—and new packaging have been developed to reflect that change.
“It’s a completely new shape, designed to speak to a more sophisticated person,” Hardinger says. “There’s less label on the package than there’s ever been because we want the quality of the product to show through. It’s an understated design—it’s not shouting at the consumer.”
Though the company did retain signature elements that point to its 151-year history: the signature of the brewery founder; the medal that references its award-winning history; and the black and gold colors that have been linked with the brand since its inception. “The color [combination] has always been associated with a higher quality or more upscale product,” says Hardinger. “Not just in beer—across the board in beer, wine, spirits and the food category as well.”
Miller changed its can design dramatically, too. “There is a great deal less black; it’s more understated, less aggressive,” Hardinger says, explaining that both redesigns reflect the brand’s need for change.
“Our marketing insight was recognizing that many beer drinkers encounter this change in life, decide they are going to grow up and become a little more adult,” he says. “We felt that it was appropriate for us to talk to those consumers and use our package to do that.”
Communicating a premium image
So how does today’s upscale beer packaging differ from your typical six pack? Here are some details you might notice:
A story: Sometimes, what sets a beer apart from the rest is the story behind it. But it better be real, cautions Harry Schuhmacher, editor of Beer Business Daily. If it’s a local brand or has a funky story, that’s the advantage. And telling the story on the bottle is key.
A unique bottle: It might be an aluminum bottle or a plain glass one with the neck wrapped like a wine bottle. But it won’t look like the typical six-pack. Brown or green glass telegraph a sense of old-fashioned or European craftsmanship. Aluminum bottles look industrial and high-tech. Blue glass stands out on the shelf.
In addition, different bottle shapes and sizes tend to build consumer excitement. Anheuser-Busch’s aluminum bottle, for instance, carves out a proprietary image. “It surprises the consumer to see beer in that kind of package,” says A-B’s McHugh.
Customers perceive the look as more sophisticated and the presentation is also helping “get into a lot of clubs that don’t necessarily take beer,” he says. “It’s been very successful.”
The product is visible: Label designs are becoming smaller and cleaner, so more of the glass shows and reveals the product inside. “Bud Light went to clear labels last year on their glass packaging,” says Beer Business Daily’s Schuhmacher. A new beer from InBev, Brahma (from Brazil), has no label at all. Instead, it’s a clear glass bottle with embossing in place of a label.
The product is not visible: Some brands are offering their beer in glass that is opaque, shielding the product from the effects of light. Or, in the case of aluminum, double-walled construction that guards the beer from the effects of both heat and light. The subtext: what’s inside is worth protecting.
Exclusivity: Some brands are keeping their beer under tight wraps. With Anheuser World Lager, the company is “very select with where we sell it,” says A-B’s Goeler. “It’s not a brand we’re trying to get in all sports bars and corner bars.” Instead, the brand targets “select, high-end, “white-collar” bars. “It’s a different approach that what we would call a ‘mainstream’ brand,” he says.
No matter what approach beer marketers are taking with their “upscale” packaging, it looks as if the overall change is being welcomed, and long overdue.
“We’ve been selling beer in brown, 12-ounce bottles for 70 years,” says Schuhmacher. “While we’ve been doing that, the wine and liquor people have been becoming very creative in their packaging.”
To really make a dent in beer sales, the individual packaging elements may be less important than the overall impression of the brand.
“It’s about carving out a premium, unique identity,” Beverage Marketing Corporation’s Hemphill says. “Each brand has a distinct personality, and what may work for one won’t work for another.” BP
The author, Dana Dratch, is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
Sometimes, beer packaging has to do more than simply contain and display the product. It also has to tell the consumer, “this is not your ordinary bucket of suds.”
Utopias, made by the Boston Beer Company, is packaged in a porcelain replica of the brew kettle where it’s made. The detail is so exact that each miniature kettle is glazed with elemental copper. It sells for $100 a bottle. Drinkers are meant to enjoy the 50-proof, non-carbonated beer like fine brandy or cognac, just a few ounces in a serving.
“For us, the packaging conveys the way it’s supposed to be consumed,” says Jim Koch, brewer and founder of the Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams. “It doesn’t come with an instruction booklet. Once you see the package, you realize you don’t drink 12 ounces of it. Just as with the [Samuel Adams] Chocolate Bock, the packaging conveys this is a wine experience and a wine occasion.”
And Koch believes that packaging is key to winning the beer wars. “Packaging is the first communication to the consumer,” he says. “But what’s in the bottle has to justify the price. That’s one thing – we’ve designed the beer first, and the beer expresses itself in the packaging.”
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The July issue of Packaging Strategies highlights active packaging benefits; the private label boom post-COVID, staying competitive with X-ray machinery, a new OpX column, how factory of the future solutions unlock equipment efficiencies, expanding business with new product development and a household care company who believes it’s humor and sustainability that make the brand.