Naragannsett Really Wants to be Your Neighbor

Narragansett is a beer brand that has been around since 1888 and seen it’s highs and lows.  Most recently, Mark Hellendrung, who was one of the key players in building the Nantucket Nectars brand has brought ‘Gansett back.  He relaunched the brand in 2005 and has been doing things the right way.

Their website alone is a great example of building a strong brand on word of mouth and transparency.  In fact Mark isn’t building a brand, he’s on a mission.  He’s taken one of Naragannsett’s weaknesses of not owning a brewery and made it a strength by creating a cause for New Englanders to support so that they can grow the business, build a brewery and help the economy.  Brilliant.  My favorite part is the powerpoint they share on the “Support the Cause” (not website) home page. 100% transparency on numbers and vision.  If only employees of all companies could be so lucky!

The best part is that all of this is 100% real.  It’s not some phony “support the cause” that will go away when the campaign is over.  Mark and the rest of the folks at Gansett seriously want to be “your neighbor.”

Mark and I traded a couple emails and I asked him some questions on how he is positioning the brand and building it from scratch.

Neal: What are your thoughts on brands having a home base from an operational and marketing standpoint? How do you bring that local positioning to life without the use of big advertising campaigns?

Mark: I think localness is a differentiating idea, and the concept has been building for a while and has only accelerated in the last 18 months. You could see it starting a while ago with the re-emergence of things like local farmers markets and the backlash of corporate sell-outs and jobs going overseas. Then when the economy when south, I think you had people realizing that this model doesn’t work, and now the thought leaders are saying how can I create local jobs, support local businesses, etc.

I actually think the use of big advertising campaigns risks undermining your local authenticity in that you start to look like a big company, and consumers are pretty cynical right now. So you’re left with a path build on relationships (selling one account at a time), a lot of sampling, word of mouth marketing and use of social media.

Neal: How have you found your brand influencers or loyal consumers for Nantucket Nectars and for Gansett?

Mark: The thing about Narragansett Beer is that it’s built on 120 years of heritage, so while we work to contemporize our story it’s still fairly well-defined, i.e., there are only so many different ways it can go. Given that, we try to look at the beer drinking community and try to identify who would be most interested in our story and most likely to carry it on.

Neal: What was the best use of your limited marketing dollars since you relaunched Gansett a few years ago?

Mark: Investing in our street team (sales and marketing) is the best use of our dollars. It builds availability and distribution. The team does a lot of sampling, which is critical in that we’ve got a great beer, we just need people to try it. And the relationships that we create cement us into the community.

Neal: I assume you don’t spend a ton of money on consumer research to uncover opportunities or validate marketing campaigns, so can you give me a couple examples of how your gut instincts have worked or not worked?

Mark: One thought we had going into this that didn’t play out was that there were a whole lot of older guys who grew up on Gansett that would be interested in our comeback and switch back. What we learned though is that many (not all) of these guys were just too far gone and settled into their routine of current brand choice. We thought we could switch them because when we talked to them that weren’t overly excited about their brand. However, they weren’t necessarily dissatisfied either, so there was no real motivation to switch.

On the flip side, we had a feeling that the craft community would appreciate our beer, and it’s played out pretty well. For a lot of the craft guys, I find that they love their craft choices but when they find themselves in a higher usage occasion or are just looking for something a little lighter, they really didn’t enjoy settling for one of the mainstream domestics. Our beers have a little more flavor and our brand has a little more character and you can see us selling some Gansett in “craft bars” whereas the mainstream beers aren’t even on the menu.

Neal: Thanks Mark. Keep up the good work.

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