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.


Craft Beer Success Ingredients – Blocking and Tackling

First off, I want to thank everyone who stopped by to read my post on the Key Ingredients to Craft Beer Success.  In terms of views and feedback, it was by far my best blog post ever and I really appreciate all of the kind words.  It was nice to hear that some people who are actually launching new craft breweries read the piece and I sincerely hope I can point you in the right direction for you new endeavor.

As promised, I am going to follow-up and add a little detail to all of these key ingredients.

In this follow-up blog post, I’m going to cover two of the ingredients: “Blocking and Tackling” and “Activating the icon”.

Blocking and tackling

As I said in the original piece, if you don’t give your distributor the tools to sell, they won’t sell.  You gotta have the basic elements to get the beer/product placed.  In the leanest of times, I would highly recommend allocating a large percentage of your budget toward elements that help price and promote your beer.  When you have enough of those items, you can move on to the image building stuff like neons and signs.

Activating the Icon

My opinion on the image building stuff this:  quality, uniqueness and brand communication trump quantity.  Challenge yourself to find that one truly unique item that brings your brand to life.  New Belgium/Fat Tire has done this with their iconic cruiser bike.  Sweetwater has done this with their metal sign and their fish tap handles.  Odell Brewing has done this with their barrels.

Perfecting that iconic piece is not easy.  But it’s worth the challenge and you’ll know it when you find it.

More PR Karma for Pabst

You’ve probably heard the news that Pabst Brewing Company is for sale.  It’s actually been for sale for about 10 years now, but this time it sounds like Uncle Sam is serious about them having to sell.

But this  potentially awkward story has turned into a beautiful word-of-mouth opportunity for the company.  And the best part is that they’re not even doing anything to facilitate this – at least that’s visible to me.

A couple ad agencies, namely Forza Migliozzi have launched a website called and are accepting fake donations to round-up the $300 million the experts expect to be the selling price.

People can “pledge” money to the account and the website will keep a running tally of how much “the people” have pulled together to buy the company.

This seems to keep happening for Pabst?  Going back to my time with the company, we seemed to get a boost of organic PR every couple of months.  Remember the PBR fraternity at Oregon StateWhat about the PBR casket? Why does Pabst get so much organic PR?

I call it PR karma… when it comes to publicity, you make your own luck.  The modern day PBR (and consequently, Pabst Brewing Company) is a brand that’s built on word-of-mouth marketing, which in turn, is street cred.  Consumers flat-out love the brand and are attracted to interact with it.  The results are interesting stories that are created by real people – and that’s the best kind isn’t it?

Promotional Packaging is for the Weak and Desperate

I was in the Portland (OR) market earlier this week when I saw a stack of green and yellow Bud Light-ish product.  It made sense to me since I just saw a commercial promoting Bud Light Lime in cans.  When I got a little closer, I noticed that it wasn’t Bud Light Lime, it was regular old Bud LIGHT.  And then there was a stack of product next to it that had orange and black Bud Light cans.


Oh, I get it… these are for College Football season and it’s for the University of Oregon Ducks (green and yellow) and Oregon State Beavers (orange and black).  Here is a photo of the LSU version (purple and yellow) can.

This is wrong on so many levels:

First, it is marketing to college consumers.  I’m personally not so worried about can designs leading to over-consumption as mentioned in this AJC piece, but it is marketing to a demographic that is largely under legal drinking age.

Second, this seems like a sign of a desperate brand.  Is Bud and Bud Light really at the point where they need to change their packaging every quarter to get consumer attention?  Even worse, they’re changing their packaging in multiple markets around the country.  Talk about bastardizing the brand for a short-term lift!

Finally, changing the colors of their cans regionally is a huge sell out.  If I’m an Oregon State Beavers fan, the Ducks are my enemy!  So am I going to have an allegiance to a brand that is sitting there saying “we love both teams!” No! I’m going to think it’s a brand with no conviction and is a total sell-out.

Which is why Bud and Bud Light are slowly dying before our eyes.

Promotional packaging is a sign of a weak and desperate brand.  Don’t be a weak and desperate brand.  Don’t be lazy, sell out and rely on short-term promotional packaging to make your brand appear to be “with it.”  It backfires every time.

Craft Beer vs. Expensive Wine

As you might know, I work in the Craft Beer industry.  As it is with any other industry, the economy is a big topic – specifically which segments of the adult beverage industry will benefit or suffer.

According to retailers, wine is struggling – especially expensive wine – and Craft Beer is hanging in there.

Why is that?

I can come up with two reasons:

  1. Price: A 6-pack of GREAT beer is still less expensive than an average bottle of wine.
  2. Branding: Expensive beer is Craft Beer and expensive wine is just expensive.

The beverage segment that was originally known as “micro brews” has done a great job of branding itself as something more than just “small” or “expensive.”

Consumers that drink craft beer know that the name is more than industry segmentation.  They know that its a community of people dedicated to creating and brewing unique, quality beers.  Community is uber important these days and it’s a huge point of differentiation when consumers have tougher choices to make.

Side note: A lot of the credit here goes to the Brewer’s Association for all of their hard work in representing the craft brewing industry and marketing all of the passion and hard work all the breweries contribute.

Do People Hate Marketing?

Seth’s blog post got me thinking about this today…

When I worked on PBR, we focused most of our efforts on word of mouth or “buzz marketing.”  Mostly because we didn’t have any money, but also because the young adult, hipster consumer resisted mainstream mainstream marketing and embraced brands that didn’t market.  The hipsters were the ones rediscovering, reinventing and advocating the brand.

Believe it or not, the concept of hipsters drinking PBR was a hard idea to sell internally back in 2001-2003.  You gotta remember that the brand was living on middle-aged, blue collar men who drank it because it was cheap.  It wasn’t sold on-premise and it was a forgotten brand.  So when it came to convincing all of the big shots that this brand had a chance with a new consumer base, we rationalized it by telling them that it was being embraced because these consumers resisted mainstream marketing.

Is that true?  Do even the most fickle and anti-establishment of consumers “hate” marketing?  Here we are, six years later and I say that it is totally false.  I think consumers LOVE marketing.  BUT, they only love it when it’s authentic and meaningful to them.  If it’s fake, consumers, whether they are cynical hipsters or not will REJECT it.

That’s the beauty of social media, sampling and experiential marketing programs.  All of these tactics are real because the consumer is interacting and having a conversation with a real person.

Coincedentally, when we scaled up the PBR program, we hired more people to go out there and have conversations.  Even the hipsters knew that these people were there to MARKET to them.  But they were totally fine with it. Why? Because it was REAL.

Going to San Diego

I’m heading to San Diego later this week for the Craft Brewer’s Conference and World Beer Cup.

Here’s a look at the highlights of my schedule:

Wed – travel to SD, meet with my fellow presenters to prep

Thurs – Present “Harnessing the Power of the Internet” with Eric McKay and Bob Mack.  (more on the presentation later in the week)

Fri -Thinking Outside the Pumpkin (creative ways to market your brewpub) – I have no idea what the significance of “pumpkin” is.

Saturday – Building Brewery Tour Traffic, Food and Beer Pairing panel, World Beer Cup

I’ll be posting Twitter updates thru the conference.  You can follow me at