To sell in America, imported beer must overcome a number of challenges. Imports compete with both premium craft beer and domestic offerings, each which boast innate advantages over imported beer. However, imports also offer distinct advantages which, if communicated properly to the consumer make them wholly unique, and in some ways, untouchable.
In this article, we will address the advantages, disadvantages and possible solutions to marketing imports in the United States. Let’s start with the advantages.
Imported beer often comes from brewers with centuries of brewing tradition and knowledge, which in turn breeds sophistication, and refined, subtly layered flavor profiles. The American palate is still evolving, and for many, remains two-dimensional. Craft caters to bold, yet often overpowering tastes, while big domestic beer skews towards the other end of the spectrum – freezing cold and light on flavor. The middle ground – beers made subtly but not lacking in character, still has plenty of room for discovery and appreciation.
Now that craft has opened the minds of many with bold flavors, the door is open for tastes to evolve in favor of quality, refined ales and lagers that don’t cut corners.
Imports also have individuality. Most imported beers have a far longer history than American-made beer, with humble roots and multi-generational ownership. History and authenticity resonate in America, a country literally founded on a DIY mentality.
Beer culture began in Europe, and authentic imported beer can offer a tour of the world from the comfort of a bar stool. It’s exciting to crack open a bottle with water, hops and malt from the other side of the world and to dream of what it would be like to taste that same beer on location at some of the world’s oldest and most esteemed breweries.
So why doesn’t everyone drink imported beer?
The single biggest barrier to sales for imports is a lack of education that comes with a foreign brand. Imports face an uphill battle compared to local craft and domestic brands, whose stories are often as simple as “We’re from here, and so are you.”
Old-school powerhouse American brands such as Budweiser boast decades of familiarity in culture and familiar beer styles, and though most craft brands have minimal historical and cultural significance, they’re the hometown hero. These brands are tied to the geography and culture of their location – a luxury imports do not have.
However, over time, foreign brands that become familiar to Americans inevitably become tied to its culture. Look at Corona on Cinco de Mayo, or Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day – America has appropriated these holidays, and the beers tied to them see huge sales boosts as a result. Which of the German brewers is going to conquer Oktoberfest?
Always something new to try and discuss in the U.S.
Both craft and industrial domestic brewers are flexible, for different reasons. The smaller production size of microbrewers makes them agile and capable of constantly providing new options which invigorate the American drinker. There is always a new beer and a new flavor to try. American macro brewers have adapted to the evolving consumer landscape by simply purchasing these small breweries outright. This is a challenge for established foreign brewers that are often built on centuries of brewing tradition, meaning they tend to hold true to whatever styles and brands that have brought them their distinction. These brewers generally introduce fewer new beers to market than their American counterparts.
It is possible for an imported brand to introduce new products brewed specifically for the American market, but it must be done carefully. The primary concern is that these products remain true to the brewer’s methods and style while also bringing something new to the table. This is a delicate line for a multi-generational brand to toe.
A solution may be as simple as updated, “American-ized” packaging – canning a traditionally bottled beer, or updating the label artwork to stand out on shelves. For newer, less venerated brands, slight recipe tweaks can go a long way. If done properly, these kinds of mild changes can serve as a gateway to an entire brand portfolio.
How can import brands connect directly with consumers?
Imported brands typically don’t have the brick and mortar outposts that craft and domestic brewers have, from which they can concentrate their efforts and communicate directly with the consumer. How does an import gain ground in America?
First, it must identify areas with demographics willing to stray from American ales and lager. Simply put, imports will likely fare better in a relatively cosmopolitan area than a small, working-class community rooted in tradition.
Imports must then be introduced in a manner which their considerable pros can be accurately communicated to the consumer. Dive bars in college towns or “neighborhood grills” will peddle what is familiar and proven to the layman drinker. You’re looking for receptive, if not educated palates.
To this end, craft beer bars such as World of Beer, Taco Mac and Flying Saucer will work wonders, as will any local, well-curated pub. Drinkers here are excited to try something new and refined, and are willing to pay for the experience. These types of establishments encourage staff to educate the consumer, widening the niche and evangelizing to the uninitiated drinker.
Seeking out similarly focused craft-centric bottle shops and diverse chains such as Total Wine can make huge headway and serve as invaluable grassroots word-of-mouth promotion. Again, these kinds of companies aim to educate the consumer, but first need to be educated themselves and are receptive to learning materials provided to them.
Building a presence.
How does a brewery not physically located in the U.S. build a presence here? Finding tangible ways to communicate with the consumer are paramount. Dedicated boots on the ground are the most direct route, acting as any other sales manager might – meeting potential accounts, advocating for tap and shelf space, and organizing special events such as tap takeovers. Dedicated booths at festivals, contests, beer dinners and “meet the brewer” nights all offer direct, instantaneous opportunities to educate while building brand recognition and loyalty.
Brand loyalty also extends to pubs and retail establishments themselves. Developing and maintaining relationships with key accounts can turn a brick and mortar watering hole into a bon-a-fide hub for a brand. For example, La Trappe’s Governorship program offers special resources and opportunities to exemplary accounts which meet a high standard which aligns with its brand.
The sum of all parts.
At the end of the day, if an imported beer can connect the American consumer to its core brands through outreach and education it will succeed. Building relationships with wholesalers and local pubs are essential to building a physical presence in a foreign land. Choosing establishments whose standards align with the brand in question is key, and lastly, if a European brewer can find a way to blend American aesthetics and taste preferences into new brands, it will separate itself from the herd.