Not just a few observers have pointed out that the fans of beer and music have a lot in common. In both worlds, there’s a tension between the small and quirky and the large and mainstream. Certain bands and breweries derive cachet from being so outré that only a small cadre of fans can appreciate their avant garde ways. It becomes part of their persona—their brand—that they are not mainstream. So what happens when they get popular—or, say, sell to a multinational beer company?
We’re getting a real-time case study. Last week, Seattle’s quirky, proudly independent Elysian Brewing was the latest regional to sell to Anheuser-Busch InBev. You know Elysian—it’s the brewery that makes this beer:
There seems to be some mounting outrage fatigue over acquisitions—the Elysian news caused far less furor than when AB InBev bought 10 Barrel Brewing late last year. But while generalized outrage may be tempered, specific outrage was targeted and harsh. Have a look at some of the responses people posted on Elysian’s Facebook page:
It’s hard enough for small breweries to make the leap from beloved little-guy to corporate property without suffering some brand damage. For Elysian, a brewery where the brand relied heavily on that small, outsider status, the leap will be a good deal higher. For years, the brewery has asked people to buy its beer for reasons it is now asking them to ignore. From a brand perspective, that’s a tall order. If the brewery is able to pull it off, it will be a celebrated example in the boardrooms in St. Louis and Leuven. Elysian will be proof that a brewery’s owner ultimately doesn’t matter. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see it dogged for years by the long memories of fans who mutter “corporate beer sucks” as they walk past an Elysian pub onto the next, independently-owned one. When brands identities are changed this radically—in ways that look cynical—customers sometimes permanently drift away.
Let’s keep our eye on Elysian and see what happens in the coming years.
Read more about why brands matter.
Jeff Alworth is the author of the forthcoming book, The Beer Bible (Workman, 2015). Follow him on Twitter or find him at his blog, Beervana.