Can drinks brands successfully embrace 'craft culture'?

By Chris Walmsley

- Last updated on GMT

Can drinks brands successfully embrace 'craft culture'?

Related tags Craft beer Beer Brand Brewing

Drinks brands must be careful not to become a cliché when embracing 'craft culture'.

The prevalence of craft in Britain cannot be overstated as it has touched and influenced nearly every facet of British popular culture. Its set of values and ideas are evident in both the DNA and marketing of brands tapping into consumers’ desire for individuality, authenticity, attention to detail and tangibility.

It is little surprise then that, given its populist appeal, brands are keen to exploit craft culture for commercial benefits. This is no more apparent than in the drinks industry, which has embodied and embraced craft since its origin, and today it is a frontrunner in terms of using its values for both product development and brand positioning.

You only have to look at the variety of brands available on the market– single malt whiskies, artisan gins and craft beers – to appreciate the significance that craft has had in shaping customer desire.

However, craft’s influence in the drinks market has also presented an interesting challenge for beer and cider brands. As a result of its popularity, consumers can be acutely aware when a brand is trying to capitalise on the craft movement. Even if a brand’s claims are credible, does craft’s omnipresence now reduce its potency?

Furthermore, the UK craft beer marketplace is particularly complex, with no formal definitions (unlike in some countries such as the US and Germany) meaning that a wide variety of products from both multi-nationals and micro-breweries can compete head to head in the craft arena.

The success of the sector is clearly illustrated by recent takeovers, such as Meantime, and also by reference to craft in some big brewery advertising, many of which are understandably, and in some cases justifiably, trying to get in on the action. One of Theakston’s Old Peculiar ads features copy which reads: “Fancy a pint of that craft beer that was a craft beer before there were any​ craft beers?”

Flavour is often cited as the primary common denominator for craft beer, as seen in both a pint of Camden Pale Ale and the ‘Find Flavour’ advertising for Fullers Frontier, but this is not the end of the story.

There are a number of established craft codes (themes and values) operating in a cultural context, which have been used to a greater or lesser degree by brands over the years.

At the creative agency I work at, Cubo, we recently commissioned a semiotics study which has identified a range of existing dominant craft codes, including localism, passion & obsession, rebels, English eccentrics, and magic & fairytale - all very familiar when you start to think about it. Over familiar in fact, as the study found many of the dominant codes to feel a bit tired or even a little clichéd.

Of great interest to us and our clients, were the emerging codes we also identified, as these have the potential to weave craft into branding in a relevant, fresh way going forward.

This is of importance to both mainstream breweries who can’t claim to be tiny back-room artisans, but may want to ‘walk the walk’ of craft, and smaller craft breweries who are either looking to build their brands or refresh existing brand values while not losing their craft heritage. Ranging from experimentation to techno artisan, the new codes provide fantastic potential for drinks brands to leverage craft in the years to come.

If the drinks industry is going to make the most of craft, there needs to be an understanding of how its relevant language and dominant codes evolve over time. Brands that capture this have the potential to shine, whilst others could be seen as a little old fashioned - and I don’t mean a small whiskey-based cocktail.

Chris Walmsley is head of planning at creative agency Cubo, who has worked with clients such as Pernod Ricard 

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