Breweries must continuously evolve their brand and product offering if they want to stay relevant in a rapidly changing market, advises Karl Strauss Brewing Company co-founder Chris Cramer.
Cramer said the brewing landscape today is vastly different to that of 1989, when Karl Strauss began as a single brewpub in San Diego.
Karl Strauss now has ten brewpubs and is America’s 41st largest craft brewery (Brewers Association-defined), a feat Cramer said would not have been achieved without continuously updating its brand and beers.
“Back when we started, no-one had ever heard of craft beer, and we had to make decisions that enabled us to grow and survive in that environment,” Cramer reflected at the Craft Brewers Conference 2017.
“If you weren’t in the market back then, you don’t know that every guest coming into our brewpubs back at the beginning was a cold call. You had to convince them that actually the beer was safe to drink and that you could make it consistently and deliver it reliably.
“For us to gain acceptance at Karl Strauss, we decided we had to make people feel safe and trust us.
“That led us down a path where we intentionally took my relative Karl Strauss, who was this world famous master brewer, and we put him front and centre in our operations, so much so that we actually had an image of him on our bottle labels.
“We went out of our way to design a corporate looking logo… it looked as corporate as you possibly could make it, and that helped us get acceptance for craft beer.
“But fast forward to today and the last thing you want to look like in the craft beer industry is corporate and established!
“I think it’s really important that you know that you have to continuously evolve your marketing over time, and again, you have to evolve your product offerings over time,” he advised brewers.
“If you really want to develop a company that is going to be relevant over the long term, what you have to do is you have to create a culture that is all about embracing change.
“If you go out and say, ‘this is what we are and we’re never changing’, you are going to be a dinosaur very quickly, especially in an industry that’s moving as fast as ours is.”
Hops had to come later
Cramer said that when Karl Strauss began in the 1980s, the market simply wasn’t ready for hop forward beers.
“Even if you could get people to put them in their mouths, they wouldn’t like them,” he said.
“You had to bring them down a path, so we started with malt forward beers. We then, once we got more and more acceptance, we were able to extrapolate off of that and get into a wider variety of more interesting beers, IPAs and sour beers and imperial stouts.
“That has worked well for us and we continuously evolve our offerings at Karl Strauss Brewing Company.
“In fact, this last year I think we made more than 130 different beers across our ten brewpubs and our production brewery,” said Cramer.
However, he said consumers will remember their first experience of a brand, so adapting it must be carefully handled.
“Whenever they first met you, that’s what they think of you as being and you have to work really hard to engage that consumer… to bring them along with you on the evolutionary path, so they understand where you are today and where you are going,” he advised.