The meaning of local has never been more important as local businesses, particularly in industries impacted by COVID-19 lockdowns, do it tough.
As a marketing angle, it’s been a prime time to consider locality as a factor in consumer buying habits. The West Australian Brewers Association has hung its hat on punters wanting to buy local with its ‘Drink West Drink Best’ initiative. The Crafty Pint’s Keeping Local Alive campaign also allowed breweries to harness the power of marketing local.
And it’s proven to be a financial success. Endeavour Group last week attributed its success during COVID-19 to an “overwhelming” number of Australians buying local and invested millions of dollars in a nationwide ad campaign for its local brewery and distillery suppliers. Local breweries in New Zealand saw a hike during COVID-19 too.
Even the mainstream brewers have benefited from the concept of local with the popularity of Reschs and Emu Export and their perceived identities as ‘local’ beers, despite being brewed in other states.
The resurgence in localised brands has seen CUB invest in the rebrand of the former and also launch Great Northern Brewing Co. – marketed as Queensland’s “beer from up here” to compete with other regionally-focused mainstream offerings like XXXX.
Dr Virginia Weber and Dr Jeff Rotman, lecturers at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Marketing, spoke to Brews News about the importance of local from a consumer perspective, and how breweries can leverage their location when it comes to marketing.
“Place or geographic identity are just a few of the means available for creating an identity for a product,” they said.
“Beers have often tied themselves to place for a variety of reasons, one of which might be because blind taste tests have shown how little variation there is in the flavour of some of the major beers, with consumers often unable to tell the difference between them, and often even unable to pick out their favourite lager in a blind test.”
They explained that in a saturated market, brewers are thinking about giving potential consumers more reasons to choose their brand.
“Associating the beer heavily with the location in which it is (or was) brewed provides consumers with a reason to favour this beer over another, and allows them to support their local economy. Over time this can tie in with identity and the brand can build itself around the identity of the place from which it originates.”
COVID-19 has played a major part in this move to local, they explained.
“Significant threatening events have the tendency to make people feel more strongly about their relevant identities, and to seek out things that are familiar and comforting,” they explained.
“After an event like a pandemic, provenance is likely to play a more important role, particularly for those brands that are tied to people’s identities.”
What is local?
The term local is pretty nebulous – it can mean in your immediate neighbourhood, town, city or region, or even the whole country can be considered ‘local’.
“The boundaries on what is considered ‘local’ will likely differ somewhat from consumer to consumer, but the general perception is fairly well-understood, in that consumers are encouraged to buy products manufactured in their local community, and/or to purchase from retailers owned exclusively from within their community.
“In some instances, community will mean post code, and in others it will mean country, but the core concept of ‘close/local = better’ remains clear.”
Buying local also implies a few different things in the beer world, with mainstream versus independent or craft, and whether beers are owned wholly by Australian companies or by international conglomerates to consider.
“If a consumer is specifically aiming to buy local, they may focus first on what’s ‘closest’, [that is] microbreweries within their community, and build out from there on a sort of local-gradient, until they reach a suitable range of options that will fit with their existing preferences and their accepted price point.
“Keeping the concept of ‘local’ somewhat nebulous most likely favours the brands. By allowing consumers to redefine ‘local’ as very close (within the same city) or fairly broad (owned within the same country), it means that companies can use messaging surrounding ‘local’ to attract consumers across a country to their brands and that consumers will more easily justify their purchase and feel good about it.”
Building your brand around local
For many brewpubs and small regional breweries, whether it was an active decision or not, they are tied to their locality in the minds of consumers, and may not even want to move outside that locality.
“The advantages [of this] are clear in that it builds loyalty by becoming integrated with a consumer’s (regional) identity,” explained Dr Rotman.
“This ability of a brand to build its identity around a place relies on the concept of congruency, which means that the brand ‘fits’ or is consistent with the regional identity.”
However Dr Weber said that it is when there is a lack of congruity in branding that problems can arise.
“If the brand tries to expand to a new region or sponsor an event or team that isn’t congruent with the brand’s regional identity, problems quickly arise.
“Specifically, not only will poor fit result in less effective marketing, but it can be counterproductive and backfire, resulting in worse consumer attitudes. “
This has been seen in practice. Victoria Bitter’s sponsorship of the NSW Blues several years ago and their subsequent poor performance led fans to consider VB a ‘bad omen’. The beer sponsorship was subsequently taken over by NSW-associated, Lion-owned beer brand Tooheys, in 2017.
One of the intriguing things about mainstream and craft beer drinkers is their different attitudes to brand loyalty. Some brands, like Reschs, manage to maintain a staunch and loyal following without any interference from the companies themselves, whereas other beer brands and brewers adapt to fluctuating customer loyalties by bringing out new limited releases regularly and maintaining interest.
So another way to achieve this brand loyalty is linking the brand to a location.
“Geographic loyalty may invoke a sense of comfort, but also comes from a place of identity rather than just safety and security,” Dr Rotman explained.
“[Many geographic loyalties] come from connecting one’s identity to a community or place, and feeling that the brand has a similar connection to the place, whether through history or identity or some other mechanism, leading to a shared identity.”
This shared identity is a strong buying motivation, and has led some customers to overlook certain aspects of the products they buy – including that the location on the can or bottle may not be where it is brewed – such as Emu Export, brewed in South Australia – and a host of other, usually mainstream beers.
However it happens in the craft sector too, where smaller contract brands or large brands with smaller on-site brewkits who contract brew at much bigger facilities, often in other states, are still considered local to their homebase area.
“Consumers’ perceptions of reality will impact their subjective tastes for a product like beer – simply believing they like it more may mean savouring it more and genuinely enjoying it more. It also provides the added benefit of re-affirming one’s identity and the associations with that beer or place.
“Drinking the same beer over time from one’s local community, only for it to be purchased by a large international company, doesn’t mean that the familiarity or those associations go away, and the beer might still be brewed locally, even if the ultimate owner has changed.
“Because there are personal, local, and economic realities that intermingle, the answers here cannot be straightforward.”
The reality is that consumers don’t often have the time or motivation to research the specific brewing location or owners of the beers, and are generally unaware of the larger companies that own many of the most popular beer brands.
“Normally you might anticipate that when a company changes hands or when its manufacturing shifts locations, consumers will change their preference if their preference was based on it being local,” Dr Rotman said.
“That is generally true if you look at the long run, but may take a while to take hold, and may depend on how much marketing the company engages in so as to maintain a sense of location-based identity with its origins. If the company still maintains operations in the location of origin and/or ties to that community, that association may never go away.”
The future for local
COVID-19 will have an interesting impact on beer in Australia, they said, especially when it comes to imported brands.
“If COVID restrictions or consumer trends make importing more difficult, it could lead to some imported beer becoming more scarce and/or costly, which in turn could increase preference for those beers in people who desire beer or other products as a status symbol,” the lecturers said.
“Some people may prefer the allure and associations that come from drinking an imported or ‘non-local’ beer, even if the beer is brewed relatively locally.
“This would be more likely to occur for beers that occupy a more premium market position.”
There has clearly been a surge towards local during COVID, and Dr Rottman and Dr Weber suggested this may continue.
“As things begin to go back to normal there will likely be a motivation and a general push to help restore and help local economies. This suggests there will be an increased desire to buy and support local brands and businesses,” they explained.
Find out more about the WABA ‘Drink West Drink Best initiative in the latest Beer is a Conversation Podcast with WABA board members Mike Morgan and Andy Scade.