Craft Beer, Neurology, and Brand Marketing

by Billy Broas

It’s all about what’s in the bottle…right?

That’s the argument of us craft beer advocates. Forget the Superbowl commercials and prancing horses. Judge your beer on what actually matters – how it tastes.

It sounds logical, but our looney brains aren’t hardwired to make decisions based on utility alone.

I came across this article about a study which put Coke and Pepsi head to head in a taste test, but with a few twists.

The first trial was a standard blind tasting, and the results were 50/50 as they typically are when Coke is pitted against Pepsi. The interesting part is that when people were told what they were drinking, 75% preferred Coke and 25% preferred Pepsi.

On top of that, parts of the brain started lighting up when people were drinking Coke that didn’t light up with Pepsi. The parts of the brain related to memory & cultural influences showed activity with Coke, but not Pepsi.

From the article:

“So the emotional imagery that Coke has made part of its brand, with varying success, seems to embed in people’s brains. And Pepsi’s reliance on celebrities? Two of their most visible spokespeople, Brittany Spears and Michael Jackson, may forever be associated with the brand but are probably not helping it too much today…The brain studies suggest that Coke’s iconic brand and arguably stronger cultural connection may in fact make a difference in preference.

The brain studies suggest that Coke’s iconic brand and arguably stronger cultural connection may in fact make a difference in preference. And that preference is linked not just to taste (hello, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex) but also memory-related brain regions that are related to cultural influences.”

So in the blind taste test people are split, but because of Coke’s successful branding, people have more of an emotional connection and actually prefer Coke when they know it’s Coke.

You Can’t Fight Biology

This really isn’t too surprising. If you tasted beers made by the Dalai Lama and Adolf Hitler, wouldn’t lean you towards Mr. Lama’s brew? Associations count and skew what we “should” prefer based on utility (flavor) alone.

It’s not only in drinks.

Why do people drive Mercedes or use Macbooks? Sure they’re great products, but there’s more to it. It feels good to use these brands. They touch us at an emotional level.

Craft Brewers Need a Strong Brand

I’ve talked before about competition in the craft beer industry and I’ll say it again – making great beer won’t be enough to compete.

Brewers need to establish an identity that is memorable, emotional, and worth talking about. Yes, that involves marketing.

But marketing isn’t a four letter word.

It just has a bad wrap in the beer industry because of how it’s been done by the big boys: dishonest, sleazy, and gimmicky.

Look to craft brewers like Stone and Dogfish Head on how to do it right. Effective brand marketing not only makes you stand out among competitors, it influences how people perceive your beer beyond flavor. The brain tells us so.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheppy October 27, 2011 at 12:32 pm

I love Stone’s Arrogant Bastard. Not sure I would have ever tried it, though, if not for the cool name and great packaging. I really love the attitude that comes from the beer. That is the commercial example that jumps out at me.

Another interesting (non-scientific / anecdotal) observation that I think I’ve noticed. When I take the time to make a decent looking label for my home-brews and make sure the non-craft-beer drinking individual that I’m sharing the beer with sees it, I perceive a little higher approval rating than if I just present the beer in a plain unlabeled bottle. This absolutely could be a coincidence, but it does sort of fit with the topic,

Anyway, it is an interesting topic. Thanks for sharing.

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Billy Broas October 27, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Stone is a great example because even though they barely advertise, they are very strong in their marketing (people often confuse the two). Their attitude comes through in their packaging, writing, and of course, Greg Koch. Good point about the unlabeled bottles. I do get a suspicious look when I hand those to people, and I imagine at least some of that follows through to the taste.

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