Fermented Zebra Spit
The three tier system of alcohol forces producers to send branding through a game of Telephone.
If you are not currently subscribing to the quarterly magazine, Malus, I highly recommend it. I hadn't heard of it myself prior to running into copies of past issues at Redfield Cider Bar in Oakland, CA (site of next year's CiderCon, hint hint) back in late January.
No, you cannot find it on Kindle, the iTunes store nor on Google Play. You can only get a print version mailed to you. How incredibly retro. And in a world where it actually won't kill you to look away from your screen for half an hour - nay, it might even benefit your vision - what wouldn't be a better welcome respite than reading printed articles and poetry dedicated to our favorite alcoholic beverage?
There are two articles in the most recent issue (Issue #4, Winter 2019) that speak to calls for truth and clarification in the marketing and advertising of cider. I don't want to infringe upon the ideas set forth by Andy Brennan and Jenn Smith. However, both articles encouraged me to write my own ideas out and I felt it was important to credit both authors for the inspiration. (Thanks!)
Andy Brennan, owner of Aaron Burr Cider, discussed the need for each cider producer to be open about the backstory of their ciders and business. Jenn Smith, Executive Director of the New York Cider Association, wrote about the challenges of calling a cider "orchard-based". Both authors emphasize a need for truth as an important part of raising the consumer perception of cider businesses, particularly long-term. I agree with the idea wholeheartedly.
However, this is where the alcohol industry faces such a unique challenge. Most consumer product companies have the luxury of focusing first on the consumer.
Complicating matters further is the fact that every state has different laws for how alcohol is sold. This can alter how you can speak to the consumer and sometimes even what you can say. Many states don't have a distinct definition for cider, ratcheting up the challenge even more. To make it nearly impossible, most small cider makers (and nearly all small alcohol producers) don't have the budget or bandwidth to develop clear consumer messaging. Think about the telephone game for a second and think about how many wonky filters a message has to go through before it gets to the end. Typically, “my ham sandwich” comes out as “more ants cabbage”.
The three tier system that alcohol producers must follow in the US is one of the wonkiest filters of all. You’ve got poorly managed distributor sales reps who are urged to go make their living by making sure (insert foreign-owned/feigned-American conglomerate here)'s brand is richer by day’s end. Throw in bartenders and waiters that are just trying to get through their double, underpaid retail employees that are looking for a way out and store managers that stopped caring years ago tasked with conveying branding messages heard hours, days, weeks, months, even years ago and you’ve got the ultimate game of telephone. If you’re lucky, you’ll get them to say something like “more ants cabbage” - maybe “Mort’s clearly savage” or “Monks of Cambridge” - but you’re just as likely to get “fermented zebra spit” out of them.
How can cider achieve the impossible?
-Clear, concise, complete packaging. Every time your packaging gets into someone's hands, it's a chance to tell your story. Use every square inch of the bottle, can, case box or tap handle to act as a tuning fork for your brand. Heck, brand the keg!
-A properly constructed website, optimized for viewing on mobile devices. A website is still the best way to control your online messaging and drive sales. Just remember that the majority of people are looking at your website on a mobile device now, so it’s even more important than ever to look at it from that perspective when designing it.
-A complete social media strategy. Love or hate social media, it's an important tool for reaching consumers. More adults watch YouTube daily than any cable network in the country. Seriously. Each platform has its strengths and weaknesses. Its important to consider what you need to say and how you want to say it so that you access the right consumers.
All of this starts with telling the true story of your brand.
Consumers today want to know why it’s called Zebra Spit Cider, what apples went into making it and where the apples came from. There is an idea going around that consumers are no longer brand loyal the way previous generations were. There is some truth to that, but I think it stems from the fact that brands have become very poor at giving consumers a reason to be loyal.
I want you to make a quick list. Jot down some of the consumer brands you buy regularly. Now cross out the ones that you buy based solely on price or taste. Look at what you’ve got left. I want you to circle the ONE on your list that you’ll nearly always buy. Now think about how good of a job that brand does at telling their story - explaining who they are, what they’ve created and why.
That’s what cider needs. That’s what cider must have from its producers to survive. Not just fermented zebra spit, but why the zebras selected these particular apples to eat and regurgitate. We must get into the mind of the zebra.
Ok. Yeah. I’ve gone too far. You get the point.