Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Craft, Real Ale. Whatever. I just want to buy some beer.

Marketers, and all you students of the market, are aware of what's been called the "Pretty Good problem". Time was, choice was a real issue for the consumer. We were, once, confronted by a heap of shoddy, sub-standard, adulterated and unsafe products, with a few quality items offering honest value for money. The problem then was to identify those valuable items and avoid being tricked into spending our money on crap.

Nowadays, in the beer market, as elsewhere, the problem is different - most stuff is "pretty good". I'm not saying that none of it is rubbish, or that some of it isn't excellent, but most of it offers a reasonable return for my spend. These are great times for the beer drinker. But there is such a lot of it. All those competing products - how do I choose? If I can't choose, how will I buy? This potential choice paralysis is a real problem for me, and disaster for the vendor.

Anyway, here I am, lost in the supermarket (or wherever), so much choice, so little difference. Most products are invisible, they're so soon boring, unremarkable. I walk right past them without seeing them.

Now I can only see the purple cows. Everything else is a familiar blur.

So, how do vendors make me see their stuff? How to make it stand out? If the product isn't essentially remarkable, how do they lend it a quality that makes it different, more... more?

It's worth remembering that we seem to be much more sensitive to distinction based on a unique value for a single property rather than on a unique combination of properties. So we'll typically be told a simple story rather than given a nuanced analysis of the product's advantages.

In order to increase product salience vendors often use forms of what you might call "oppositional marketing". I guess this works (at least partly) because we're all highly responsive to signifiers of conflict - I'm sure that there are good evolutionary reasons for that. At its simplest, this can be as crass as "knocking copy": "Product B is crap (here's how) - buy Product A!".

Or we might see the creation of simple, clear, but essentially false dichotomies. The vendor hopes to streamline our choice-making. Traditional v. progressive, Craft v. Real Ale, Catsup v. Ketchup

We see this when the vendor tries to place the product on one side or other of some widely recognised disjuncture. This is the basis for products being associated with generational Bullshit. Sometimes this disjuncture is (if not created) actively promoted by the vendor. Hence: Real Ale = old/bearded/mature/sensible drinker (Y-Fronts). Craft = young and hip and has a daft haircut/hat/beard/shoes (Boxers).

Genuine, but not of themselves particularly significant, distinctions amongst products are subsumed in a construction and reinforcing of ideology.

What do we get from this? Well apart from an easing of the pain of choice (which I'll come back to), we get some real positive value from the branding effort. Not in the sense that these positioned products are better, but the branding itself can be valuable. We can use the product we've chosen to send signals about ourselves - sometimes to ourselves.

We buy a product that's young, urban, sophisticated, because we are young, urban, sophisticated. We wish. We buy products that are "difficult" (says the vendor) to demonstrate our discernment. We join the community of the brand. The product is the badge of our membership. It may be that this sense of community is worth far more to us than any simply product derived utility .

Here we've entered the realm of brand as placebo. Products that come with promises that they've no obvious ability to deliver on - yet we buy in gladly. We love it.

This is not a post about BrewDog. But as I was writing this I couldn't help thinking of this sensible and well-intentioned blog piece: Buy their Beer not their Hype. That's exactly not the point. The beer is not separable from the hype. The hype is a key part of the package. Without it, we mostly wouldn't see, or drink, the beer.

Why do we love being lied to? Why do we put up with this shit? Are we stupid? Or is it perfectly sensible?

Making my choice with the vendors hand on my arm is simply easier than making a rational choice on the facts - which I will not have all of. Surrounded by drifts of near-identical stuff, on my own always, the cognitive load is overwhelming.

But why not pull the wool over your own eyes? It's hard work at first, but more fun. Once you've constructed your alternative reality it's as good a guide as their hype, their agendas & ideologies. Ask your friends to help. Bullshit each other. Cheerfully, and for free. You probably know people expert enough on various subjects such that you can even make good choices by pooling your expertise. Or not. But so what?

So there you go. You should buy our beer, because doing so marks you out as a discerning individual who won't buy into all their BS. I'm telling you.


HardKnott Dave said...

People should buy your beer because you are a nice chap. But we all know that doesn't happen.

So, hype is the only thing left to use.

I buy your beer when I see it because you are a nice chap and I like your beer.

StringersBeer said...

It's nice of you to say so - but I really don't expect anyone to buy off of me cos I'm such a diamond geezer - although you're right - I am. So carry on. You'll have to drink a hell of a lot though.

People should buy beer (and they should buy mainly from independents like you and me) because they like it. Why are they going to like our beer? Rather than hyped beer? Rather than expensively marketed beer? What can we offer that hyped or big-budget products can never have?

[I'll leave that with you]

Turn your back on the Dark Side Dave. It's not too late!

Philerasmus said...

The extended phenotype of branding

StringersBeer said...

That whole "extended phenotype" thang is so broad that it's pretty much meaningless. Doesn't it just mean "everything else organisms do".

But yeah, we're very like bower birds.