Big food and drink brands have had a hard time in the last few years. The largest companies have suffered a universal malaise, losing share to small, premium, entrepreneurial competitors. BCG have calculated that in the US alone $22bn of FMCG sales migrated from large to small businesses between 2011 and 2016. Notably, the companies winning market share often lack the resources that would usually be associated with successful brand building. This is a problem for marketing. The only reason our discipline exists is to help companies sell more stuff. We need to be able to demonstrate that we can drive value for our employers.

Brewdog is a perfect example of a small, insurgent brand. It was set up by two friends from university — Martin Dickie, a qualified master brewer, and James Watt, a fishing boat captain with a law degree. Last year it turned over $300M, winning share from all the major brewers. The brand they have created is near perfect. Their ‘punk’ attitude itself is borrowed from a 40 year old cultural movement, but it is executed with real creativity and flair. I'd argue that it works because every aspect of the brand and product are coherent. The founders angrily reject the cliches and weak beer of the mainstream brewing industry. This is expressed clearly in their disruptive marketing. It flows through into the sensory qualities of their products, in the bold, aggressively hopped flavours of their core IPAs. When you crack open a can, whether at home or in one of their bars, that mood is delivered by every part of the product experience. This is appealing to a group of millenial and gen z consumers who are generally up for a bit of status quo rejection. It also allows them to demonstrate their discernment and status, delivering a social benefit to the drinker. I believe it would be difficult to create a brand this coherent in a large global brewer, where products and communications are generally created separately.

Marketing changed in the second half of the twentieth century, in a way that strengthened it’s ability to communicate but weakened the relationship between food marketers and the products they promote. The idea of brand positioning was first developed by advertising greats like David Ogilvy at the end of the 1950's, and was then codified by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their aptly titled book, Brand Positioning. Their premise remains compelling. In a crowded market, your target consumer is overwhelmed with advertising messages. To cut through, you need to define the simplest possible expression of your message. By standing for one simple idea, your brand is more likely to be noticed and remembered by the consumer.

This was a breakthrough in the development of communications. However, it led to marketers being less appreciative of the complex sensorial and social role that food products play in the lives of the humans that consume them. In many food businesses the role of the marketing team has become increasingly separate from the research and development teams who create their products. The role of marketers has narrowed, reduced primarily to the development of promotional and communications campaigns. And the campaigns they create are often driven by the desire to ‘land an emotional benefit’ or ‘occupy an emotional territory’. This focus on emotion and communication over product experience has made marketing a transferable skill. A marketing manager can be an expert in kitchen cleaner one month, and then find themselves running a beer brand twelve weeks later. The expectation is that that person will succeed, armed only with a diploma in marketing and a transferable understanding of brand positioning.

The challenge that Ries and Trout identified — that you must choose an emotional space and express it simply — is correct. But if you adopt a position without first understanding the subtle sensorial, psychological and social associations triggered by the products you sell, you will fail. In an industry where a lot of our product innovation does still fail, this is something we need to explore.

The food and drink we consume are not like other products. Little else that we buy is so directly related to our death or survival. In the developed world our food production is now very safe. It’s easy to forget that for previous generations, everything you eat could be either valuable nutrition or poison. Because of this we have evolved exceptionally sensitive organs to help us taste and smell, and built cultural understanding of food to protect ourselves. These means that when we eat and drink, those powerful senses trigger rich and complex emotional responses. Human beings are profoundly sensorial creatures, and the sensorial qualities of the products we sell are critical elements of the marketing mix.

Sadly, these attributes don’t fit neatly on the brand models we use. The marketing industry communicates visually and verbally, using emails, powerpoint slides, and video. Sensorial qualities do not fit easily into these media, and most consumers find it hard to articulate them. Consequently they tend not to be prioritised when creating marketing plans.

In this, and a handful of subsequent blogs, I’m going to explore why food and drink are different to almost all other categories. I’m going to discuss why traditional brand positioning doesn’t work effectively for food and drink, and how fixing it will require us to understand the human beings who consume our products, and the complex social, emotional and sensorial roles those products play. We want food and drink marketers to fall back in love with the products they sell, and understand how the humans who buy them enjoy them, in a more holistic way. This is the thinking that led us to set up Huxly, and which has driven our growth with some of the world’s greatest food and drink brands over the last two years.

Postscript — here’s a video from Brewdog: Are we hearing from the brand team or the R&D team here? Or an integrated team that make great beer, understand great beer, and promote it effectively?

Joe Goyder, 8th January 2021