Even before Spoetzl Brewery introduced its Shiner brand to the New York and Philadelphia markets, word had gotten out via social media. Fans of the Texan brand -- whether they were actual Texans, barbecue aficiandoes or South by Southwest alumni -- had been tipped off and were quick to spread the word.
Which is no accident. Gambrinus Co., which owns Spoetzl, and longtime agency, Austin-based McGarrah Jessee, have spent years building up that fan base, often on a limited budget. Despite moving into its 42nd state, Shiner has eschewed TV advertising. Last year, Spoetzl spent less than $1 million on measured media, according to Kantar Media, which included magazine, outdoor and display advertising.
While not completely ruling out TV, head of marketing Charlie Paulette noted that it wouldn't be a very good stylistic fit for a craft-brew brand famous for its heritage of outlaw music -- especially when craft-brew fans can be quick to let you know when you're "selling out." A better fit? Ambushing Heineken's official sponsorship of the Austin City Limits Music Festival a few years back. And social media, of course, which has allowed the brand to get much more mileage out of its own brand of marketing, though Mr. Paulette acknowledged that passionate social-media fans can sometimes turn on you.
Shiner has also forgone swapping out agencies, even as it's tried to broaden its reach and communicate to non-Texan drinkers -- the Longhorn State accounts for 60% to 70% of sales, down from 90% a decade ago, according to Craft Business Daily -- that Shiner is more than Shiner Bock and barbecue. Still, while other marketers change agencies as often as they change underwear, Mr. Paulette said that what Shiner needs is an agency that gets not only the marketer, but the tiny town of Shiner, as well as the music scene in nearby Austin. "I don't think a Chicago-based agency would do as good a job," he said.
Shiner is often seen as a Texas beer, and you're entering New York at barbecue joints Hill Country, Blue Smoke and sponsoring the Big Apple Barbecue Fest. But you had another fantasy venue?
Shiner has always been a beer that resonated with the music crowd -- mostly due to our long history with Austin's music scene -- starting in the 1970s and up to today. To that end, we always look for good live-music bars. ... And if CBGB were still around, that would have been the first place I would have gone to sell Shiner in New York.
You've got most of the country covered now but no plans for national TV at this point. Why?
Television would be a big jump for Shiner, and we would never say never, but right now we are comfortable with our media spend and mix. That media mix has shifted significantly to the digital side while maintaining a nice out-of-home and print component. We're not shying away from video, though. McGarrah Jessee has already produced some amazing online video content for Shiner that really shows the personality of the brand, the brewery and the town.
Word of mouth has always been a big part of the Shiner brand. How has social media helped that -- or made it trickier?
Social media has really turbocharged our ability to reach a loyal fan base that has existed for decades in virtually every market in the U.S. It allows us to connect with those fans first -- and they share the Shiner wealth from there. After all, beer is social. And we get rich impressions at a great value, which is key for a smaller brewery or business. Social media also empowers our fans because they can connect with us in a personal way. The risk stems from the passion people have about beer, particularly craft beer. That passion doesn't always manifest itself in positive ways. ... That happens a lot in social media, and it's a challenge for us to deal with negative feedback or opinions and to decide when we respond and when we swallow hard and let it go. But often we find that our fans rise to our defense before we have to. That's a nice upside to social media's downside.
Shiner Bock is your biggest-selling brand. How do you get some of the others on consumers' radar?
Shiner Premium is the very first beer our brewery ever produced -- it is a pale lager that goes back to 1909, and we've never stopped brewing it. We did rename it Shiner Blonde back in the early 1990s because sales were waning and it needed a little attention. That's where it stayed until we celebrated the brewery's 100th birthday in 2009. At that time, McGarrah Jessee suggested a coffee-table book that would provide a nice retrospective of our history. When looking at all the cool old photographs of Shiner Premium, everyone's eyes lit up as to the wonderful old packaging it enjoyed over the years, so we thought it would be a nice touch to bring it back under its previous label. We did some unusual, unexpected things, too, like a special event during SXSW week -- a retro-celebration for the now-defunct "Armadillo World Headquarters," a music hall that was a staple for live music in Austin during the 1970s -- and reprinting an entire 1976 edition of Texas Monthly magazine, with Willie Nelson on the cover and with the original Shiner Premium ad inside.