MillerCoors has come out swinging against an anti-big beer campaign launched Monday by a craft brewers organization that accuses top brewers of squashing craft beer culture by buying up smaller brands. The campaign by the Brewers Association specifically targets Anheuser-Busch InBev—which has acquired 10 craft brewers since 2011—but MillerCoors is also implicated because it has four craft brand acquisitions under its wing.
Pete Marino, president of MillerCoors' craft and imports division, called Tenth and Blake, fired back at the Brewers Association in a corporate blog post. "If the number of inbound calls that we are getting is any indication, more and more independent craft brewers are open to the idea, or at the very least exploring their options to partner with a large brewer or financial partner," he said.
The tussle comes as the craft beer segment shows signs of cooling after years of strong growth. Production volume in the first half of the year grew 5 percent, trailing the 8 percent growth pace set at the same time last year, according to the Brewers Association. MillerCoors craft acquisitions include Revolver, Terrapin, Saint Archer and Hop Valley.
Marino has been overseeing those brands since Sept. 1 when he took over Tenth and Blake. He also serves as the brewer's chief communications officer. Ad Age caught up with Marino at last week's National Beer Wholesalers Association meeting in Las Vegas to get his take on craft beer and how the brewer is putting more marketing behind its brands, including opening taprooms at pro sports stadiums. Tenth and Blake VP of sales and marketing Paul Verdu joined the conversation. Below, a lightly edited transcript.
What is the future of craft beer?
Marino: It's no longer good enough to brew an interesting beer, throw a catchy name on it, throw it on the shelf and expect it's going to sell. So you've got to start thinking about awareness. You've got to start thinking about building and driving a brand. We are still fearful that the beer category will become like the wine aisle. We are going to be punching hard against brand development.
(Editors note: Amid the craft boom, beer execs have long feared the 'winefication' of beer, in which styles become more important than brands.)
Verdu: It can be semi-tiring standing in front of a craft beer section now. It's the paradox of choice: There are so many options, what am I going to choose? That is why we firmly believe it's the brands that are going to win out. The price of entry is good beer. There's thousands of good beers, great beers. The question is what is going to break the tie when it comes to consumers choosing, and it's going to be good beer plus some kind of story, some kind of brand proposition that stands out.
Will this new focus on branding translate into more
Marino: Depending on where you are from a brand evolution standpoint, I do think you will start to see more crafts that do more above-the-line [i.e. mass marketing.] Goose Island [owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev] is doing it right now. Our brands are pretty far away from that. But does that mean we should do more advertising on print and out-of-home and maybe even radio? I think we are going to be looking at all of that.