New Belgium, a quirky craft brewery started in the basement of Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan, has grown since going commercial in 1991 to the third-largest U.S. craft brewer by volume. Until now, the employee-owned company's marketing efforts have been largely of the grassroots variety, such as hosting and sponsoring local bike tours dubbed "Tour de Fat" after the company's flagship Fat Tire beer.
But today New Belgium will meet the masses. It's breaking its first advertising campaign, created by independent New York agency Amalgamated, and while the media buy-under $10 million-is small compared to deep-pocketed players in the category, like Anheuser-Busch or Coors, the marketing theory underpinning its creative and strategy is big.
Developed by Douglas Holt, the L'Oreal Chair of Marketing at Oxford University and a partner in Amalgamated, the theory is called cultural branding. Its thesis: The high regard enjoyed at certain points in history by some of the world's most iconic brands, including Coke, Mountain Dew or Volkswagen, has been achieved because the brand addressed major contradictions in the national culture. These contradictions create great anxieties and desires, and the brands have succeeded with consumers by communicating a myth-a simple story (generally through TV ads)-that acts as a salve, reducing consumers' anxieties or sating a desire (see sidebar).
New Belgium marketing director Greg Owsley sought out Mr. Holt for help on brand strategy and marketing after reading an article of Mr. Holt's published in the Harvard Business Review. Rumors that the company had been acquired by a multinational rival circulated constantly and those falsehoods threatened the company's identity. "We were losing control of our story," said Mr. Owsley. "We're still a privately held, employee-owned company. We're wind-powered. We're environmentally friendly, we recycle methane."
Distributed in 15 states only, New Belgium has a nearly cult following among a unique subculture of cyclists who favor single-speed bikes, known in Europe as Fat Tires, for which the company's flagship brand is named. On a visit to the brewery, Mr. Holt recognized myth-making potential in the company's values and heritage. "There was some magic happening on a local level. Tourists were coming to the brewery and bringing beer back home as a way to hang on to that experience," he said.
Amalgamated's ads focus on a tinkerer who revels in building a bike out of cast-off parts, and then rides it along pastoral country roads. "TV is expensive for companies the size of these craft brewers," said Benj Steinman, publisher, trade newsletter Beer Marketer's Insights. "The challenge is to build upon its current image as unique yet extend its reach in a medium that is some ways antithetical to everything they've been so far-mass."
The spots, which will air first in Phoenix and roll out to the Southwest and West on national spot and cable, target high-end beer drinkers, 25-to-44-year-old men and go against all conventions of most advertising in the category. There's no messaging about flings with babes. Even shots of the beer are few.
"The ads had two acid tests," said Mr. Owlsey. "It had to make the target prospects say, `That's the life I dream of.' And it had to make the people who really live this life, say `Right on."'
The cultural branding model is based on four principles, according to Doug Holt, author, "How Brands Become Icons." These are:
A macro level: Rather than addressing a narrow category benefit, the brand responds to a cultural or political phenomenon.
A historical role, sometimes acting as a cultural activist.
A story: The brand plays a role within a larger culturally relevant tale.
A populist world, such as "Marlboro Country" or Nike's `hood.