Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Taste trumps distribution (finally) in the beer market

Distribution prowess has ruled the US beer market at least since the '70's. (I recall a Harvard case talking about the downfall of Schlitz, focusing on Anheuser-Busch's building a nationwide distribution network.) As a result, most consumers have had to scan shelf after shelf of Bud Light and Michelob Ultra to find a good-tasting, fuller beer.

How things have changed. The craft beer movement, starting with Sierra Nevada in the '70s and blossoming with Samuel Adams in the '80s, is now a full-fledged market trend. People are buying Sea Dog, Cape Cod Beer, Yuengling, Brooklyn Lager, and hundreds of other small brands. Anheuser's market share is down, despite deals to distribute Stella Artois and Beck's.

And now, finally, the distribution monopoly that helped Anheuser crowd out rivals in the past is crumbling. In today's Wall Street Journal, David Kesmodel reports that distributors who had signed exclusivity agreements with A-B in exchange for promotional and cash incentives are beginning to turn away from those agreements ("Beer Distributors Want More Than One Best Bud" link - $$). Writes Kesmodel:

In recent years, some of Anheuser's 560 independent distributors became frustrated as craft brands such as New Belgium Brewing Co.'s Fat Tire Amber Ale surged in popularity and competing distributors snatched them up. Often, the distributors adding such high-margin brews were the same ones that peddled the beers of Anheuser's top rivals, SABMiller PLC's Miller Brewing and Molson Coors Brewing Co.

Anheuser wholesalers "are realizing that we have made the competition stronger by basically forfeiting these brands to them," says Chris Monroe, vice president of D. Canale Beverages Inc., a Memphis, Tenn., distributor that carried only Anheuser products until last fall.

It's a total reversal of where we've been. For years, large beer companies have relied on investment in non-product-related marketing, such as advertising and distribution, for sales growth--traditional "push" marketing techniques. Now, customer demands for better tasting, more-distinctive product are forcing distributors to carry what customers want.

Sounds like progress to me.

(Photo courtesy of Cape Cod Beer)

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