Posted September 2015
Believers in better beer
Beer bloggers | Is this real? By posting photos of her outfits and attracting over 4 million followers, Chiara Ferragni, the 27-year-old Italian fashion and lifestyle blogger behind TheBlondeSalad.com, by the end of 2015 will have pulled in upwards of USD 9 million in revenue. In contrast, beer bloggers are self-exploiting paupers. Only a few have found a way to make money from their online activities. But if brewers think that bloggers are irrelevant to their business, they should think again.
When it emerged in 2012 that Diageo had abused its position as sponsor of the British Institute of Inkeeping (BII) awards to prevent its fledgling competitor BrewDog from winning the prize, the Scottish brewer and bar operator promptly released a blog post titled ‘Diageo screws BrewDog‘ and a Twitter campaign under #andthewinnerisnot. Within hours, the hashtag was trending worldwide and Diageo was forced to release an apology.
In the wake of ActionAid’s 2010 campaign against SABMiller, in which the UK charity had accused the world’s number two brewer of tax-dodging in Africa, annually depriving African government of GBP 20 million in taxes which could go towards putting an extra 250,000 children into schools, I wrote that today anybody with internet access could become an activist and that brewers should fear plenty.
On the whole, beer bloggers don’t consider themselves industry watchdogs. However, this is not to say they don’t have a mission. The blog bear-flavored.com (4 April 2014) argues: “We write about beer because we are writers and we really like beer and thus it just kind of happens. Most writing, I would argue, comes from a sort of directionless desire just to write, regardless of whether one actually has something to say.” I find this explanation a bit wet. Why bother at all, if as a blogger you are not out to evangelise the world that some beers are wonderful and life is too short to drink the same beer over and over again?
A blog is this peculiar mix of a personal journal or a diary and an online magazine. As always, there are plenty of reasons why people start a blog: mostly, it’s to express thoughts and opinions, promote something or other, become an expert, connect with like-minded people, and be creative. In effect, beer bloggers come from all walks of life and the European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference, which was held in Brussels (28 – 29 August 2015) bore testimony to this. The 80 beer bloggers, who attended from all over Europe and overseas, broadly fell into two categories: “citizen bloggers”, who write about beer or the beer industry on their own and “industry bloggers”, who maintain a blog to support their brewery or other beer-related business (like online beer shops).
In the last century, a conference like this would have been attended by journalists and brewers’ PR people, which would not necessarily have made for a convivial atmosphere. Journalists and PR people have always had an ambivalent relationship based on mutual caution, if not distrust. But the advent of the digital age has changed the media beyond recognition. With everybody out now to generate “beer-related content” on the internet, citizen bloggers and industry bloggers not only share a calling and a chummy relationship, they also share the same enemy: those arrogant beer journalists, who thought of craft beer as a mere passing trend. “The reason beer journalism has sucked is that it's taken years for the media to accept that beer is just as complicated as food and wine and whiskey, if not more so”, says bear-flavored.com.
While journalists may be forgiven for not rating beer as highly – or aspirational - as wine, brewers in Europe only had themselves to blame if beer did not feature prominently in mainstream media. Over the past 20 years, the discourse on beer, especially in Europe’s declining beer markets, was dominated by issues like the threat of higher taxes, beer price hikes, declining beer consumption (with brewers implicitly scolding the consumer) and the social ills of binge drinking. So far, so depressing.
Thanks to beer bloggers generating much needed positive noise, the discourse on beer in Europe is finally losing its negative slant. Bloggers may not always be right about the beers, but at least they write about beer. This alone should prove their efficacy to brewers. However, their usefulness goes much further. Bloggers can reach out where brewers cannot. Take Norway: Because regulations condemn alcohol producers to near-total silence, the Nøgne Ø brewery relies on bloggers to spread its word. “We buy the bloggers”, Tom Young, marketing director for Nøgne Ø told delegates, going on to explain that they regularly invite bloggers to a brewery bash in exchange for their efforts.
Not all markets are as prohibitionist as Norway, but bloggers nevertheless come in handy if brewers seek to address a more youthful crowd that does not watch TV, never opens direct mail and regularly unsubscribes from email lists they opted into. In an effort to avoid loud, interruptive advertising, younger consumers have taken to sourcing information online from blogs. Far from shouting into the void, a survey on fashion blogs found that four in five people have a positive association with a brand after reading or seeing it on a blog, while two in three people said they discover new products they otherwise might not have known about, thanks to blogs. This probably also applies to beer blogs.
What beer marketers don’t say out loud is that bloggers are an incredibly cheap marketing tool. An impromptu poll at the conference revealed that hardly any of the citizen bloggers make any money with their blogs or have clinched serious sponsorship deals like the fashion blogger Ms Ferragni. That’s why Jean Hummler’s accusation that blogging is advertising and bloggers should get paid for it grated with the audience. Mr Hummler, who is a Brussels publican specialised in serving craft beers, hit a raw nerve. The relationship between beer bloggers and brewers is fluid, albeit far from antagonistic. After all, if free beer and an invitation to a jolly are all the rewards bloggers get for their work, who wants to risk losing these perks by being too critical? Perhaps blogging will eventually get back to its original form - as a genuine, trustworthy voice from industry outsiders, a counterculture movement, and a way of connecting with readers not sponsors. Yet, for as long as bloggers feel the need to preach the gospel of better beers, this is not going to happen. Read