Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Session #50: The Multi-Billion Dollar Question

For this month's Session, Alan McLeod of A Good Beer Blog asks us to answer the seemingly simple question of How do they make me buy their beer?

I've been in sales for fifteen years, and believe it or not, have no idea how to answer this month's session question. Perhaps this is because I sell laser diagnostic equipment, which as you might expect, is a lot different than selling beer. This equipment is sold to businesses, governments, and universities, and the underlying concept of selling it is rather simple. These customers are mainly trying to build a laser, or something with a laser in it, and use this equipment to put together whatever they manufacture faster, better, or cheaper. To sell this type of equipment, you have to demonstrate, often with a customer trial, that the system will generate the results the customer is looking for. Often, there are other factors such as the accuracy of the results, how easy the equipment is to use, and of course, what it costs. The customer then decides whether or not the equipment is worth the investment. Of course, other vendors may be involved in the sale, so the decision can boil down to how well each different system does what the customer wants, and what each system costs to get that performance.

Despite what sounds like a straightforward technical evaluation, plenty of unpredictable emotion and other factors usually enter into the decision. The customer may want to the equipment to solve a quality issue he doesn't want anyone know about, or had a bad experience with a similar product she doesn't want to repeat, or was told to fix a problem by his boss and doesn't want to admit he has no idea what your product does or if it will actually solve the problem. Things like this are actually common and in most cases, the customer doesn't want to reveal too much, making it hard to get to the root cause of the buying decision. Which means the real buying decision is hard to figure out, or the decisive factor in making the sale is never understood, even by the customer. A good salesperson will cut through a lot of the vagueness, unpredictability, and elusiveness in the buying process, but in my opinion, there's plenty of uncertainty as to the ultimate buying factors in a technical sale.

And so with this experience of all the uncertainty surrounding dry, technical buying decisions, the retail buying experience of something like beer, which has a lot more personal experience and emotion attached to it, seems infinitely more complicated to describe. So I hope you'll understand that when Alan McLeod asks "How do they make me buy their beer?" my only response can be "Do you freakin' think I have a clue?" Now of course I know what I like and what I don't like, and could give a reasonable explanation why. But consider all the mental calculations going on in my brain as I stare at the beer aisle. There's prior experiences with beers I've had. There's artwork and logos on a bottle of something I've never heard of that suggests the beer inside is either artistic, whimsical, or traditional. There's the price: Too high or too low, and I'm less inclined to buy. There's breweries I know and like, and breweries I don't know but heard good things about. There are beers that bring back warm fuzzy drunken memories. There are beers that bring back bad, painful drunken memories. There are reviews from respected beer writers to consider. There's the suggestion from a friend who swears I should try Blue Moon. There's the style I'm in the mood for, the particular season of the year, special releases, past special releases that may have sat on the shelf too long, whether the beer is refrigerated or not, where the beers are placed on the shelf, what my wife or friends might want to have, among a zillion other things.

All this takes place in about five or ten seconds between before I grab something and put it in my shopping cart. In a bar or restaurant, there's more time and consideration involved, but it's still a pretty reflexive decision. Lots of smart, hard working retail sales and marketing experts work on this multi-billion dollar question, and while they have a lot of insights, they certainly screw up from time to time, and there's still plenty they don't know. But the proliferation of craft breweries provides a highly diverse real world laboratory to test out plenty of marketing ideas. And clearly craft breweries like Stone Brewing, Dogfish Head, and Boston Beer Company have shown considerable marketing savvy. Others have resorted to desperate attempts involving foul sounding beer packaged in dead squirrels. And then there's the unique, distinctive, and extremely curious marketing approach shown by the Palo Alto Brewing Company.

As much as I enjoy the porter style, I don't think I'll be ordering a Barely Legal Coconut Porter with my wife or young daughter. Most men trying to score on a date will recognize that ordering a Hoppy Ending Pale Ale with it's massage parlor artwork lacks the required sophsticated subtlety for the evening's desired conquest, and will likely result in an opposite outcome. It's a pretty safe bet few women will buy beer associating them with pornography and prostitution. Since women compose a large and growing number of beer drinkers, this is a problem in terms of naked capitalism, not political correctness. But perhaps this marketing approach resonates so strongly with beer drinkers having certain attitudes and issues with women that it overcomes these complications.

Maybe someday, I will figure out the vexing mystery of how to make people buy beer, and if that ever happens, feel free to ask me for the answer. I might even take your call while reclining on my yacht.

1 comment:

  1. Now explain (or not) the billboard that stood up on 101 near Montague for so many years that was trying to sell software development tools with photos of women in short-shorts and tight t-shirts.

    I'm confident that driving past that billboard every morning convinced my gf (a software engineer) to never ever for any reason do business with the company in question.